Unstoppable: Blind runner is among Turkey Trot competitors

Blind runner Joe O’Toole just completed another Claremont Turkey Trot with friend Elizabeth Tulac and his dog, Glow. Photo/courtesy of Elizabeth Tulac

By Lance Pugmire

There’s so much to absorb during the annual Claremont Sunrise Rotary Turkey Trot, which returns Thanksgiving morning, and for the past decade, Claremont’s Joe O’Toole has basked in the experience one step at a time.

“I love being out there, being just like everyone else who wants to be fit before we break bread as families,” O’Toole, 60, said when learning Claremont Sunrise Rotary President Gabe Millar has reported nearly 1,000 runners have signed up for this year’s event, which begins at 8 a.m., just after a kids’ 1K run.

Everyone else, of course, hasn’t endured what O’Toole has in confronting the inherited, incurable vision-stealing disease retinitis pigmentosa, which left him blind in his 20s after he watched it afflict his mother and uncle. “My peripheral vision and nighttime vision are gone,” O’Toole said. “I have some light perception. I’m turning toward the window now and I can see that there’s daylight.”

O’Toole typically walks briskly while accompanied during the Turkey Trot by his guide dog, “Glow,” and a sighted human guide beside him. At one event, he recognized a voice and stopped to chat with the man, a former Claremont High classmate who’d shouted, “Hey, Joe!”

O’Toole could finish with a faster time if he wanted. He jogs regularly along the indoor track at Esporta Fitness gym in Montclair, a guide striding in front of him, tethered by a 10-inch-long leather strap with finger loops. He also swims at the Claremont Club and is part of tandem bicycling groups in which he’s conquered nighttime round-trip rides up Mount Baldy Road and harrowing 50-mph downhill sprints.

Blind runner Joe O’Toole, who has competed in the Claremont Turkey Trot for the past 10 years, with friends Elizabeth Tulac, left, and Fenja Hafif and his guide dog “Glow.” Photo/courtesy of Elizabeth Tulac

For his 60th birthday in July he and his riding partner completed a 60-mile ride from San Clemente to San Diego County. “Our home is right by the (Turkey Trot) finish line, and as we see him, it’s a tremendous feeling of support and pride. It humbles me,” said O’Toole’s sister Patti. “There’s times you can’t tell he’s blind. He’s not stumbling, not taking small, careful steps. He’s fearless and up for anything. He’s unstoppable.”

Remaining active was ingrained in O’Toole, his mom transporting her children in the station wagon to a slew of water sports. As his vision diminished in high school, O’Toole struggled to stave off the sorrow. His father, Joseph, nudged him to higher education, encouraging, “You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do …”

“When you realize you can pursue and achieve something, that’s what life is all about,” O’Toole said. Following his father’s encouragement, he headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and landed a job as Hearst Castle’s first-ever visually impaired tour guide. “I memorized where everything was and the staff put white strips of tape on the stairs so I could see where I was stepping,” he said. “They welcomed me, they accommodated me.”

O’Toole returned for a master’s degree in business administration from the University of La Verne, then landed a personnel job for the City of Los Angeles, where he remains a senior analyst investigating workplace equity claims.

“We all have stress in our lives. Exercise is a way to take the edge off stress,” O’Toole said. “In losing my vision, obviously, there’ve been some downs … it’s not easy getting around when you’re blind, and, sometimes, people stereotype blind people as individuals who can’t do things. I didn’t want people to think of blind people that way.

“People have stopped and asked me, ‘How do you not trip?’ I tell them, ‘I’m just like everybody else … I do fall down.’”

Competing at home is especially meaningful to O’Toole because of a citizenry he touts as the most “welcoming” and “gracious” among all those he’s met during his worldwide travels. For that, O’Toole feels deep thanks.

“These are the things that are amazing to me, because there are a lot of supporters and a lot of people who are helpful,” he said. “That means everything.”

Those wishing to participate in the Claremont Turkey Trot can register at runsignup.com, by searching “Claremont Turkey Trot,” in person from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 22 at the Claremont Depot, 200 W. First Street, or on race day before the 8 a.m. start.

Lance Pugmire is a former Los Angeles Times and USA Today sports reporter and is a member of Claremont Sunrise Rotary.


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