You couldn’t miss them.
In a sea of people participating in the 50th AJC Peachtree Road Race, brothers Willard J. Walker and John W. Smith stood out.
The two men walked side by side along the 6.2 miles of the course, one touching the other’s elbow and each holding a white cane.
Both are legally blind.
“I wanted to show people that while we lost our sight, life goes on,” said Walker, 63 , who participated in his third AJC Peachtree Road Race but the first one without his vision. “People put those who are visually impaired or blind in a box. Even before they meet us, they start talking louder. I can hear you, I’m just visually impaired. We still have families, friends and obligations. That doesn’t stop.”
Walker and Smith completed the race in two hours and 41 minutes.
For them, finishing, not the time, was what really mattered.
Along the way, people shouted words of encouragement. Others came out to snap a picture or give the two Decatur men pats on the back or handshakes. One woman asked for an autograph.
One person turned to social media to share photos of the brothers, along with a little good humor as all the participants persevered.
“When the blind man passed me, that is when I became aware this would be the slowest #peachtreeroadrace of my life,” tweeted one participant.
Smith said his brother asked him to walk with him after a sighted friend couldn’t do it at the last minute.
Smith told Walker that he would go if no one else stepped up. While Smith is legally blind, he has some peripheral vision, which means he could be helpful to his brother, who lost his sight totally 11 years ago.
“I didn’t give a thought to saying no,” said Smith, 71. “I love my brother, but I also know he’s been training for this thing for months. He was walking between 2 and 4 1/2 miles a day. This was important to him, and I enjoyed it as much as he did. We’re going to do it again.”
Inclusive road race
It’s unknown how many people who run or walk the Peachtree are visually impaired. Walker said he knows of at least one other visually impaired person who participated.
The Atlanta Track Club, which launched the event half a century ago, offers opportunities for athletes with disabilities at its various events, including the Peachtree, the world’s largest 10K.
Wheelchair athletes began competing in the Peachtree in 1978 as part of the overall field of runners and walkers.
Due to concerns about safety, wheelchair racers were banned for a couple of years.
In 1982, wheelchair racers were brought back in a division coordinated by the Shepherd Center. Outside the Shepherd Center wheelchair division, which is for elite wheelchair athletes, there is also a push-assist division for which athletes must qualify. The Atlanta Track Club “makes best efforts to reasonably accommodate other participants with disabilities,” according to a spokesman.
The brothers, who have three other siblings, are extremely close. They live within a few minutes of each other.
And they both retired from MARTA just months apart.
Walker is right-handed, while his brother is left-handed. That made it easier to walk together and hold their canes in opposite hands so they didn’t trip.
Walker, a father of three adult children and grandfather of 11, said he never lacked confidence that he could finish the race.
“You have to have the right mindset,” he said. “You don’t let the blindness stop you. You adjust, adapt and overcome.”
It wasn’t always that way.
Pushing on with life
Walker has been diabetic for most of his adult life.
He had a career at CSX, then moved to MARTA to work as a welder and equipment operator until his retirement in 2005.
Before then, Walker began to notice he would sometimes trip or stumble. He had never worn glasses, and his eyesight was close to perfect, so he was confused by the sudden change in his agility.
His ophthalmologist said the retina in his left eye was 70% detached and the one in his right eye was starting to detach as well.
Without surgery, he was told, he would be completely blind in two years. It took three after corrective surgery didn’t work.
The loss of his sight in 2008 brought difficult times, he said.
Before, Walker was an active runner. He liked to work in his garden and ride on his black-and-gray Kawasaki LTD1100 or in his black 560 SEL Mercedes-Benz.
“It was devastating,” said Walker. “In a short span, I went from being sighted to no sight. I had a rough period of adjustment.”
He had anxiety attacks. He lost 41 pounds. He would break out in sweats.
His beloved motorcycle sat in the basement for three years before he finally sold it to a relative.
That, though, is not what he misses most.
“I really miss seeing my family’s faces, my wife and kids and now I have a grandson whom I have never seen. I have vivid memories of their faces, though, so that’s a step above.”
His brother, Smith, is legally blind but has peripheral vision.
“Basically, you can do nearly anything without sight. You just have to learn to do it a different way,” said the father of four and grandfather of five. “It’s good that people see blind people participating in everyday life.”
Smith said daily experiences like walking the Peachtree just make him and his brother even closer.
He said they plan to encourage a third brother who lives in Lithonia to join them next year.
Walker thanks a higher power for the feat they accomplished together on the Fourth of July.
“I ran the Peachtree 40 years ago and ran it again this year,” he said. “God is good.”