When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Running!

By Stephanie Kocer

There was a moment during mile 25 of this year’s Boston Marathon when Rachel Hastings thought her luck had run out. For reasons out of anyone’s control, the blind runner ended up on the course by herself without a guide, crashing into a water station. But as luck would have it, several people on the sidelines stepped in to guide her the rest of the race. By the time she crossed the finish line she had completed a 3:55:38 marathon. Because, as Rachel says, when the going gets tough, the tough get running.

Born legally blind, Rachel’s vision continued to decline as she got older. Today she can only see light, shadows, and some shapes. She uses a cane to walk. As her vision got worse in her early 20s she had to relearn how to do daily activities. But she says during this time she was able to discover a lot about herself and what she liked to do: music and running.

The Twin Cities native attended Augsburg University, where she received a BS in music therapy. She currently works at Sholom Community Alliance as a music therapist. She says she loves her job and the seniors she gets to interact with every day. “It was nice to have music to fall back on when I was losing my vision. I felt fulfilled and purposeful,” she says.

Her love of running started when she was 14. Her mom is a runner and she encouraged Rachel to start running. During high school she struggled with anorexia and depression. Running was a way to be in better shape and stay positive. She joined her school’s track team her sophomore year and by age 19 she started doing road races with her mom. Today she’s run three marathons and dozens of halves and other runs. She runs with a guide by her side that is usually tethered to her waste with a cord. They train together and learn to strategically run together. Rachel has several different friends who have run with her as her guide in the past.

In 2017, she decided to sign up for the Twin Cities Marathon for a challenge. During her training for the race she gained weight and became a lot healthier, which totally changed her body image. She told herself she was just going to try and run her best for the race. If she got a time under five hours she would qualify for the Boston Marathon, but that wasn’t necessarily her goal. She ended up getting a time of 4 hours and 12 minutes, qualifying her for Boston. Suddenly, she had a new goal.

“The Boston Marathon is amazing,” Rachel says. “The crowds are amazing and huge. I kind of felt like I was in love almost.” The first year she ran the Boston Marathon she ran 10 minutes faster than her Twin Cities Marathon time. She was the second fastest visually impaired woman to finish the race. There was no doubt in her mind that she was going to run the race again in 2019.

The second time around Rachel ran for Team With a Vision, a group of blind and sighted athletes who raise money and awareness for The Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. But things didn’t exactly go as planned.

At the start of her training season in December she was battling an injury and illness that persisted throughout the winter. Then there was the unforgiving Minnesota weather. “I had to do 90 percent of my training on the treadmill, and the runs that I did outside were cold, snowy, and icy,” Rachel says. “This winter was also particularly tough for me mentally. I went through a number of very frustrating and scary situations related to my vision impairment, and it put me in a terrible mental state. But I kept training. I kept pushing. I kept fighting.”

When spring came she ended up with a nasty chest cold that took her out for over a week of training and she started to feel symptoms of an old injury creeping back in. “Half of me thought this was it. I would not be able to run after working so hard. But there was the other half of me that kept thinking, wouldn’t this be an amazing comeback if I was able to run after all?”

As you’ve probably already guessed, she made it to Boston. Although she says her confidence was low going into the race, she had the help of her runner friends to keep her focused and positive. “I have found that runners are just so nice and so happy generally. And being around people who speak the same language is always helpful. So it was such a blessing to be around such positivity.”

On race day, Rachel was off to a great start and time before mile 25 hit. After situations that were no one’s fault and out of anyone’s control, she was without a guide on the course and terrified that this would end her race. She yelled for someone to help her out to finish and soon several people were at her side. “I think I was just so frazzled that the only thing I could do was fly to that finish line,” she says.

Rachel says the crowds at the marathon also helped her finish. “That stretch down Boylston was so loud and so amazing that I just felt like I kept running faster and faster.”

After she heard what her finish time was, Rachel cried, then called her mom. “I lost it. I was sobbing! I kept repeating, ‘Oh my gosh! Seriously? Seriously?’”

She placed third in the women’s visually impaired division, so she was recognized on the podium at the awards ceremony. “As I stood up there, I was trying to hold back tears,” she says. “I stood there with my award in my hands, and I knew this was my breakthrough, my touchdown. This race was worth fighting for.”

Rachel says she’s planning to do the Boston Marathon again in 2020. As she continues to train for other events she wants to continue to encourage visually impaired people to be active. She says the hardest part is getting started, but if you find a community of like-minded people you’ll have a support system to help you reach your goals. “We live in a visual world and sometimes it feels safer to stay inside,” she says. “But in order to get started on any journey, you need to get out of your comfort zone and reach out to people who can help you. Because you can inspire and encourage each other.”

Rachel believes that comradery and her faith in God got her through the Boston Marathon. “I can promise you that I wouldn’t have gotten to the finish line if it weren’t for both my family and friends back home and my friends cheering for me on the course, who all helped me through encouragement, support, and advice.”