Photo Caption: Bill Smith, a blind runner from Gloversville, is seen with Ed, his Guided Eyes Dog that is trained to run at the swimming pool at the Johnstown YMCA on Wednesday. Both Smith and Ed will be competing in this year’s Troy Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day. ERICA MILLER/THE LEADER-HERALD
GLOVERSVILLE – By the time Bill Smith was designated as legally blind six years ago, he said his vision was so limited, he might as well have been looking at the world through two straws. But in truth, his world had closed in about a year before then, when his wife, Lisa, kicked him out of the home because of his drinking. In fact, going blind may have been exactly what Smith, a 57-year-old Gloversville resident, needed to save his life. And on Thanksgiving Day he’ll participate in the Troy Turkey Trot, marking an amazing recovery that’s as much about family as it is about physical triumph.
The son of two alcoholics, Smith’s troubles with drinking progressed throughout his adulthood. He said he was never far from a beer. As a meat packer for Smith Packing in Utica, he kept a 12-pack of Bud Light in his locker. As a butcher at Price Chopper, he’d down beers before work, sneak them throughout the day and go to the bar after his shift. As a result of his drinking, Smith has five DWIs and has spent four years in prison, he said.
Lisa Smith, Bill Smith’s wife, recalls nights when Smith was so drunk she locked him out of the house and made him sleep in the car to protect herself and her four daughters. Then there was the time when Smith drove drunk to McDonald’s with his 3-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Lisa Smith said she was so nervous, she called Bill’s ex-wife, who came to pick up the daughter. Another time, when Lisa’s oldest daughter was in middle school and her youngest was just four, Bill was supposed to be watching the kids while Lisa was working at Walmart. But when she came home, he was wasted. Another time Smith was so drunk he got his middle finger stuck in the seam of a garage door and ripped off the skin. Emergency room doctors had to amputate half of the finger.
But mostly it was a culmination of all of this — the shouting matches that prompted neighbors to call the police, the difficult mornings battling Bill’s hangovers — that sent Lisa to her wit’s end.
“He was just a miserable person to be around. Never violent or anything, just really mean,” Lisa said of Bill when he was drinking. Nothing like the sweet guy she fell in love with when they first met in person in 2012 at a Dunkin’ after messaging on an online dating site. They were married on Valentine’s Day 2013.
By the summer of 2013, Lisa had enough. She kicked Bill out of the house. She said it was hard, but Bill needed help. Bill acknowledged that he’d been terrible to his family.
“When my wife kicked me out, the situation was that I was never home. I spent all the money on booze. I treated my family like crap. I just cared about myself, just cared about the booze. I wasn’t a good husband, I wasn’t a good father,” he said. “The alcohol was my best friend. It was my soulmate, everything. I loved the alcohol more than I loved my wife and my family.”
About a year later, while living in a halfway house and working hard on his recovery by participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and talking to counselors, Bill had an appointment with a doctor. That’s when he was officially deemed legally blind as a result of glaucoma.
Bill had to call Lisa for a ride home. He says he easily could have returned to a dark place. Lisa feared he would.
“I was concerned how Bill was going to take it all,” she said. “I was worried he was going to start drinking again.”
Lisa decided to let Bill move back into her house. They’d already been talking a lot, working toward reconciliation. They still loved each other. Plus, Lisa’s father was decades sober after his own bout with alcoholism, and he’d instilled in her the need for grace.
But Bill was only allowed to move back in with Lisa and her four daughters with the understanding that he stay sober.
The doctor who had pronounced Bill blind said he should find a hobby, something to occupy his time, to give him purpose. AA counselors had been saying the same thing. That’s when Bill rekindled his love of exercise. He said if not for going blind, he may never have found the motivation to start running again. Something about the loss of one ability made him want to prove his other abilities, he said.
“When people say you can’t do an ironman, I say bull—-,” Bill said. “Yeah, I can. I can do it.”
Bill began running with the help of his brother and Lisa’s nephew and with Ed, a labrador he got from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Bill got in shape enough to run a 5K at the 2013 Boilermaker Road Race in Utica.
