Lipsey runs NYC Marathon as a guide for Achilles International

Maeve Goldman, Staff Writer

Ricky Lipsey (12) guided his blind friend Suleiman Rifai across the New York City Marathon finish line after running 26.2 miles on Saturday. “There are a lot of moments when you want to quit, but knowing that I was out there to help him, I physically could not quit because he needed me,” Lipsey said. 

Prior to the 2021 New York Marathon, Lipsey had participated as a half marathon running guide during the 2018 and 2019 New York Marathons through the nonprofit organization Achilles International. 

Lipsey began volunteering with Achilles International when he was 12 years old. “My dad was a member and he introduced me to the program,” Lipsey said. “I joined to use my passion for running to give back and help the community out.” 

Achilles International pairs runners with disabilities with able-bodied guides who assist them during recreational and competitive runs. “It really brightens the days of disabled people who, without Achilles, would not be able to run,” Lipsey said. 

“I never imagined I would be running any marathons when I first started running,” Rifai said. “It seemed so out of reach. Achilles makes the impossible possible.” 

Achilles also allows disabled athletes to experience the pleasure of recreational runs. “I can enjoy the sounds of the trees and the birds and the smell of the park,” Rifai said. “My guides describe the scenery of the trees and reservoir so I can see the park through their eyes and really enjoy it.” 

In order to guide blind athletes, Lipsey uses a tool called a tether, which connects him to the runner he is leading and allows him to pull the runner in the correct direction. “It’s kind of like a big wrist band,” Lipsey said. “I hold one end and Suleiman holds the other end so I can pull him.” 

Running with a guide allows visually impaired runners to feel secure and focus on their run instead of their safety. “Ricky is a really amazing guide,” Rifai said. “When I run with him I can be thoroughly relaxed and enjoy the run.” 

Although Lipsey only decided to run the NYC Marathon two months before its date, he has been training with Rifai since he was young. “Suleiman and I have run together for years and years now,” Lipsey said. “He used to push me in a stroller while running with my dad.”

Therefore, when Rifai expressed interest in running the 2021 marathon, Lipsey immediately offered to assist him. “I’ve been guiding him on runs for a while now and he needed someone to guide him in the marathon, so I started training with him,” he said. 

Before the marathon, Lipsey and Rifai needed to increase their training to ensure that they were both physically ready to run 26 consecutive miles. Their practice schedule consisted of running between four and eight miles on most days, as well as occasional longer routes. “The longest run we did together was fifteen miles,” Lipsey said. “Training was just as hard for me as it was for Suleiman.” 

Although Rifai has run about 20 marathons in his life, the New York Marathon 2021 was Lipsey’s first full marathon. Lipsey had intended to run 13 miles and then switch with another guide as he had done in past years. 

However, only two weeks before the race, Rifai asked Lipsey if he could run the whole race. As Lipsey had been training with Rifai, he felt prepared. “I’m never going to say no to helping out those who can’t help themselves,” he said. “I was essentially preparing all along to run the whole thing.” 

On the day of the marathon, Lipsey and Rifai were ready and excited to run, taking the first thirteen miles in stride. “The first thirteen miles we were cruising. We were making good pace,” Lipsey said. 

As the race went on, both runners experienced challenges from the long-distance and at times steep terrain. However, despite feeling fatigued, they persevered, using the crowd for motivation and support. “The crowd is probably the most helpful thing for encouragement,” Lipsey said. “They ignite and push you.” 

Overall, the marathon was a success, with both Lipsey and Rifai achieving their shared goal of finishing the race, Lipsey said. “Even though your body is in pain, it’s really rewarding to complete a marathon.” 

“I’m still thinking of the finish, it was electric,” Rifai said. “It felt amazing. We finished holding hands and did a leap up in the air.” 

Running the marathon with Ricky was really special, Rifai said.  “My first marathon was with his father and now my 20th is with his son. It’s full circle,” Rifai said. 

Lipsey looks forward to continuing assisting runners with disabilities. “The Marathon wasn’t my end goal — it was just a stop along the way,” Lipsey said “Suleiman and I plan to run again next week.”