Point Park volleyball coach to run marathon blindfolded again

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Mike Bruno is back and blindfolded, again, to run the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon May 4, raising awareness and funding for Autism Speaks. His daughter, Cassie, 8, is blind and lives with autism.

Bruno, Point Park’s volleyball coach, ran the marathon blindfolded last year tethered to guide Jim Irvin, the school’s cross-country coach, and they clocked a 3:47:59.

“Jim was absolutely amazing,” Bruno said. “He essentially ran a marathon for two of us. He dodged obstacles — manhole covers, bumps, potholes, other runners.”

It’s a personal crusade for Irvin, too. His nephew Matthew, 16, also is autistic. Bruno and Irvin announced at an Autism Speaks benefit in November that they would run the marathon again in 2014.

Bruno said the outpouring the campaign received last year was “amazing.” He recalled two instances during the marathon of experiencing “sensory overload,” a common disturbance for children with autism.

The route in Shadyside called for a right-hand turn directly toward a blaring speaker and hollering crowd, he remembered. He equated the feeling to being in a dark haunted house.

“You want to go away from the noise, but we couldn’t,” Bruno said. “We had to turn right toward it. It was intimidating.”

In the final mile, the tandem turned onto Smithfield Street Downtown.

“It felt like I was running on a goat path,” Bruno said. “It was so loud, it felt like people on both sides of the street were in each one of my ears.”

His wife, Jennifer, said the family received supportive emails and letters from across the country last year as news of the blindfolded marathoner’s cause spread.

“As a mom of a child with autism, you kind of go through a grieving period,” she said. “[The messages] said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re such an inspiration. You’re amazing parents and an amazing family.’ It helped me get out of my funk, for lack of a better word.”

As Bruno and Irvin prepare for their second running, Cassie is lacing up her sneakers, too. Dad plans to be his daughter’s guide for the mile-long Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon May 3.

“It switches from an individual sport to being team-oriented,” Bruno said of running with a partner. “You have to work together and communicate.”

He shared that experience with his volleyball team during an early-morning practice in September.

“I’ve never been that connected to a group of young athletes when I was talking,” Bruno said. “They were just so engaged.”

The Bruno family will have a fundraising event, “Light it Up Blue for the Long Run,” at On Deck in Canonsburg from 5 p.m. until closing time Thursday.

The event will feature autographed Penguins items, plenty of apparel and family-friendly activities, as well as an appearance from the Flying Sock Monkeys, a band comprised of local youths who are autistic. Proceeds will go to Autism Speaks.

“I honestly believe there’s something out there somewhere, that with enough research and funding we’re going to be able to discover some treatment or therapies that will work for all of the kids,” Jennifer Bruno said.

“There are certain things that work for some and not for others, but we continue to raise awareness and acceptance — that’s my biggest focus.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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