Steve Bluhm’s wild ride: ALS, NYC Marathon and the kindness of strangers
The Point Loma resident was pushed in a wheelchair by a teacher determined to reach the marathon finish, even after the chair’s handles broke off with 18 miles to go.
Before retiring as a commercial banker, Point Loma resident Steve Bluhm was an active swimmer, cyclist and runner, though he never had run a marathon.
Until six years ago, Bobby Imamura, a math teacher from Torrance, had never run a marathon.
But on Nov. 6, the two paired up in the TCS New York City Marathon.
Bluhm, 71, suffers from ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Imamura was his partner, pushing the 150-pound Bluhm in his wheelchair in a quick three hours and 53 minutes, despite unseasonal 70-plus-degree temperatures and despite the special racing wheelchair’s handles breaking off at Mile 8 of the 26.2-mile route.
For 18 more miles, Imamura had to use brute force to propel the wheelchair forward and turn it around corners and hazards, holding on the best he could.
“It was pretty much like riding a bike without handlebars,” said Imamura, a calculus and computer science high school teacher and girls basketball coach. “I was upset, but I knew I had to finish. When you have a teammate, you can’t let your teammate down. I had promised Steve I’m running the marathon for him.”
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“It was a complete emotional highlight,” Bluhm said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever really felt before. The support from all the crowds throughout the race was indescribable.”
Though his body ached from staying in one position for so long, Bluhm’s throat was sorest from yelling responses to those cheering him on, he added.
He and Imamura finished among the first 8,000 runners out of 47,000 entrants. Nathan Bult, TCS North America spokesman, said they came in a minute ahead of one of the most famous race participants — actor Ashton Kutcher, who finished in about three hours and 54 minutes.
At the start, the duo established a less than 7½-minute-per-mile pace with a goal of finishing in about three hours, 20 minutes.
But after the handles broke, Imamura had to slow to a walk down hills for fear that the wheelchair would get away from him and possibly injure Bluhm or another runner. He also had to stop to eat the energy gels handed out along the way.
Imamura tried different ways to grip and steer the broken chair and finally forged ahead but had to hunch over the wheelchair, putting tremendous strain on his back and taking a toll on his hamstrings and arms for 18 long miles.
Last year, Imamura pushed his longtime running companion Chris Beckette, who also has ALS, to a New York City Marathon time of about 3:07, qualifying to run in the Boston Marathon. But Beckette’s health declined and he had to bow out.
Imamura credits Beckette with inspiring him to get into running. He entered his first marathon in 2016 just to prove to his wife that he could do it and because it was on his friend’s bucket list. He never looked back.
As the 2022 NYC race approached, Imamura submitted a short video about himself and his passion for running to the Team TCS Teachers contest, which pays entry fees for 50 teachers chosen from around the country.
After being selected, Imamura expressed his desire to partner with someone else with ALS who otherwise wouldn’t have the experience of a marathon, just as he had with Beckette.
A representative of title sponsor TCS (Tata Consultancy Services) reached out to Steve Becvar, the national ALS Association’s vice president of sports and entertainment.
Becvar headed the Greater San Diego chapter of the ALS group for eight years and still lives here. He decided to contact Bluhm.
He spoke to Bluhm’s wife, Elizabeth, who had run in the NYC Marathon in 1987.
“I chatted with Steve and it took him a tenth of a second to say yes,” Elizabeth said. “I know what an absolute thrill it is. Such an event is like a 26-mile party. The crowds are so into it ... plus, you see all of New York City.”
Imamura was introduced to Bluhm on Aug. 8. The two met for training, first in Torrance, then in San Diego, and subsequently trained near San Onofre.
Their participation in the marathon wasn’t dedicated to raising money but rather to raising awareness of ALS and inspiring others with the disease to live their lives to the fullest, Becvar said. Still, donations in the name of Team ALS are expected to exceed the $350,000 raised at last year’s NYC Marathon, he said.
ALS is a complicated and unpredictable disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. When diagnosed, the average person is given three to five years to live, Becvar said.
“Sometimes we work a little like Make-A-Wish because we want to provide opportunities to people to live life,” he said. He estimated that 225 to 230 people currently have ALS in the San Diego County/Imperial County region.
Elizabeth Bluhm said people with ALS “try to live in the moment and do the things you enjoy. Looking ahead to something is a rare treat.”
In every picture she saw of her husband along the marathon route, he was grinning from ear to ear.
“It was a complete emotional highlight. It was like nothing I’ve ever really felt before. The support from all the crowds throughout the race was indescribable.”
— Steve Bluhm
Steve Bluhm said he was impressed by the number of people who went up to him in the starting area to share that their lives had been touched by ALS, that they have friends or relatives with the disease and are dedicated to helping the cause and creating awareness.
Will “Bobby and Steve” race in another marathon? The will is there, but whether Bluhm’s health permits it remains to be seen.
“It’s a great gift to give someone,” Imamura said.
The energy and warmth and support of the crowd — a giant cheerleading gallery — make for a positive force. “Fifty percent of the runners who passed gave a thumbs up or a high-five or were cheering on Steve,” Imamura said.
Bluhm said he’s grateful to his family members, caregivers, ALS Association supporters and everyone who made the marathon experience possible.
“This gave me a wonderful feeling of being part of raising awareness and helping the cause,” he said. “It has to come more from the heart and soul, because the body isn’t working.”
He’s especially grateful to Imamura for fighting through all the pain of pushing a broken wheelchair for 18 miles.
— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.