Blind athlete finds reassurance to keep running after visit to VCU RUN LAB
Charlie Plaskon runs tests at the VCU RUN LAB.
Charlie Plaskon has never acted his age and at 72 years old he has no plans to start. The legally blind, retired teacher began running at the age of 55 and hasn’t looked back, competing in more than 45 marathons and triathlons, including the grueling Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in 2007.
Nothing could slow Plaskon down until he suffered a back injury in 2015 that put his running career on hold. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the vertebral canal that compresses the spinal nerves and can cause leg pain and difficulty walking. After a successful laminectomy, or decompression surgery, followed by a rigorous rehabilitation with a physical therapist, he was ready to start running, swimming and biking again.
Plaskon enlisted the help of D.S. Blaise Williams III, Ph.D., director of the VCU RUN LAB, with the goal of competing again. Williams specializes in 3-D biomechanics as it relates to injury and recovery from running and landing injuries. The VCU RUN LAB is a collaboration involving the Department of Physical Therapy in the School of Allied Health Professions and the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
The main reason for Plaskon’s visit to the VCU RUN LAB, a national leader in running analysis, was to see if it was possible for him to continue running long distances. He would like to compete in full marathons while posting times under five hours, as he had before his injury. His ultimate goal is to compete in a full Ironman competition once again.
“I don’t like doing half-marathons because half means I didn’t do the other half,” Plaskon said. “That’s why I’m here. I want to see what the next level is. Can I compete like I used to? I want to find out exactly what’s left after 72 years.”
With permission from his physical therapist, Plaskon started running again and can now comfortably run for two-and-a-half hours, or 15 miles, at a 14-minute-per-mile pace. He’s ready to up his game and get back to running 10-minute miles and add more distance.
Williams was prepared to help.
“My job is to take a look at you from a physical perspective,” Williams told Plaskon during the session at the VCU RUN LAB. “So we will look at your strength, flexibility and all of the things in your lower extremities. My biggest concern with you now post-surgery and post-rehabilitation is how symmetrical are you? Is the right side of your body doing the same thing as the left side? With all of the weakness you have had on the right side, if you have symmetry issues then we want to know and make sure we address those.”
Williams began by taking extensive measurements of Plaskon. He measured his lower extremities, including his feet, to make sure everything measured evenly on both sides. He then measured his flexibility. After the measurements, it was time for Plaskon to step on the treadmill for the 3-D running test.
The treadmill in the VCU RUN LAB is elevated and surrounded by 3-D cameras to capture the intricate movements of the runner. Numerous sensors were applied to Plaskon’s body so the VCU RUN LAB staff could capture and analyze the data. He had never been on a treadmill before due to his visual impairment. An outdoor course was available but he was up for the challenge. After a little practice and a warm-up run, he was ready for the 3-D running test, which lasted about 30 seconds.
Plaskon has always done well with challenges, having learned the meaning of perseverance at a young age. He has been legally blind his entire life. In the first grade, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration. He was born with this disease, which progressively got worse over the years. At the time of the diagnosis he had no central vision and very limited peripheral vision. His peripheral vision has now deteriorated almost completely.
He never let his condition stop him from accomplishing his goals. He received a bachelor’s degree from Newark State College in New Jersey, a master’s degree from the University of Maryland at College Park and a second master’s degree from Hofstra University on Long Island. He taught for 32 years as an industrial arts teacher at Copiague Middle School on Long Island. He retired in 1999 and started running shortly after.
He got his start running marathons by first competing in a half-marathon with his niece. It was an unexpected challenge. It was not as easy as he thought it would be and he did not do well. He started training and worked himself up to 13 miles. The more he participated in half-marathons and eventually full marathons, the better he did.
While participating in the Boston Marathon in 2001, his legs “quit” on him. His children – one is a physical therapist, the other is an occupational therapist – suggested he add swimming to his training regimen to help gain strength. Once he mastered swimming long distances, he decided to try competing in triathlons – a combination of swimming, biking and running.
He grew very competitive in the field and advanced to the Ironman competition. An Ironman is the longest, most demanding version of the triathlon. It requires swimming 2.4 miles in open water, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Plaskon’s best time is 12 hours and 41 minutes in Panama City, Florida. A full Ironman takes him 14 to 15 hours on average.
Since 2003, he has completed several half-Ironman and Ironman events. In addition, he has competed in a host of Olympic-distance triathlons, including the ITU World Championship as part of Team USA in Laussane, Switzerland, in 2006. Plaskon has been featured in two Ironman documentaries on NBC and the Outdoor Life Network and was also featured in the documentary “Victory Over Darkness,” which was shown at the Heartland Film Festival and the Sedona Film Festival.
In order to compete in marathons and triathlons, Plaskon is tethered to a guide who runs, bikes and swims along with him. His guide is his sight during the competitions. This takes extensive training to ensure they work well together. During the swimming and running portion of the race, they are tethered at the waist and run and swim side by side. During the bike race, they ride a tandem or two-person bike. The guide has to keep the bike chain moving while Plaskon does the brunt of the work.
In addition to running, Plaskon has a passion for working with and motivating those who are blind or who have sustained vision loss. He is currently the spokesperson for Achilles International, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and Overcome Vision Loss Foundation. He has worked with Achilles International since 2001 and Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind since 2011. He met Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, founder of the Overcome Vision Loss Foundation, while he was on the board of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. They have collaborated to help wounded veterans, particularly those who have sustained vision loss.
Although he has won several medals, Plaskon never keeps them. He donates them to various organizations and schools. He has also spoken at numerous schools to encourage students. “Always have a goal and keep climbing,” Plaskon said. “Don’t just reach it and say life is over. Your goal is a springboard for another challenge. There’s always going to be a new challenge. Strive. Be proud of what you have worked for but use it as a stepping-stone for something else.”
At the end of the assessment at the VCU RUN LAB, Williams told Plaskon what he wanted to hear.
“You have enough raw material to keep running and be competitive again,” Williams said. “Pace is not going to be a limiting factor for you. Your body is going to tell you what you can and can’t do as you keep training.”
The data still needed to be analyzed and sent to Plaskon’s doctor and physical therapist to allow them to make adjustments as needed, but Plaskon was ready to hit the pavement. “Stay tuned,” he said as he left.