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Blind man races for charity

Giovanni Francese is cafeterimanager The Chicago Lighthouse 1850 W. Roosevelt Rd.  He is blind is running Chicago Marathon. He

Giovanni Francese is cafeteria manager at The Chicago Lighthouse, 1850 W. Roosevelt Rd. He is blind and is running in the Chicago Marathon. He worked in the kitchen with Maria Saens. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 7, 2012 6:06AM

When Giovanni Francese heard the cars on the street, he knew he was nearing the water fountain.

When he felt the left turn as he trained repeatedly along the same path for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, he knew there’d soon be a slight incline just before he went downhill.

Francese, who has been blind since his youth, let his body get used to the movement as he prepared to run his first marathon with guides like Irem Mertol. Francese and Mertol will be among the thousands of runners traveling 26.2 miles through Chicago on Sunday, and the pair will hold on to a piece of rope as Mertol leads Francese through the city.

“She holds one end,” Francese said. “I hold the other.”

The 36-year-old Francese manages the cafeteria at The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. He said people there encouraged him to run the race with them, and he finally agreed to do so to raise money for the organization. But while training usually begins in the spring, he said he decided to get started right after he signed up in February. That’s because he wasn’t exactly in race shape.

“I couldn’t do one mile,” Francese said.

He began on the treadmill but eventually found guides through the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association to help him run outdoors. That’s how he met Mertol, the head of the local chapter of Achilles International. The pair has been training in Lincoln Park — though Francese also trained with other guides in a park near his house and on a bike path. And that’s where they’ve been getting to know each other.

“There’s a comfort level you’ve got to develop between each other,” Francese said, so he’ll know his guide “isn’t going to run me into a wall or into a pole or anything.”

That’s exactly the kind of relationship they created. Francese said Mertol would help him know when to get out of the way of other runners or kids who dart onto the path. Or even a flock of about 60 ducks.

“The courage he has to just trust somebody to that extent is pretty amazing,” Mertol said.

But that doesn’t mean Mertol has been able to save him from every little dip or divot along the way.

“It’s the hardest thing,” Mertol said. “I’ll do my best to go around them.”

So far Francese said his longest run has been 16 miles. If he’d run the full 20 or 22 miles expected at the peak of marathon training, he said, he “might as well finish it off” and run the full 26.2.

But last weekend he said he ran a 13-miler and “everything felt good.”

“I could have done the whole marathon that day,” Francese said.

Mertol said she has no doubt Francese will finish the race. But she said she’ll miss their runs together when they’re over.

“If he’s ever interested in running another one,” Mertol said. “I’ve told him, I’m happy to do it again.”

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