“What IS that? Is that BBQ? at 8:30 in the morning? Really? I LOVE this city! Yay for Boston!” I shouted as we trotted up the next incline. While I couldn’t see the beautiful city before me, the sound of 10,000 fellow runners crowded into one narrow street, the gentle, ‘thump, thump, thump’ of their perfectly padded peds acted like my own metronome in my head. I counted my steps aloud, “Sixty two, sixty-four, Sixty-eight” I was near the perfect cadence of 90 steps per minute, working hard on my ‘turnover’ as running specialists lovingly refer to our footfalls.
Christina Aguilera belted out the song ‘Burlesque’ into my singular earbud, signaling to me that I should be approaching the final mile of our race. Marc, my sighted running guide begged the question, “are you ready for some speed?” “Heck yeah!” I immediately replied. “But how?” Is there room to run?” As if in an ironic reply, my ankle suddenly rolled sharply right into a deep pothole. “DAMMIT!” I shouted. “Sorry Amy, I’m so sorry- it came up so fast, I didn’t have time to warn you.” I felt the blood rushing to my foot, the tissues increasing in warmth and discomfort. “Don’t worry, it happens. And hey, I’m almost done, and I’m still vertical. That’s a major win in this crowd” I laughed. I decided to ‘walk it off’, actually ‘run it off’ and pushed on with my race. I wasn’t going to let a silly ankle get in the way of a great race day.
You see, I was blindfolded for the Boston Athletic Association 5K in a sub-set of the race known as the Blindfold Challenge. Of the 10,000 runners in the race, 300 of us had chosen to wear blindfolds and run with a guide to raise money for the National Braille Press, a non-profit that helps young blind students and adults achieve braille literacy. While I have 1% remaining of my vision, I do rely on it quite heavily, and do really well with the little I have. This challenge was exactly that- a challenge. For the first mile, we were packed in like sardines, standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors, literally running in place. I realized quickly that this would not be much of a race, so much as a “don’t try to fall on your face and go for a nice, social jog with a new guide and volunteer.” According to my guide’s Garmin GPS watch, we moved at a snail’s pace for the first mile.
Mile two allowed us to stretch our legs a little more, but real running was not possible. I could hear the music and bass pumping from adjacent runner’s earbuds, and wondered how on earth they were going to hear Marc’s voice instructing them to move out of our way. His booming voice, “Blind Runner, move right” is a sound I will hear in my sleep for days. I knew that there were crowd barriers on either side of the street, and could hear spectators banging their fists against the metal, creating an energizing, and pulse-pounding buzz. “Go blind Runner!” people would scream as we trotted by. “Yay Achilles!” I would hear as they read my brightly colored fluorescent yellow shirt. “You’re almost there” was a cheer I really couldn’t stand. Never say that. It’s a farce, number one, and number two, it never makes you feel better, because you know you’re really not. I may be blind, but mathematically challenged, I am not.
Marc’s instructions were clear and concise. “In 50 feet, we’re headed up a slight incline, then turning a hard left. It’s going to be a tight squeeze, so drop behind me a little.” We had literally met that morning, and had been teamed up by ‘Team with a Vision’ chairperson and event organizer extraordinaire, Mr. Josh Warren. Josh had matched Marc and I up based on my pace and we had spoken on the phone about my guiding preferences and what I could and could not see. We were tethered at the wrist by a stretchy piece of shoelace, and he was doing great. I was nervous for the first mile and he did a great job of keeping me safe, and keeping the crowd at bay. Just after our final turn on the course, before a long straightaway, some guy jumped directly in front of me, causing me to land on the back of his heel hard. “Crap!” I shouted as I started to fall forward, stretching my arms outward to brace for impact. Instead of hitting the pavement, I hit the the guy’s shoulder blades square on, and shoved him- hard. Not only did it stop my fall and push me back upright, it was extremely satisfying. The guy, according to my guide Marc, apparently turned around to yell at me, and saw his mistake when he read my bib that clearly stated, “Blind Runner”. Apparently he apologized to Marc for cutting me off, then trotted off in shame.
The sun was warm and bright as we crossed the finish line triumphantly, sprinting the final 100 yards, and high-fiving as our feet hit the sensors. I was thrilled to be racing in Boston, although this wasn’t at all the race I wished I was doing. “Next year” I said aloud to Marc, referring to the Marathon I so desperately wanted to be a part of. With that, we set off to locate my guide Dog Elvis, being thoughtfully looked after by another blind athlete not running today.
I had traveled from my home in CT thanks to a kind friend who was driving up to Boston and running in her first marathon. My hosts were two of my favorite friends from my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Family. Randy and Tracy Pierce were an exceptional couple who tackled the 48 tallest peaks in New Hampshire in both summer and winter in the same calendar year. And oh yeah, by the way, Randy’s blind. We were all running the Boston Athletic Association’s OTHER race, the 5K followed by several functions hosted by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s ‘Team with a Vision’. This was one of their biggest fundraisers, and we were excited to be a part of the festivities. We attended a brunch where I was interviewed by a radio show, then listened to a fantastic young blind marathoner who ALSO happened to be getting her law degree from Harvard in two weeks. The room was filled with visually impaired overachievers. It was like being in a fun house, where every direction you turned, someone or something incredible was right next to you. I didn’t know who to talk to first, or which guide dog to kiss. My friend Aaron, the current reigning National Champion and former World Champion blind triathlete was there selling his ‘C Different with Aaron’ Tee shirts to raise more money for MAB. It was just awesome.
The marathon expo in the convention center proved more challenging than I was prepared for as a blind person. Hundreds of thousands of folks all wanted race swag, and were determined to get into the hundreds of booths selling goods, regardless of the fact that my guide dog was in their way. We were all exhausted. The highlight of our weekend followed the mental overload of the expo however. The MAB dinner brought together more than 60 Visually Impaired athletes from all over the country. The people I had been friends with via Facebook and phone and text and email, but had never physically met.
There were national champions, cancer survivors, Iron men and women, folks with hearing and vision loss, and those who had endured terrible accidents by careless drivers while out cycling on tandems. I got to meet my real life super heroes, and spent the night hugging, taking photos, crying, laughing and staring at the faces of these inspiring folks that had taught me all about my new sport via social media. Each had taken time out of their busy training schedules to teach and mentor me, offering sage wisdom regarding the sport of triathlon and how to go about training as a blind woman, when I had never in fact met a blind athlete.
My good Facebook friend David and I had made a wager back in December that whoever achieved running an 8 minute mile first had to buy the other runner some coveted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. After a big bear hug and some photos, David presented me with a giant box of the super sized Reese’s BIG CUPS, a worthy prize indeed. I gushed and got choked up that he had remembered some 5 months later. This was indeed my new family. I wanted to stay here for days, listening to their war stories of dozens of marathons, Ironman triathlons and riveting open water swims with giant waves, all completed without the aid of sight.
Their bravery made my heart swell, and that tiny flame of doubt I had about attempting such daunting distances immediately was snuffed out. No longer did I fear more surgeries, side stitches while running, dehydration, getting bumped into by overzealous sighted runners, and the occasional unexpected manhole cover. I had my own 60 person cheering section assuring I could accomplish anything I wanted to achieve in this sport. I CAN do it. And with Giant Reese’s Peanut Butter cups at the finish line, I was GOING to do it. So, if I’m going to run Boston next year, I guess I’d better go buy a cape! “Blind Runner, coming through!”