Dan Berlin is a world-class athlete: He’s run nine marathons (including New York and Boston’s), completed two half Ironman triathlons, and jogged across the Grand Canyon—and back—without stopping.
He’s also blind.
Two weeks ago, the Fort Collins resident became the first blind person to complete the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in one day. The trek—a twisting 26-mile trail over three peaks (the tallest coming in at almost 14,000 feet) and through deep valleys—typically takes experienced runners and hikers four days to complete. Berlin, who only started running six years ago, finished it in 13 hours, with the help of his three guides. (Together, the quartet makes up Team See Possibilities.) Here, Berlin shares his inspiration—and how his story might help shift our expectations of people living with disabilities.
5280: Why did you start running?
Dan Berlin: I ask myself that every day when I’m out running. (Just kidding.) I moved to Colorado [from the New York City area] about eight years ago. I absolutely love it here, but I gave up a lot of public transportation, and I was pretty much legally blind at that point. I was feeling pretty down about losing my ability to do a lot of things that I love. Then I realized where I lived, and I said to myself, “I need to get outside. So I started running. I was able to take something that was a disability and shove it aside. Instead I thought, What can I focus on to turn this into an ability? I could grow. I could become a better athlete. I could really enjoy what Colorado has to offer. It was hard, but I decided to treat being blind as an inconvenience instead of a disability.
Tell us about what a cone rod dystrophy diagnosis means.
I was diagnosed at about seven years old with a condition called Stargardt, which is basically a collection of juvenile retinal diseases. By the time I was in my 30s, doctors nailed it as cone rod dystrophy. The cones and rod cells are located in the retina. With cone rod dystrophy, I slowly—and now completely—have lost the use of my cone cells, which means I have no central vision, no acuity.
What made you decide to tackle the Inca Trail?
We [Team See Possibilities] had done the Grand Canyon, and we had such a good experience as a team, we were thinking, “What’s next?” We had some debate, and Brad [Graff] said, “You know, 10 years ago I went to Machu Picchu. We could get permits.”
The worst thing for me is going up and down steps. You know that feeling when you think there’s a step at the top of the stairs, but there isn’t? That’s what it feels like for me. And Brad said, “Oh, there aren’t too many steps.” Well, there are more than 10,000 steps. But I put full faith in this team.
Your story is inspiring for a lot of people. What advice would you give to someone who is second-guessing his or her abilities?
The message I have for people facing adversity is: Don’t think it’s the end of what you can do. Sometimes you can make something out of that disability. It unshackles us from the expectations of living an ordinary life. I might never be able to read a menu, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a great meal. You just have to figure out: What more meaningful life can I have? What can I turn this into? I don’t like using the term “opportunity of being blind,” but that’s really what it is.
There are a lot of stories being written about you your adventures. What do you wish journalists would ask you more often?
I think one of the things that no one’s really asked me about is how I fit this blindness aspect into my ordinary, daily life. Doing a team adventure like this, an incredibly hard physical challenge, can seem very empowering—and it is. But sometimes I get tied up in little things, like knowing if it’s safe to cross the street. Going blind has made me a problem solver. Think of how much time businesses spend trying to teach workers to be problem solvers—this is one way that life just threw it in my lap.
I did [the Machu Picchu] run in support of a Denver-based company that I’m on the board of, the Blind Institute of Technology. We put highly educated and motivated blind individuals into careers. Eighty percent of working-age people with blindness don’t work. No matter what obstacles an individual is facing, there’s a way to live a fulfilling life. We at Team See try to inspire and empower people.
One thing I love about traveling to these countries is showing up as a high-functioning blind individual to challenge those perceptions. So often we’re told what we can’t do by well-meaning individuals. But so often that creates too much of a cocoon around a blind child to go out and test themselves. Even in the United States, we need to challenge children with disabilities as often as we do children without disabilities. We need to be careful about sending a message about what can and can’t be done.
We’ve put a poll on our website to allow other people to offer their opinions. We’re knocked out two continents, and we have a 10-year mission to knock out all seven.
Vote on where Dan and his team should go next at teamseepossibilities.com.
Intrepid Travel, which sponsored and obtained permits for Team See Possibilities’ trip, documented Dan’s trek in the video below.