'Today is all I have'

'I just want to continue running' (4:44)

India's first visually impaired athlete at the Boston Marathon on adapting to every challenge and making the most of his abilities. (4:44)

Sagar Baheti is in the race of his life.

In a few years from now, his world, blurred already, will grow dimmer, close in to a sum of few centimetres, and maybe even turn monochrome. This, he knows, is all the time he has.

Among the many experiences, Sagar, 30, from Bengaluru, is rushing to capture while he can is the Boston Marathon on April 17, when he will become India's first visually-impaired runner to participate in the event.

Unlike most marathons that one can register for, the Boston Marathon largely requires participants to meet qualifying standards. While the qualifying time for able men between ages 18-34 is three hours and five minutes, it's five hours for visually-impaired male and female athletes.

"Over the last three months I realised how big the Boston Marathon is and I wanted to give it my best," Sagar tells ESPN. "I've been training twice a day with two short runs a week of about 8-10 km and one long run between 15-20 km.

"The other days I either cycle or swim. In the evenings, I work with my trainer on cross training, strength and endurance. I think I've benefited from the intensive training and improved a lot in terms of my timing and recovery."

Four years ago, Sagar hadn't heard of Stargardt's disease; today, he can't identify objects beyond one metre. The genetic disorder is characterised by the progressive degeneration of the macula, the central portion of the retina, leading to the loss of central vision. The macula is responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision necessary for basic activities like watching television or reading. While he may never be completely blind, simple, daily chores that are already daunting might seem insurmountable. An accompanying decrease in colour perception is also likely to occur with the macula's damage.

When the disease struck, Sagar looked for a physical activity that could challenge him while being minimally skills-based. That's how he picked running three years ago. "It was something I felt I could continue for a longer time as my vision deteriorated. I realised I enjoyed it and wanted to increase the number of runs and get more competitive with my timing," he says.

How does his condition challenge him though? Particularly when there's no clear track? Often, he says, he's not sure what he's stepping on. "Also, sometimes not knowing the distance you've covered, you're just pushing your body. I don't use a lot of technology while running so that too can be tricky." On the upside, though, not knowing what's going by helps him stay a lot more focused. "I just keep my head down and run since I know I can't see that much and that far."

He's run in races across India: the Ladakh marathon, the Cauvery trail, the Bangalore Ultra and the Coorg Escapade. In December last year, he completed a 900km tour of the Nilgiri hills by cycle. "I took up cycling to commute once I could no longer drive, since it allowed me to go slower and be self-reliant," he says. "I soon started liking it and decided to go for the tour since I wasn't sure if I could do so later once my vision got worse."

Unlike running, he needs assistance with cycling since there's more to control than just his own limbs.

"I thought cricket was a long shot. So I took a call which basically worked for me"

Boston will also be Sagar's first experience of running alongside a sighted guide. A visually-impaired runner is allowed to use two guides, one at a time, to complete the run with the guide exchange taking place near the 13.1-mile halfway mark. Serving as the eyes, the guide reads passing signs, throws in vivid descriptions of surroundings and keeps the athlete posted on the race distance and time while keeping pace and coordination intact. Sometimes when an athlete is too fast, the guide might need to run slightly ahead and clear the course by gently nudging other runners so as to avoid collision.

In the marathons he's competed in before, there have always been friends or acquaintances running alongside him. But to work in tandem with someone you barely know can be tough. It's one of the primary reasons why Sagar chose to travel to Boston roughly a fortnight before the race.

Also, he is preparing for what lies beyond this marathon.

"In a couple of years I'll lose complete central vision," he notes unemotionally, "and I might start needing more support with lesser mobility. I might then need the assistance of sighted guides more frequently. I'm not sure how quick or competitive I would be at that point, but that's not important. I just want to continue running."


Sagar has always been involved with sports including cricket, which he played at club level in Bengaluru with future India international players Robin Uthappa, Stuart Binny and Ambati Rayudu. He then picked the safety of college education over the vagaries of sport.

"I thought cricket was a long shot. So I took a call which basically worked for me. I loved the game but it was just that I didn't want my life to revolve around it any longer," he says. An engineering degree followed by an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru enabled him to set up his export business in designer marble and granite.

Ironically, it was cricket that alerted him to his medical issue. The first warning came during a club session four years ago, when he couldn't spot the ball. He overlooked it as just a sign of probably being rusty. Soon enough, he had problems catching the ball. That's when he decided to consult an ophthalmologist and went from one expert to another.

"In about three months I knew I had an incurable condition. At that point my vision was fairly good and I could do most things other than play cricket but over the next three years it deteriorated and my life changed beyond what I could ever fathom."

