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Nearly blind runner poses conundrum near St. Louis

ST. CHARLES (AP) — Marathon runner Dennis Atkins says his daily jogs on streets in his subdivision provide a sense of independence despite a worsening retina disease that has left him nearly blind.

But his exercise routine spurred complaints from some nearby residents worried about the potential for a vehicle running into Atkins or vice versa.

Atkins, 57, and others hope that the flap has been solved by a compromise reached at a residents’ meeting held recently by Mayor Sally Faith, who said police had received complaints about the issue over the last three years or so.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” Faith said.

Asked if he is taking a risk, Atkins said, “there’s always a possibility of danger, but I’ve been running with this eye disease for 33 years and I do everything I can to avoid getting injured.”

He said he’s bumped into two parked vehicles in the past 51⁄2 years but wasn’t injured.

Atkins, who can only see shadows of objects and differentiate between light and dark, used to run down the middle of streets in the Hollow Brook subdivision, near Highway 94 and Zumbehl Road. He guided himself by focusing on black-line expansion joints.

Now he has agreed to instead stay close to street sides where parking already was prohibited, concentrating his eyes on where the grass meets the curb.

Atkins also promised to wear bright-colored clothing and to stick to less traveled streets in the subdivision. Moreover, he no longer uses a hands-free cellphone while running. Some people, he said, mistakenly thought that made him less likely to hear approaching cars.

Meanwhile, the city will erect a “No Outlet” sign at the subdivision entrance to ward off drivers who may incorrectly think they can cut through the neighborhood and a sign or signs alerting drivers to watch out for a visually impaired person.

Faith also is asking the City Council to reduce the subdivision speed limit to 20 mph from 25.

His new running regime is “going pretty well,” Atkins said. “I’ve got a new spirit of peace.”

Atkins said about 10 residents had raised concerns about his mid-street running while others didn’t mind.

Sandi Bohler, who was among those concerned about possible accidents, said she also hoped that the issue had been resolved.

“We just want to all live together peacefully,” she said.

Under state law and a city ordinance, pedestrians must stay on the sidewalk when one is provided. Because of that, critics argued that Atkins was violating the law.

Atkins’ subdivision has sidewalks, but he says it’s difficult for him to run on them because he trips on storm drains and bumps into adjacent mailboxes and other obstacles.

St. Charles City Attorney Michael Valenti said he hadn’t researched whether the sidewalk requirement actually extends to runners.

Over the years, Atkins has run 23 full marathons, a number of half-marathons and raised more than $100,000 in related charity events.

Atkins started running in 1978 and continued after he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa the following year. He first sensed something was wrong, he said, when playing night softball while living in Topeka, Kan. — he lost track of the ball in the lights.

After developing night blindness, he gradually lost peripheral vision and then central vision.

“It’s like a dimmer switch on a light,” he said. “Every year it’s just turned down a little bit more. What I used to be able to see a year ago, I can’t quite make out.”

For years he has kept track of each mile he runs; his goal is 100,000 miles. He’s now above 73,000 and expects to hit 75,000 at a benefit marathon in March at his alma mater, Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.

Atkins, who lives with his adult son, moved to the subdivision about five years ago and now runs two to four hours a day in the neighborhood. He said he retired from his job as an insurance claims manager amid a company reorganization earlier this year and is seeking new employment.

Atkins is vice president of the Delta Center for Independent Living and a member of the Missouri Statewide Independent Living Council and the State Rehabilitation Council. He also is a motivational speaker, appearing at service organizations, churches and other venues.

“I just want to encourage others that they can take life’s challenges and they can overcome them,” he said.

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