Point Park coach will take on Pittsburgh Marathon blindfolded

Bob Cohn
| Monday, April 29, 2013, 11:27 p.m.

As if running 26.2 miles isn't grueling enough, Mike Bruno on Sunday will compete in his first marathon in 20 years. But a far more daunting and meaningful challenge lies ahead.

Bruno, a 44-year-old Point Park volleyball coach, will run in the Pittsburgh Marathon blindfolded. His “eyes” will be Jim Irvin, the Point Park men's and women's cross country coach. The pair will be tethered by an 18-inch nylon cord.

There are several reasons for this endeavor, all relevant to Cassie, the 7-year-old daughter of Mike and Jennifer Bruno who's blind after being born 15-weeks prematurely with a rare condition called retinopathy of prematurity.

At first, Bruno said, the dual purposes were to raise money and awareness for increased research and treatment and to experience first-hand what Cassie, who also has autism, goes through. But now, mindful of the time he has invested and the assistance of friends and family, he said he now has a larger mission.

“The outpouring of support and encouragement has been fabulous,” he said. “But I have a great support system. I want it to be known I'm representing all special-needs children and their families that might not have the support to be able to do this.

“I'm blessed that my wife holds the fort down. She runs the household. There are so many single mothers who are doing this by themselves. Honestly, in my mind, they are the real heroes.”

This will be the fourth marathon for Bruno, a former all-conference distance runner at Robert Morris, but his first since the 1993 Pittsburgh Marathon. He finished the race despite injuring his left Achilles tendon and then quit. He started running again in November, about three miles two or three times a week.

“Doing that, you can't help but reflect on life,” Bruno said. “And that's when I started coming up with the idea that maybe I should do this thing to get a greater sense of what Cassie deals with on a daily basis.”

Bruno said $18,500 has been raised so far. Donations are being accepted at 26-2blindfolded.com.

He has run three times blindfolded linked with Irvin. Twice they ran 10 miles by themselves on the Montour Trail, then completed a half-marathon in “little” Boston, Pa.

“It was more challenging having other runners around me,” he said. “Sensory overload. I was hearing other footsteps around me, and that was difficult.”

Bruno hopes the marathon approves his request to start 10 minutes earlier with the wheelchair competitors to alleviate the crush at the start.

“For most people, training to run the marathon is the hard part,” Irvin said. “But to us, running is almost secondary to the communication and the responsibility of getting him to the finish line.”

Because of the tether, each runner's arm swing will be limited. Parts of the course usually taken for granted, like turns and cobblestone streets, will become hazards. The jostling of the runners poses a constant concern.

“You have to make sure he's not gonna trip or stumble or fall or anything else, “Irvin said. “We have to communicate constantly. ‘OK, we're moving from pavement to trail.' Running on a grate, you don't even think about, but for him, it's a different feel, a different sound.”

Even water stops will be difficult with runners cutting in and out.

“We're like a semi (truck) in the right lane, and we'll have people swerving from the left lane to get water.”

Said Bruno: “I just hope and pray Jimmy's in condition the last six or eight miles where's he still able to be verbal with me.”

In December, Bruno sent Irvin a text asking him to be his partner.

“I did not think twice,” Irvin said. “You do what you can to help people.”

Cassie weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces at birth, Jennifer Bruno said, and spent 114 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee Women's Hospital. Cassie underwent heart surgery. The Brunos, who have a 9-year-old daughter, Carly, also were told there was a risk of cerebral palsy.

“We didn't know (Cassie's) vision was an issue until two weeks before we brought her home,” Jennifer Bruno said. “She had overcome everything they told us would be wrong with her.”

Jennifer said Cassie has had 10 different surgeries and procedures on her eyes, including removal of her lens and a treatment in which Jennifer's blood plasma was injected into Cassie's right retina to “flatten” it out.

One day, Jennifer said, Cassie “might have the option to improve her visual situation” as technology, including the use of microchips, advances.

“The magnitude of this and my ability to make a contribution,” Mike Bruno said, “this will be my legacy in life.”

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