Monday, July 6, 2009

Opening My Eyes

We all, at some point in our lives, take some things for granted. I know I have and I'm sure you have too. I guess that falls under the category of "Human Nature".

As a runner I don't think twice about the route I choose to run. Oh, maybe I want to avoid a hill or a crowded street, but that's about it. I picture in my mind where I will be going because I've done it hundreds of times. When I plan the route I "see" where I am going. I run the course in my mind. I take that for granted.

On July 4th, the annual "Watermelon 5K" road race was held here. It is a semi-competitive run, but is organized for fun and to celebrate the holiday. The race attracts over 3,000 participants crowding into the residential streets of Winter Park, FL. Awaiting all finishers are slices of cold watermelon. As you read this, you hopefully can picture that slice of watermelon and maybe even taste the sweet flavor. As the saying goes, "been there, done that."

Here's where I change gears. What if you couldn't see the route you were running? What if you didn't know what a watermelon looked like. What if you couldn't see the red, white and blue so brightly displayed on the runners?

This year the "Watermelon 5K" welcomed over 40 runners and walkers who are in Orlando for the annual convention of the "American Council of the Blind". Can you imagine participating in a road race without the benefit of your sight?

Track Shack and Event Marketing and Management, coordinated the event and recruited volunteers to be "guides" for the blind participants. Our training group, MarathonFest, supplied many of the "guides".

I was matched up with Doug, a self-described "fast runner" from Virginia. I like most of the "guides" had never volunteered for such a role. Hundreds of questions were in our minds about how we would accomplish our task. The most prominent question was one of safety. How would we describe the course, turns, uneven footing, manhole covers, etc. All those things that we see and move around without much concern.

As we were awaiting the arrival of the bus bringing the ACB participants, I was told that Doug was currently in training for "Ironman Wisconsin". What had I gotten myself into! The already present pressure just went up several notches. I've been training for a "sprint" triathlon later this month and have "whined" about all the training. I guess I was feeling sorry for myself.

I watched as the participants stepped from the bus. I had no idea what Doug looked like, not even his age. All I had was his bib number #140. There he was, looking like a runner ready to get to the starting line. He wore a bright orange tech shirt that had the words "Blind - Visually Impaired Runner" printed on it. I walked over and introduced myself to him. It was not unlike any other race where you meet another runner. We talked about our strategy, our goal, our running experiences, etc. Doug had brought a "tether" with him. It is commonly used to keep the runner and guide together. On our way to the start we made the usual stop at the "Porta Potty" and grabbed a few cups of water. The morning was already heating up and the humidity was high.

At 7:30am, the horn sounded and we were off and running. The course is somewhat narrow so we were caught up in the pack. It was difficult negotiating the turns and participants who should have started back in the pack. We must have passed 100 people in the first half-mile. By mile one, the road widened and we were able to maintain a more normal stride. I was now becoming more relaxed with my "play by play" of the race. Friends pulled alongside and gave Doug and I encouragement. Mile two brought us a water stop, we had skipped the first due to the crowd. Two cups of water and we were on our way. The course finishes with a long straightaway to the entrance to Mead Gardens and the finish line. By now the road was clearing and we were able to increase our pace. We slowed at the turn into the park. I told Doug we were about 200 yards from the finish. The crowds were large inside the park and the cheers were appreciated. We crossed the finish line in 29:40. Both Doug and I had accomplished our goal! Now it was time for a bottle of water and a slice of that cold watermelon.

Like any runners Doug was a bit disappointed with his finish time. He had hoped to finish a bit sooner, but realized the crowd and the Florida heat and humidity had taken its toll. I was reminded of the John "The Penguin" Bingham quote, "your spirit doesn't know how to tell time".

Doug learned that he had finished in 1st place for the ACB runners. Every runner enjoys the reward of a great effort. He received a beautiful trophy for his achievement.

What did I receive? Something that filled my heart and mind with the knowledge that you can do whatever you set out to do despite a handicap. The realization just how fortunate I am to be healthy, to be able to see and enjoy what is in front of me. My already open eyes were just opened a whole lot more by this experience.

Congratulations to all of the ACB runners and walkers who participated in the race. I never heard a complaint, all I heard was the sound of laughter and people expressing their joy in what they had achieved.

We made the walk back to where the bus was parked. Everyone knew just how much this experience had touched us all. In a very short span of time our lives were changed forever.

Thank you Doug for helping me to "see".


ShirleyPerly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ShirleyPerly said...


I have seen a couple blind triathletes and their guides out there on half iron courses with me and heard that some do full irons too, many with the C Different Foundation. Truly amazing athletes, they are and their guides too!

Thank you for sharing your experience.

MarathonChris said...

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it.

It is amazing what we can do no matter how we are different.

Maddy said...

How Cool!

What an amazing way to spend an early Independence Day morning.

Thanks for sharing!

CewTwo said...

Jim, I loved it. I think that I would have not have done it. I am inspired that you did do it! Thanks for sharing a really great story AND a great race report!

Nigel said...

Awesome post Jim. Definitely a great experience and your account really summed it up!

Jen said...

Great post!

I am on Doug's triathlon team (Team Z in NoVA - and was luckily enough to lead him on the swim of his first 1/2 Ironman race. It was one of my favorite triathlon experiences ever (I've done 2 IM and plenty of interesting races). Doug's enthusiasm and postive attitude for life is truly inspiring.

Doug's own words to his team, in response to your blog post: "if we can somehow create a critical mass of humans like you and him, we, as a species, can accomplish anything with no one and nothing left out!!!"