Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Favorite Mile

I turned and headed for the door as she lightly took hold of my elbow. Walking through the narrow hallway, I was careful to leave plenty of room at my side so that she wouldn’t accidentally rub up against the wall. Shortly thereafter, we hit a new challenge – the stairs. I hesitated, stated loudly that we were at the top of the stairs, and nervously began the descent to street level.

Once outside, I was confronted with a whole new sea of challenges that included uneven ground, train tracks in the middle of the downtown streets, curbs, car traffic, people walking towards us while distracted on their cell phones and an increased level of panic took ahold of me. Within minutes, I realized I had gotten us lost on our short half-mile walk to the track and had to stop at a corner while I consulted my phone.

What had I gotten myself into?


It all started 16 months ago when my brother and sister-in-law welcomed a beautiful baby girl into their lives. Ten fingers, ten toes, chubby little cheeks, peaches-and-cream complexion, rosy red lips and the most beautiful blue eyes you could ever imagine. She was perfect in every way. Except one.

could she be any cuter?!

Doctors had noticed something unusual on an early ultrasound and a few months after her birth, an MRI confirmed that something was wrong with her optic nerves. Almost a year ago exactly, they delivered the news that sweet baby K was blind. Although I wasn't surprised, hearing it was still devastating and I mourned for all that she would never get to do or experience.

Despite the fact that I have never been friends with, worked with or otherwise interacted with someone who was visually impaired (VI), I certainly had a lot of assumptions about the life they would lead.


Fast forward to this past November. I was sitting at my desk one morning reading a story about a woman who served as a guide runner during the NYC marathon for a visually impaired woman. The guide talked about how it was the most incredible and rewarding experience and she couldn't wait to do it again one day. After reading this story, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any organizations in Portland that matched up VI runners with guides for races or even just training runs. I posted questions on all forms of social media, contacted national organizations to inquire about local chapters and reached out to everyone I could think of in order to get started.

Eventually, I found someone who was part of a Facebook group dedicated to VI runners and their guides who was more than willing to assist me. Through him, I was put in contact with a woman in Portland, Jen, who is completely blind. She and I began emailing back and forth and, ultimately, she agreed to be my guinea pig and teach me how to be a running guide.

That explains how I found myself last week, lost on a street corner in downtown Portland, trying to find my way to a nearby track.

Last week, I ran 47 miles. Some were hard, some were easy, some were on a treadmill and some were on a trail. As every runner knows, all miles are not created equal. And of the 47 miles I ran last week, one of them stood out far and above the rest as one of my 

It was the one easy mile that Jen and I ran together on the track.

This woman is truly unbelievable. The day before we ran together, I emailed her to confirm we were still on for our run. She responded that despite a possible concussion she endured while competing in a goalball tournament in Finland from the previous week as well as some leftover soreness from a skiing accident she suffered a few days earlier, she still wanted to run. [Jen is on the US National Goalball team that competes in the Paralympic Games.]

When we were walking towards the track, she mentioned she hasn’t been running much since finishing Hood to Coast, mainly because in the winter she focuses on biathlons. You know, biathlons, where people ski and then shoot rifles?! Yeah, she does that, too. And if that all weren’t enough, she and her legally blind partner have a 2 year-old son.

Clearly, there isn't anything she can’t do.

Jen and I are planning to run again next week and I hope to find other VI runners who are looking for training partners as well.  Eventually, I’d like to talk someone into running a 5k or 10k race with me as their guide. And if all goes well, I would love to start a network of local VI runners and sighted runners who are willing to be their guides for occasional training runs and/or races.

But first, I have to overcome my fear of running with Jen on sidewalks, city streets and through the everyday obstacles that most of us don’t even notice. Last week, I was only comfortable with running on the track. This week, we’re going to try a path along the downtown waterfront. I can tell you one thing for sure – Jen won’t be the nervous one.


Meanwhile, my little niece is continuing to defy all the doctors’ dire predictions and is progressing just like any other toddler. She has shocked everyone (except her parents, who knew all along that she had vision) and proven that she isn’t blind. We won’t know the extent of her vision impairment until she is older but I now know, regardless of her diagnosis, there isn't anything she can’t do, either.


Lastly, all this talk about someone as courageous as Jen reminds me of another Jen who lived her life without fear. This month, in a few select cities throughout the country, Cycle for Survival is taking place. I can guarantee it is the most fun you will ever have at a fundraiser and I encourage you to see if there is one taking place at a city near you. I talked about Jen in a post last year and her belief that anything is possible if you live a life without fear.

Have you ever been a running guide to a VI runner? Do you think you would be interested in doing it one day? 

- Kristen