Then one day Bill was putting a flagpole up outside his house when a man stopped his truck to ask if Bill needed any help. The man turned out to be Steve String, himself a strong athlete who has run multiple ironmans. As they put in the flagpole together, String asked if Bill ever had any interest in running ironmans.
“At the time I had barely even heard of Ironmans,” Bill said.
But the idea appealed to him. String says he had never really trained anybody and he’d definitely never trained any blind athletes, but he and Bill figured it out together. When they run, they run tethered, with String vocalizing directions and always ready to push Bill out of harm’s way if need be–that’s never happened. They swim together, too, with the leash tied around their waists, String in the front, Bill in the back. The bike they ride is a tandem, with String guiding the way.
“It was very scary at first,” Bill said of riding a bike blind. “I had to put a lot of trust in him.”
To date, Bill has completed a half marathon in Saratoga and a half ironman in Lake George. He says his goal is to train for a full ironman and compete at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
String says Bill keeps him going, and he’s glad they met by chance.
“It just happened, and it’s a great thing. I went with it. I had a good feeling about it, and I said I’m just going to keep doing this,” String said. “Anytime you cross a finish line, it’s just a great feeling.”
To keep himself in shape, Bill trains nearly every day. He swims. He jogs on the treadmill as his lab, Ed, sits patiently behind him. He crosstrains on the elliptical, again with Ed nearby. Bill says the feeling of physical exertion is better than anything.
“That running high is the best thing you can feel. It’s better than being drunk and everything,” Bill said.
Bill says he’s become addicted to training.
“Absolutely. Working out is an addiction. They say that in AA that you should pick something up that you like to do,” Bill said. “When Steve introduced me to the ironman, it was like ‘cha-ching.’”
Bill’s commitment to exercise has allowed him to fully commit to the other, more important, parts of his life, giving him a renewed sense of meaning and hope.
At home, Bill does the vacuuming, the cooking and the mopping, even though he now sees the world through a cocktail straw in his left eye and pure white out of his right eye. He blows snow at night because the contrast of white snow and dark light is easier for him to see.
Bill’s domesticity is all a welcome change for Lisa, of course. But the thing that gives her the most confidence that Bill won’t drink again is the fact that he is devoted to exercise.
“Once he started working out and everything, I knew at that point he wasn’t going to feel like spending all day hungover in bed, because then he couldn’t train,” she said. “He doesn’t really have time to think about [drinking], so I don’t worry about it.”
When Bill and his dog Ed met with The Leader Herald last week at the Fulton County YMCA, Bill was technically training for the Troy Turkey Trot. But, in truth, that event is small potatoes for Bill — at least physically. In fact, he’s actually going to walk the race.
For many people the Troy Turkey Trot and Thanksgiving Day races like it are more celebratory affairs than anything else. They are part of a tradition, a history. In fact, the Troy Turkey Trot is celebrating its 105th anniversary this year, making it the 12th oldest road race in the country, according to George Regan, the race’s event director.
Regan said this year’s Trot will be extra special after having to cancel last year’s event due to the pandemic. Regan said precautions like extended packet pickup and changes to the beverage and snack distribution will be in place to allow for as much social distancing as possible, but he’s excited just to be back. So are the more than 4,000 people who had signed up as of last week, a figure that’s about 85% of normal capacity for the race, Regan said.
“I’m excited about the fact that we’re doing an in-person race. I’m excited for the people,” he said. “Everybody has been pent up. Last year was horrid. This year’s gotten a little bit better, but I can see and feel the excitement in them.”
Regan said having a participant like Bill is all the more inspiring–a reminder that we all have maladies and ailments that can be overcome.
“Take a dark piece of cloth and put it around your eyes and do your daily activity and see how you do. Someone with that kind of disability to continue on and live such a fulfilling life? That’s the crux of it all. That’s the foundation of what’s inspiring to me,” Regan said.
There’s a part of Bill that would like to go out hard and push for a fast time at the Troy Turkey Trot. Instead, Lisa and two of her daughters want to take part, and they aren’t runners. So Bill is going to walk the race alongside them.
“I’m walking it for my family. This is how much they mean to me,” he said. “Just having my girls next to me, it’s going to be a wonderful thing.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at email@example.com and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.