For someone who's had a perfect vision for the first two decades of his life, suddenly having to readjust his existence down to the tiniest detail and seeking assistance for simple, everyday activities can be frustrating.

"Going from sighted to visually impaired requires one to unlearn since you can no longer do things the same way. When you lose your first and strongest sense, you're left uncertain and tentative. And occurring at a young age, overcoming the anxiety over the little things is a much bigger challenge than the actual loss of vision. I didn't know what to do and was resigned to not having to do all of this but I guess being a sportsperson helped me get back on my feet and find alternate ways to get around.

"When I cross the road for instance, I need to be held by the hand since I can't tell how far a vehicle is or at what speed it's coming towards me."

Today, Sagar relies on visual aids and mobile applications like 'TapTapSee' to understand his surroundings better. The application uses the device camera to photograph objects and then identifies them aloud for the user through the voiceover function. "I find it hard to read and I don't drive. Earlier I used a 5x magnifier to read the newspaper but it doesn't help me any more."

Sagar, though, hasn't allowed circumstance to dictate his interests "I used to read a lot," he says. "Today I have more than 50 audio books and still continue to read. The experience of listening as opposed to reading is entirely different but if you aren't willing to adapt you can lose out on that too."

"The experience of watching matches may not be the same, but I still enjoy it as much"

Sagar has drifted away from active cricket but plays when possible and is toying with the idea of giving blind professional cricket a shot. "We use tennis balls since the chances of getting hurt are a lot less," he says. "I don't bat or field much but can still bowl. Friends often place a really bright cloth, cap or shirt to make me bowl in the direction I want to. They get me to play in friendly tournaments as well so I stay in touch with the game."

While he can no longer watch matches on TV, being among friends and family helps him feed off their enthusiasm. He travelled to London to experience the Ashes series at Lord's in 2015 and made a trip to Kolkata for the India-Pakistan World T20 game last year. "Of course I couldn't see anything, but I could feel the atmosphere like never before," he says.

A massive Roger Federer fan, one of the last sporting images Sagar managed to capture was that of a jubilant Rafael Nadal dropping to his knees, leaning backwards and clenching his fists and Federer blinking away tears after the 2012 epic Australian Open semi-final. "That was one of the last matches I watched on TV. I wish I had a better picture," he says.

Federer's Australian Open title win this year though has offered him some much-needed consolation. "I watched it with friends and though I was looking towards the TV from a normal viewing distance I couldn't tell Nadal and Federer apart. The experience of watching matches may not be the same, but I still enjoy it as much."


From appearances it's hard to tell that Sagar is any different from most of us in any way. Sporting dark shades through the length of our interaction, he takes them off later and looks at us straight in the eye. You're almost deluded into believing that he sees you well enough to probably wave at you the next time. Actually, standing a few metres apart, we're no more than blurry shapes.

"I'd be able to tell family members and close friends from some distance because of the element of extreme familiarity. Otherwise, unless someone is standing really close, it's tough for me to know. Often I can't even tell whether it's a man or woman who's standing across -- which has landed me in some embarrassing situations."

Having brokered peace with his present predicament and awaiting the future with an assured calm, Sagar doesn't grapple with feelings of resistance, escapism or angst any more. Just a cold sense of preparedness. "I sometimes wonder how the world would be if everyone had just as much vision as I did. It would be different, sure, but it would still work."

In Boston, Sagar will compete as part of the charitable organisation the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired's (MABVI) 'Team With A Vision'. The aim is to help raise awareness and funds that would fuel professional, peer and volunteer support, which he looks to bring back to India.

Along with retina specialist Rajini Battu, Sagar has conceptualised the setting up of a Centre for Eye Genetics and Research (CEGR) in Bengaluru, which will focus on research for genetically-caused eye diseases and offer a support system that will bring in the latest technology, visual aids and counselling for people who suffer from such conditions.

"There are a lot of people who feel let down and don't know what to do and we intend to extend assistance to them. We're still in the initial stages. The basic equipment is quite expensive and we'd need to raise funds. I know what I go through every day and want to make life easier for people like me who find getting around daily activities a challenge."

Before the light fades and twilight sets in, Sagar nurtures ambitions of competing in the Ironman triathlon -- one of the world's most gruelling one-day endurance races that spans roughly 140 miles and where athletes are required to begin with a 2.4 mile swim before they get pedalling on a 112-mile cycle segment, and finally a 26.2-mile regulation full marathon.

"I want to get down to preparing for it without wasting any time," Sagar says. "Today is all I have."