MADAWASKA, Maine — Dennis Lavoie of Madawaska was 10 years old the first time he heard the sound of birds chirping, and can only see an area about the size of a baseball.
Yet at 58, Lavoie registered a fast enough race time at the Chicago Marathon — 3:43:07 — that he qualified on Oct. 10 to compete in the 2023 Boston Marathon as a non-disabled runner.
Born with an inherited condition called Usher syndrome that affects hearing and vision, Lavoie has overcome many challenges since childhood. But he has set goals along the way, and it was a quest to lose weight that set him on his marathon journey.
“I’ve always been a goal oriented guy. Whether it came to sports or work or education I always picked a goal and tried to achieve it,” Lavoie said.
In early 2020 he started taking long walks with his mixed terrier, Cali. The walks became longer, and soon he was running five and then 10 miles each day in his Madawaska neighborhood.
As his pace increased, Lavoie determined to run in the Chicago Marathon. He logged 2,000 miles and went through four pairs of sneakers while training for the event.
His children, Isabelle, 18, and Geoffrey, 16, accompanied Lavoie to Chicago, where the family spent a four-day weekend and experienced city life.
Although a guide runner accompanied him, Lavoie experienced a few minor challenges along the course, including bumping into about a dozen other athletes, he said.
He also fell to the ground and scraped his elbows when another runner crossed in front of him to get to a water station, but Lavoie quickly got up and kept running.
“Running is a beautiful journey in life,” he said.
Lavoie’s Usher syndrome Type II is an inherited autosomal recessive disorder, which means both parents passed it on to him genetically. With 4 degrees of peripheral vision in each eye, his visual field is limited to 3 inches in diameter, or about the size of a baseball.
He learned to read lips at a young age, but still struggled in school.
“I repeated first grade; the teacher had no idea I was deaf,” he said.
Second and third grades didn’t go much better. He was bullied, but said he got used to that.
Lavoie’s parents, the late Louis and Rita Lavoie, brought him to Bangor for an aptitude assessment with a psychologist. The youngster tested above average and soon his hearing loss was discovered. His parents purchased an amplifier hearing aid.
“My grades shot up,” Lavoie said.
The hearing aid also allowed him to experience simple joys in life, like the sounds of nature. One day Lavoie heard a beeping sound coming through an open window at his family home and asked his mother what it was.
“She said, ‘Those are birds chirping’. I was like, ‘Wow,’” Lavoie said.
Lavoie went on to attend the University of Maine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986. He worked as a project engineer at Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska before retiring in 2019, as his vision loss increased.
Even at home in northern Maine, Lavoie does still experience some social challenges.
At times he will bump into people and sometimes people will say “Hi” or wave at Lavoie without him noticing.
“I don’t see or hear them so sometimes they think I’m a snob,” he said.
Lavoie said his experience with Usher syndrome has kept him humble and given him respect for others who experience struggles. He understands what they deal with because of his own disability.
He offered encouragement for others living with disabilities.
“No matter what disability they have, they shouldn’t give up on their goals and objectives in life,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world. That’s why I ran in Chicago to qualify as a regular athlete and not as a disabled athlete and I did it.”