Sighted runners are tethered to the blind and are responsible for guiding them around obstacles such as discarded sweatshirts and turns, as well as water stops, and across the finish line in less than five hours — though 2 hours and 44 minutes was the record last year.

Coach Joshua Warren said blind runners come from across the nation, and on race day they feel no discrimination, stigma or pity. But it isn't just about what the race does for them.

"When I don't feel like running, when I come up with all kinds of excuses, I think of these folks who are faced with so many more obstacles before they even walk out the door," said Warren. "It makes me lace up a little faster."

At the elite level, however, it is all about the competition, said Joaquim Cruz, an Olympic gold medalist from Brazil who now coaches disabled sprinters for the U.S. Olympic Committee. His athletes represent their country in the Paralympics.

"They are athletes, period, and we make no adjustments for them" he said from the U.S. training center in California. The blind runners are the only ones afforded guides on the track. There are also athletes with diseases and amputations. They train by competing against able-bodied college athletes, who, Cruz said, don't feel sorry for them "after they get beat."

Cruz scours the country for the best of the best to recruit and train.

"They experience the same joys and disappointments of any athletes," he said. "You spend so much time and energy and make so many sacrifices to get to the podium. It's the summary of everything you did, the accumulation of all your dreams. …You wear the U.S. uniform, you hear the national anthem. That's what you compete for."

Back on the NCR, members of Athletes Serving Athletes will also soon fly a flag but not for their country. These are emblazoned with their names and affixed to their chairs during races so the crowds can cheer for them.

Erik Peterson of Hanover, on his first training run as a wingman this day, said everyone should know what it's like to have their name shouted by strangers.

"Even for an able-bodied adult, hearing the cheering and the cow bells ringing from the sidelines," said Peterson, searching for words, "It's such a special feeling."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com