Body & Fitness

The inspirational visually impaired Kiwi couple who take on marathons together

''I can't think of anything that's as tough but also so incredibly rewarding.''

For anyone who completes the iconic New York Marathon, the sense of achievement is huge. But for visually impaired couple Mike Lloyd, who also lives with Parkinson’s Disease, and Laura Eitjes, the achievement is barely comprehensible.

This month Mike lined up alongside his guide – Three news anchor Mike McRoberts – to complete his 10th successive marathon in the Big Apple, while Laura completed her third finish in the world’s number-one event.

Mike will have another Mike running beside him as his guide – Three’s Mike McRoberts.

Raised on Auckland’s North Shore, Mike (48), was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that slowly deteriorates sight. At school he could read with a magnifying glass, but his sight declined to where he was no longer able to read printed text by age 30.

Following his complete loss of vision, the keen runner opted to join Achilles International – an organisation that helps people with a disability compete in mainstream athletics. Being introduced to the use of a guide runner – connected by a hand-held tether – allowed Mike to continue to fulfill his passion for running, although it has presented its challenges.

“I had to learn to trust the guide,” explains Mike. “The verbal instructions need to be both precise and concise, and I’ve found that sometimes it’s easy for them to confuse left with right.”

Unfortunately, Mike’s had the occasional mishap, even breaking a finger on a letterbox after he became cramped for room on a narrow footpath when another jogger rushed past.

The couple hope to have soon completed 13 New York Marathons between them.

No wonder Mike initially dismissed the prospect of running 42.2km as “ridiculous”. But he changed his mind after finishing the Auckland Half Marathon. Then, in 2007, he completed his maiden marathon in four-and-a-half hours and was hooked.

“It blew my mind,” he says. “The New York Marathon is huge. Three million people come out on the streets to support the runners. I can’t think of anything that’s as tough but also so incredibly rewarding.”

Bitten by the bug, Mike was an annual finisher until 2012, when Hurricane Sandy forced its postponement. That same year was made memorable for other significant reasons too.

For a lengthy period, Mike had struggled with excessive fatigue, prolonged stiffness and a tremor down his right side. He sought medical advice, only to discover he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Initially in shock, he quickly recovered from the blow and approached the disease with his trademark positivity.

“There are conditions worse than Parkinson’s,” he explains. “At least I know it will be something I’ll die with rather than die from.”

Yet 2012 wasn’t all bad – it was also the year he teamed up with his love Laura, after working alongside her at the Blind Foundation. Like Mike, Laura has a degenerative eye condition – Stargardt Disease – with which she has only limited peripheral vision.

Dutch-born but raised in Northland, she was instantly taken by Mike’s numerous positive qualities.

“From day one, I admired him in every way,” she tells the Weekly. “He doesn’t let blindness or Parkinson’s get in the way of his life. He is extremely intelligent and he really has the most witty sense of humour.”

Yet living with Parkinson’s and training annually for the New York Marathon has taken a huge toll. Mike suffers from excessive muscle tightness and fatigue, so preparing for raceday demands incredible organisation.

“After long runs I have to factor in enough sleep time to recover,” he explains. “I also need to make sure I eat healthier. I try to avoid the known inflammatory foods such as sugars, flours, gluten and a lot of dairy.”

Laura (45), plays her part as a rock of support.

“Some people dealing with my condition could be quite smothering, but because Laura has also lived with a lack of vision, she really gets me. She is gorgeous and I am lucky to have her,” adds Mike.

In 2014 Laura – who describes herself as a “non-runner” – joined her partner to run the streets of New York and repeated the event last year. Yet both are keen to emphasise they would not be able to achieve the feat without the aid of their respective guides.

“He’s a very genuine and naturally caring person,” says Mike of his sighted running mate Mike McRoberts, whom he trains with two or three times a week. “He has had to learn the tricks of the trade and as far as verbal prompts go, he has a great narrator’s voice!”

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