COLUMBIA — Todd Cowan looked like all the other competitors at the duathlon of the Show-Me State Games. He was wearing an athletic shirt and shorts, a sticker that bore his registration number was on his stomach, and his age, 51, was written on his leg. But unlike other competitors, Cowan was competing legally blind.
Cowan, originally from Ames, Iowa, was diagnosed with optic neuropathy in 1988 while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany.
"The nerve endings in your eyes basically go dead," Cowan said. "It's kind of like if you're looking out your glasses and you have water spots all over them."
The disease caused him to go legally blind in both eyes, and he was medically retired from the service after diagnosis.
After he left the service, Cowan's impaired vision made it difficult for him to find jobs.
"I got told a million different reasons why (employers) couldn't hire me," Cowan said.
Cowan was out of work for about six months before landing a position at a commercial burglary and fire alarm company in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he worked for 11 years.
Years later, after settling into a position as an accountant for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Columbia in 2004, Cowan realized he had another health problem — he was overweight.
"About five years ago I was up to about 265 pounds," Cowan said. "I promised my doctor I would do something."
Cowan joined the Couch to 5K program to get back into shape. Within eight weeks, he was running 30 consecutive minutes without having to stop.
Cowan did his first 5K in 2009 and continued to stay fit by biking eight miles from his home to work in the morning and eight miles back in the evening.
"It was a way to stay in shape and keep my independence," Cowan said. "I didn't have to rely on a ride to get to work anymore."
In the 2011 Show-Me State Games, Cowan began competing in duathlons, which consist of a 15-mile bike ride and 3-mile run.
Sunday marked the third time Cowan competed as a duathloner. He set a personal record for the Show-Me State Games, finishing in one hour and 27 minutes, about five minutes better than his previous best time.
Cowan would have finished faster had he not gotten lost during the biking portion of the race.
"They had some cars stopped on the turn," Cowan said. "I wasn't sure where to go. The transitions are the hardest part for me."
But Cowan maintained a sense of humor about it.
"People are like, 'Where are you going? What are you blind or something?'" Cowan joked.
"It's like ... well yeah, I am."
Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.