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First-ever disabled Mexican woman runs New York Marathon: “Despite losing my sight, I accomplished things I never thought possible”

I felt my heart beating out of my chest as I awaited the sound of the gunshot to start the race. When it went off, I tried my best to ignore the harsh cold enveloping me. I pushed on passed two rivers in the city, and through a tunnel. My guides described every single thing in the environment. They spoke of the places we passed through and the people around us. Despite not being able to see, I savored every moment through their words. Neither my blindness nor my age or gender could stop me.

  • 9 months ago
  • July 4, 2023
6 min read
Martha López Vertiz is the first blind Mexican woman to complete the New York Marathon. Martha López Vertiz is the first blind Mexican woman to complete the New York Marathon. | Photo courtesy of Martha López Vertiz
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Martha López Vertiz, 58, lives in the municipality of Ecatepec in Mexico. She graduated as a massage therapist from the National School for the Blind and is currently studying for a degree in Social Work at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She was diagnosed 37 years ago with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The medication they gave her caused her permanent blindness. She started running with the Halcones Corredores Ciegos team in 2016 and since then, she has participated in several full marathons.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
The New York City Marathon, currently branded as the TCS New York City Marathon, is an annual event that courses through the five boroughs of New York City. It is the largest marathon in the world, with 53,627 finishers in 2019 and 98,247 applicants for the 2017 race.

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Fifteen years ago, a medication error occurred during my treatment for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, leaving me to battle blindness. Despite losing my sight, I accomplished things I never thought possible. In 2022, I proudly represented my country as the first Mexican female athlete with a disability to participate in the prestigious New York Marathon.

The heart wrenching journey of losing my sight, and finding an outlet for my pain

I began losing vision gradually between 2000 and 2001. When I noticed the start of my vision problems, I brought it to the attention of the Social Security doctors treating me. They paid little attention.

In 2002, after numerous examinations, the doctors delivered a devastating revelation. The drug chloroquine caused me to go blind. My eyesight continue to deteriorate and in 2007, I had an accident due to my impaired vision. I fell into an open drain at the entrance to the Metro station. The accident confirmed the irreversibility of my blindness. My life was never the same again.

Everything around me quickly tumbled to the ground. I lost my job, my source of income, and I felt emotionally unstable. Acceptance felt far out of reach. I became so depressed, I rarely ventured outside. Then, a friend introduced me to the National School for the Blind, where I learned Braille reading and writing. They provided rehabilitation lessons to help me regain my independence. It was at this school, I first got into sports.

I still remember the initial trepidation I felt when they introduced us to activities like basketball and running. I falsely believed my blindness prevented me from participating in those kinds of endeavors. However, gradually, I came to realize I could do it. That realization marked a turning point in my life.

Read more stories from Mexico at Orato World Media 

The November cold quickly turned to unbearable heat, as my guides described everything around me

When I saw an announcement about the 2022 New York Marathon from the Achilles International Association, I applied to their program. [AIA is a nonprofit which breaks down barriers for people in the disability community not only to start races but to cross the finish line.]

I got myself into excellent athletic form and was selected to compete. Then, a few months prior to the race, I suffered a knee ligament tear. It happened during a trail race in Chiapas, Mexico, leaving me immobile for several weeks. I worried the setback to my preparation would defer my participation, but I battled through the frustration.

On November 6, 2022 – the day of the competition – a bus picked me up at 5:00 a.m. It took a group of us to the furthest part of New York, to the starting line of the New York Marathon. Over 200 individuals with disabilities gathered together. We eagerly awaited the beginning of the race. Although the cold weather nipped at our skin, the adrenaline pumping through my body warmed me up.

I felt my heart beating out of my chest as I awaited the sound of the gunshot to start the race. When it went off, I tried my best to ignore the harsh cold enveloping me. I pushed on passed two rivers in the city, and through a tunnel. My guides described every single thing in the environment. They spoke of the places we passed through and the people around us. Despite not being able to see, I savored every moment through their words. Neither my blindness nor my age or gender could stop me.

Getting to the finish line

Halfway through the New York Marathon, the sun began shining and the weather changed abruptly to a scorching heat. Quickly, it turned unbearable. I removed my shirt and continued to run in my sports bra. I remember a feeling of insecurity invading me as I worried whether people would see my stretch marks or cesarean scar. I deliberately pulled my focus back to the race. Looking back, I find it amusing how my mind tried to grasp something so trivial during such an epic event.

As we reached the twelfth kilometer, the weather turned again. What began as a gentle breeze soon turned into rain. It felt remarkable to experience such diverse weather conditions in a single marathon, yet my guides continued to provide unwavering support.

Martha (left) and her running guide during the New York City Marathon. | Photo courtesy of Martha López Vertiz

Moments came when I felt like giving up, but my guides refused to let me quit. Their encouragement and motivation propelled me forward, and I eventually crossed the finish line. It felt utterly surreal. At first, I was not sure I made it, until I heard the crowd cheering for me. Overwhelmed with emotion, tears of joy streamed down my face. Despite all my challenges, I made it.

In addition to the tremendous personal significance this event held for me, it also contributed to the advancement of disabled sports in Mexico. With over 50,000 runners taking part in the event, I represented a first: the first Mexican female runner with a disability in the New York Marathon. The pride I felt was immeasurable.

At my lowest point, sports saved me 

I am so fortunate to have overcome my early fears, through the guidance and support of others. My first race was a five-kilometer run and it left a lasting impact on me. The guide runner who accompanied me described the surroundings and the passing streets, creating a pleasant sensation. She instilled confidence through her abilities and my own.

Maintaining a good relationship with your guide, built on trust, is vital. When I am running and I feel the wind brush against my face, I focus on my breathing. The world goes quiet for a moment and, suddenly, I feel capable of anything. 

The freshness of the morning, the caress of the wind, and the scent of the surroundings create profound peace and joy. It’s an experience I never would have encountered if I still had my sight. Had I remained consumed by anger over my condition, I never would have felt the indescribable rush of adrenaline coursing through my body.

I made a decision: to overcome the obstacles; and these past 15 years have been nothing short of extraordinary. Rather than seeing my blindness as a limitation, it became a catalyst for personal growth and finding purpose in my life.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

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