Francisco Juarez will travel outside of his native Mexico for the first time this weekend. The trip to compete in Monday’s Boston Marathon fulfills a destiny that seemed impossible just a short time ago.
It’s also part of an eternal healing process for Juarez, who was left blind from a stray bullet that struck him below the left eye 28 years ago. So when the topic of running one of the world’s premier races comes up, the emotion in his voice is understandable — knowing that despite the loss of his eyesight, things could’ve ended up much worse.
“The irony is, I would always take such care of my eyes when I ran,” Juarez, 53, told ESPN. “At the park near my home, there was a clearing with some low, hanging branches, and I’d cover my face every time. After the incident, there was a time I thought I’d never run again.”
Juarez, a former Mexico City police officer, will be participating in Boston with the help of Achilles International, an organization dedicated to providing support for differently abled athletes. Through its 66 chapters in 18 countries, Achilles provides runners such as Juarez with the tools to secure inclusion in some of the world’s biggest races.
“We can’t wait to cheer Francisco on for his first Boston Marathon and we honor him for his service in his community. We’re so proud of him and his Achilles Mexico teammates who have been training hard,” said Emily Glasser, president and CEO of Achilles International, through a statement.
Achilles assigned Juarez, who secured his spot in Boston at last year’s Mexico City Marathon, to specific guide runners whom he would later befriend. The guides must be able to run at the same pace while providing audio cues to visually impaired runners.
“When I run with a good guide, I don’t feel impaired. It is a feeling of freedom,” Juarez said.
Juarez was already an avid runner before he was struck coming off a bus after his police shift on Feb. 22, 1995. He stepped off two blocks from home and was immediately hit, leaving him blind shortly after. Doctors told Juarez that being in good physical shape helped him survive the ordeal.
Neighbors drove him to a nearby hospital as night fell. Though a cloth covered his face, he remembers seeing the faint glow of street lights on the way. It would be the last time he ever saw anything.
The bullet — which remains lodged — shattered his left eyeball and gravely damaged the optic nerve on his right side. A feeling of depression began to set in.
“I was in denial. I would go to bed and say, ‘This is just temporary, it’ll be all right tomorrow’ and wake up with things still the same,” Juarez said. “I had very dark thoughts back then; I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
As he lay in his hospital bed just a few days after being shot, Juarez cursed his fate. Doctors had confirmed that his blindness would not be temporary, and he felt his life and his future slipping away.
“That’s when I found out,” Juarez said. “I was supposed to go out the following Saturday on patrol with my partner. Obviously, I wasn’t able to show up.”
That Saturday, Juarez’s partner and two other policemen were assaulted while working their beats. The officers were stripped of their weapons and slain with them. Both the killings and the incident that took Juarez’s sight remain unsolved.
His life forever altered, Juarez nevertheless slowly recaptured a sense of self. He got married and returned for a time to the police department, mainly sitting behind a desk. He thought about what the doctors told him: An athletic lifestyle had saved his life once; perhaps it could do so again.
Juarez turned to his old pasttime — running — as his path to healing. In 1998, he learned about the Mexican Paralympic Committee and discovered he could train and participate in local races with the assistance of a guide runner. Soon after, he completed his first Mexico City Marathon.
Fueled by competitive drive (his nickname “El Toro” is Spanish for “The Bull”), Juarez’s times improved with each marathon. He became fixated on the idea of competing in the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual race of its kind. His times were eventually good enough to compete, but the financial burden proved too much, given he lived off his police pension.
Unable to secure funding to travel from the Mexican government, Juarez looked elsewhere.
“I came to Achilles International in 2018, and the experience has reinvigorated me,” Juarez said. “I’ve felt supported from Day 1.”
A strong sense of trust and familiarity between runner and guide is key in order to achieve maximum returns. Before joining Achilles, Juarez would run with multiple guides, some of whom could not keep up with his strong pace. On more than a few occasions, no one would show up to run with him, derailing training sessions or even entire races.
Enter Achilles, which has helped 150,000 athletes compete at home or abroad for 40 years.
“To be differently abled is just an expression of the diversity within the human race,” said Teresita Robledo, who works with Achilles in Mexico as a coordinator, linking runners with guides. “And we are very aware of what it means to people like [Francisco] to feel supported in their goals.”
Juarez has grown so close to Brianda Rascon, his Achilles guide runner, that he jokes about building a guesthouse for her to facilitate more training sessions. It was that strong bond that allowed Rascon to motivate him back to pre-pandemic form.
“We’re very competitive,” Rascon said. “Sometimes we’ll forget about the race and just compete with each other on the track.”
With Achilles’ backing, Juarez felt well on his way to fulfilling his Boston dream. However, COVID-19 put a halt to his pursuit. The 2020 Boston Marathon was canceled because of the pandemic, the first time the race was not held since 1897. Ridden with anxiety and unable to train outside with a guide because of social distancing guidelines, Juarez felt his dream once again slip away.
As most of the world began to reopen later that summer, Juarez carefully assembled with a small group of runners in Mexico City’s lush Chapultepec Forest to resume outdoor training. Juarez, who had completed 16 marathons to that point, realized he could not muster a half-mile without needing to stop. It was yet another hurdle determined to end his quest prematurely.
“With athletes, training your body isn’t usually the hard part. Training your mind is the true challenge,” Rascon said. “When we went back to train, Francisco was having these really bad headaches, so we sent him to a doctor. It was stress, all because he was pressuring himself to be ready for Boston.”
Juarez’s belief in destiny remained unwavered, however, forged by the events that happened in the aftermath of the shooting.
“Destiny,” Juarez said, reiterating his point. “If I don’t lose my sight that day, I lose my life.”
He points to a trophy case behind him and simultaneously runs his hand across his chest, over his neon yellow Achilles T-shirt.
“I’m going to Boston, my dream is finally coming true,” he said, his voice breaking.
“It is destiny.”