Lord Frederick and Madeline Kirch are an unlikely running duo making great strides together
With less than a week until the San Francisco marathon, a local running duo prepares.
An agreed-upon music playlist for Madeline Kirch, 28, and Lord Frederick, 51, is essential. Electronic dance remixes of Earth, Wind, and Fire are a favorite. So too are Rihanna, Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera.
Gummy bears will play a crucial role for the running partners, keeping their blood sugar steady along the 26.2-mile loop which runs through Golden Gate Park and finishes at the Ferry Building. Kirch’s boyfriend has agreed to meet the duo—who will be tethered to each other by wrist for the entirety of the race—at stops along the course to hand out the gummies.
Bathroom breaks are also a hot topic of conversation. Kirch, who studied exercise science in college and is an endurance athlete herself, has taught Lord Frederick to sip water on runs instead of gulping it down. She sets the alarm on her smartwatch for every half mile, signaling that it’s time for a sip.
“It works! I can’t believe it works,” Lord Frederick says of the new hydration approach. “You know how many years I’ve drunk my bottle just straight down.”
Lord Frederick has learned a lot from Kirch, and Kirch from Lord Frederick. The two met at an early morning run in the Tenderloin organized by Back On My Feet (BOMF), a non-profit group combating homelessness in San Francisco through the routine of early morning exercise. Kirch is one of BOMF’s volunteers, and Lord Frederick is one of the most unique of their formerly homeless members. Beyond his purple weave, occasional Zorro costume and name (which he prefers to his legal one, Carl Frederick Minor Jr., because he’s “a romantic and it keeps him in a gentlemanly state”), Lord Frederick is also completely blind.
Sunday will mark Lord Frederick’s 12th full marathon, but his first in San Francisco, a city that’s proven to be less accommodating to the blind than he anticipated before moving here four years ago. With the guidance of the younger, steadfast Kirch, he’s eager to put his daily hardships aside to conquer the city’s toughest running challenge.
The natural guide
At 28, Lord Frederick ran his first marathon in New York City with partial vision.
The next year, he lost his sight entirely due to retinal detachment in both eyes, a condition his blind mother and sister suffered from as well. He has run ten marathons since.
Lord Frederick continues racing to prove to himself and others what can be accomplished without sight.
“Running keeps me in shape and in a level frame of thought. It keeps me believing that I’m just as good as anybody else,” he says. “But my main reason for running is to show that blind people can do it as well.”
He met Kirch on the first morning he showed up to a BOMF run last October.
Kirch noticed Lord Fredrick’s white walking cane, and when the volunteer coordinator announced that he would need someone to run with, she mustered the confidence to be his lead. Kirch had run alongside a blind runner at BOMF’s chapter in Washington, DC, where she lived after graduating college, but never had been a guide herself.
Kirch was a natural.
“She gives me directions without making me feel incompetent,” Lord Frederick says of Kirch. “Most people give directions to a blind person with a certain authority like they’re putting them down. She doesn’t do that.”
Having been tethered to over 40 running guides in his life, he says Kirch is his best.
Others aren’t able to find the same groove. “You see these cuts and bruises on me,” he says pointing to his shins. “These are from when Lady Madeline was out on vacation.”
Lady Madeline is his name for Kirch, a Well-Being Strategist at Cigna Health Insurance when not volunteering for BOMF. Lord Frederick reserves these courtly names for important people in his life, like Kirch’s mother and father, who he refers to as Duchess Deborah and Earl Darrell. They’ve only met one time, but he holds Kirch’s parents in the highest regards for the earnest daughter they raised.
Not many of Kirch’s friends outside of Back On My Feet have met Lord Frederick, but by now, she says almost all feel like they have. Kirch can’t help but talk about her poetic running partner outside of their morning runs. She also vlogs via YouTube to update friends and family on their training progress, which include some of Lord Fredrick’s inspirational “quotes of the day.”
“Always remember that you’re special and that whatever you do, do it with pride and joy and love of life,” he said their latest update video.
While watching the pair run together, their chemistry is immediately evident.
Kirch calls out the verbal queues. “Ramp down,” she says to Lord Frederick when moving from the sidewalk to the street. “Ramp up,” when getting back onto the sidewalk. Constantly, she’s yelling “blind runner coming” to heads down pedestrians typing on their phones. She’ll even describe the scene around them: “There’s a cute white and brown puppy ahead.”
Some instructions are more critical for the 6’1” blind runner in a scaffolding-filled city. “There’s construction coming up. Duck!” Kirch warns, to which Lord Frederick responds, “Quack, quack, quack.”
