At the 20-mile mark of a 26.2-mile race, humidity and fatigue were taking their toll. Alex France wasn’t sure he was going to be able to finish.
“I tell all my friends who don’t run that you can’t even begin to imagine what the pain is like. It was excruciating,” Alex said. “I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to make it.”
It was another of the obstacles the Midland University senior has endured during his competitive running career. But as he has shown before, there’s no quit in Alex France.
Competing in the marathon in the NAIA National Championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama, France not only mustered up enough energy to finish the race but did so in All-American fashion. His eighth-place showing was the second-highest ever for a Midland runner in the marathon.
“We had a goal, and we accomplished it,” France said. “We trained so long for this day, and to have everything go our way, it was a great feeling. I just thank the Lord for giving us the ability to complete what we set out to do.”
The grueling event is a challenge for any runner, but France has added challenges. He has dealt with retinitis pigmentosa since high school. Retinitis pigmentosa is an eye disease that causes visual impairment and has rendered him legally blind. It creates severe tunnel vision, and the images he can see are blurry and grainy.
Through the help of his guide runner and friend, Tim Grundmayer, France’s running career hasn’t missed a step. He and Grundmayer began running together during France’s senior year at Millard North when he realized he could no longer compete without the aid of a guide runner. Grundmayer followed France to Midland and has helped him compete during both the cross country and track and field seasons over the past three years.
A two-foot tether between the two runners helps keep France on course. He’s also on track to leave Midland University as one of the most accomplished runners in the program’s history.
“I think what sometimes gets lost with everything around Alex is that he’s a really good runner,” Midland coach Daniel Gerber said. “I don’t think of him as a visually impaired person who happens to run. I think of him as a really good runner who is visually impaired. He’s incredibly talented, and I think most of the people who are around him recognize that talent.”
France got his first taste of the marathon his freshman year at Midland when he qualified for nationals and finished 23rd. He was prepared to return to nationals his sophomore season before COVID-19 forced the event’s cancellation. He entered his junior year focused on qualifying for nationals again, a goal he accomplished during the Midland half-marathon in December as he raced to a school-record time (1 hour, 11 minutes, and 42 seconds).
“Getting the school record got the ball rolling and made us realize we had a chance to do something special,” France said. “We had some really good training leading up to the marathon.”
Grundmayer and Midland University assistant coach Phillip Duncan worked as France’s guide runners throughout the spring, during both competitions and training sessions. Before nationals, France learned that both Duncan and Grundmayer would be allowed to serve as co-guide runners during the marathon, unlike his freshman year when Grundmayer ran the entire marathon with him. “I am so thankful we had Phillip and were able to use two guide runners,” France said. “My freshman year, both Tim and I were so tired by the end of the race we were working against each other. This year, Tim was able to match my stride, which was extremely helpful.”
“We wanted to be prepared if something were to happen to Tim,” Duncan said. “I had run a half marathon with Alex before and had done many training sessions as well. Our plan was for me to run the first part of the race with him and for Tim to run the last half. We knew over the last half was when Alex would be tired and needing more cues, and Tim would be there to get him through that.”
France and Duncan set a strong pace through the early part of the race, and as they neared the 13-mile mark, the team was feeling confident. But as the Alabama humidity began to set in, doubt began to creep into France’s mind. “We started at 6 a.m., so it was relatively cool and you’re feeling pretty good,” he said. “Then, at the 13-mile mark, when the sun was out and it was 90 percent humidity, I began contemplating my decision.”
“I could tell at that point he was beginning to slow down,” Grundmayer said. “That’s when he looked at me and said he needed to run smarter, not harder.”
It became a war of attrition at that point as many in the field of 29 runners who started the race began to drop. France started to work himself into All-American contention as the race wore on.
“My assistant coach (Joel Leindecker) and I were each on one side of the course, and we were communicating throughout the race,” Gerber said. “With a couple of miles left, I had a lot of nervous energy because I knew he was close to the top 8.”
France said he and Grundmayer weren’t exactly sure what place they were in as the race was winding down, but after they made a couple of passes and saw more runners drop, they knew it would be close. “I think the last time we actually heard someone say what place we were in was 10th,” France said. “But then we passed someone and someone else dropped, so when we finished, we thought we were 8th, but we just weren’t sure.”
The Midland coaching staff shared the good news a few minutes later that Alex had finished eighth and claimed the final All-American spot. “At that point, I was pretty gassed, so my only thought was “OK, cool,” he said.
“Over the next couple of days, when we went on our shakeout runs, we actually had the chance to talk about it, and that’s when we started to realize how special it was,” Grundmayer said.
While his sights are focused on defending his All-American status at the 2022 national meet, France has also started planning for other events, including the California International Marathon in Sacramento in December. Long-range plans include the Boston Marathon as well as competing in the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.
Off the track, France thrives as a student and will graduate next spring. He utilizes Apple VoiceOver, a screen reading function, as well as audiobooks to complete his assignments. A Youth and Family Ministry major, he was selected to the President’s List for the Fall 2020 semester, and after graduation, he is contemplating continuing his education at seminary.
If his career path leads him to serve in the ministry field, it will be just one more way for him to positively impact the lives of others, something his coaches and teammates have already noticed about him.
“I met Alex early on in his high school career and after getting to know him and his family, I knew he’d be a great fit at Midland,” Gerber said. “He’s a positive person and it’s so uplifting to see what his attitude has been with all the changes he’s gone through. He’s a great individual.”
“Alex never makes excuses,” Duncan said. “He’s always on time, he has a good attitude, and he’s uplifting for others. He’s proof that success can come if you put in the work and do all the right things.”
France is grateful for the support he has received in accomplishing so much both academically and athletically. While one race won’t define him as a person or an athlete, he’s proud of what he and his team were able to accomplish. “It’s a great achievement,” he said. “I’m so thankful for all the people I have around me who helped make this possible.”