Kirch is amused, but has heard the joke before and is conscientious of the crucial role at hand. “Yes, that’s a duck,” she says. “Let’s keep up the pace.”
Blind people can do
Lord Frederick says he’s disappointed in San Francisco’s resources for the blind, specifically in regards to job skills training and job placement.
He dreams of starting an organization called “Blind People Can Do” that would provide six months of training and a six-month internship for blind people to “show what we can do.” He says this type of program is missing in San Francisco, but common in the two other cities where he’s lived: Austin, Texas and New York City.
LightHouse, a nonprofit providing services to the blind and visually impaired in San Francisco since 1902, does have an Employment Immersion Program that Senior Director of Programs, Scott Blanks, says helps around 20 people per year (40% of participants) get hired. The program, however, is geared towards interview preparation and technical skills (like working on a computer) not internship placement.
Banks says LightHouse would be open to the idea of an internship program, but finding companies willing to provide opportunities can be difficult.
“Having a more official program where we can send people and have them be fully prepared, that would be key,” Banks says. “Those internships do start to change [an employer’s] mind or open up their perceptions about a particular population [of blind or visually impaired individuals].”
Without a job today, Lord Frederick often sings or prophesies his Christian beliefs on street corners around the city. He’ll lay a collection basket down and often say to those passing by, “Please, if you don’t do anything, thank God that you can see at least one time in your life. That’s all I ask.”
Some people don’t believe he’s blind and can get hostile about the prospect of being duped. Lord Frederick responds to his doubters, saying, “You’re right. I see far more than you do.”
Most days, though, Lord Frederick doesn’t perform or even make it outside of the low-income facility where he’s lived for the past two months. He struggles with feelings of not being welcomed in the organizations he volunteers for and being a burden on the people closest to him.
Once a week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday, he has feelings of depression.
“I don’t want to hurt myself,” he says. “It’s just sometimes I don’t want to live.”
A couple of things bring him joy.
“Costumes are everything. You get the opportunity to express yourself, and since I’m totally blind, I could look like an ass and not care what people think,” he says. “As I put on a costume, it gives me the motivation to go outside.”
Running is another source of positivity.
“Running makes endorphins that create a lot of enjoyment,” he explains. “My art and my running are what keeps me from not wanting to die.”
Sunday is for the team
There will be approximately 28,000 participants across all races Sunday, and according to Director of Programs, Lauri Abrahamsen, 46 athletes with disabilities will be participating in the marathon (that number includes those who are blind and visually-impaired).
Physical exhaustion will be a concern for the team of Kirch and Lord Frederick. Although being a triathlete and completing last year’s Santa Cruz half Ironman, Kirch has only run one marathon prior. Also, during their training, the two have just finished the first ten miles of the course together.
Navigating crowds and weaving between runners will be their biggest challenge, Kirch anticipates.
“People are running at different paces, and it’s tough to dodge them to stay on your pace,” she says. “Everyone wears headphones and can’t hear when you’re saying, ‘Blind runner!”
The duo ran Bay to Breakers this year as part of their training (Kirch dressed as Tinkerbell and Lord Frederick as Peter Pan), but the crowds presented frustrations throughout the race. It got so bad that Lord Frederick vowed to wear a spider costume next year to ward off runners in his way.
On Sunday, they’ll be wearing Back On My Feet shirts to support the organization that brought them together, white shorts (Lord Frederick’s request), and bright, neon vests — one reading “guide” and other, “blind.”
If the duo finishes the marathon, they know they won’t be able to make it purely on a good playlist and gummy bears. Each mile they’re planning to dedicate to a different person in their lives who means something to them, and inevitably, the unlikely pair will include one another on that list.
For Kirch, her running partner has brought perspective into her life.
“I’ve always pitied the homeless population but didn’t know how to help besides working in a food kitchen or just, money. I’ve learned to take the pity out of it and get to know people’s stories and backgrounds. As cliche as it sounds, we’re all the same when we put on a pair of running shoes.”
Lord Frederick says Kirch has taught him not to stereotype. He claims not to know she had blonde hair until recently but did know, based on her diction, that she had a privileged upbringing.
“Most privileged people are superficial to the point that they ignored me. They ignore blind people or black people or men with long hair,” Lord Frederick explains. “But not Lady Madeline. I’ve learned that it’s hard to stereotype anyone when you’re trying to avoid being stereotyped yourself.”
Update: Kirch and Lord Frederick finished the 2018 San Francisco Marathon with an official time of 4:57:57.
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