“Just move your legs. Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history; you’re denying who you are.” (Dr. Dennis Bramble)
Growing up, I’d always considered running a punishment or just a way to train for other activities. I never thought I’d consider myself a runner and a distance runner at that—nevertheless wind up enjoying the sport.
As kids, my dad would make my sisters and I run laps around the house if we misbehaved. In PE at school, our punishment for acting up was always running laps. At wrestling practice running was part of conditioning but it was also used as punishment. Didn’t give your best effort in a match, start running and don’t stop until coach said so. Sometimes that could last all practice. There was one form of running that I did semi-enjoy though and that was treadmill running.
Growing up totally blind I used a long white cane to feel the ground in front of me so I wouldn’t trip over obstacles. Running with my cane usually resulted in it getting bent and breaking. So when I did run I usually held onto a friend’s elbow or wrist and we’d run together. I didn’t like relying on someone else though so I hated running even more. Running on the treadmill was different. In eighth grade I began training to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. Part of my training was doing cardio on either the treadmill or elliptical. I wasn’t a graceful treadmill runner. I landed on my heels and made quite a bit of racket. I’m sure others around me in the gym didn’t appreciate the noise I was making. Over time though I began to enjoy the 45 minutes to an hour that I spent on the treadmill. I could just plug my headphones in and listen to music. I worked on developing a lighter foot strike so that my running would be quieter and I’d draw less attention to myself.
When I got to college I continued my treadmill running as my primary method of training for wrestling. I got to a point where I ran a 5 minute and 37 second mile on the treadmill during my sophomore year of college. After that though I got more into indoor cycling and stopped running for several years. Treadmill running and my 5 minute 37 second treadmill mile might have been the end of my running career if I hadn’t struggled finding employment after college and taken to reading and found out about the “born to run” phenomenon.
Born to Run
In May 2013, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication. I immediately began job hunting, sending my resume everywhere I could think of. I applied to jobs dealing with communication, social media, public relations, writing, etc. Sometimes I got interviews, sometimes I didn’t. There were a couple of times that I came out of an interview feeling confident that I’d at least get a second interview but days would go by and I’d hear nothing. I had one memorable interview where I walked in with my guide dog and the receptionist rudely asked, “What are you doing here?” When I explained that I had an interview the receptionist excused herself and went to talk to the person I was supposed to meet. Then she came back out and said the hiring manager had suddenly been called away to an emergency meeting and that I’d be called to reschedule. This wound up happening several times and as the months passed I became more and more depressed and desperate to find any job. The low point came when I applied to be a bagboy at a local grocery store and was turned down.
At this point I’d put on 25 plus pounds from when I’d graduated. My fiancee at the time was becoming increasingly frustrated with me. She’d come home and find me asleep on the couch with my laptop sitting on my lap, on the floor or on the arm of the couch. She insisted that I should just go back to school and become a college professor. I did not want to. I was determined to figure something out, I just wasn’t sure what that something would be.
It had been nearly a year since I graduated, and I had no job, my bank account was nearly empty and I was losing hope. When I’d gone through tough times before I’d forgotten my troubles by reading books. So I started reading some books. And then I came across “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
“Born to Run” is a book about a tribe of natives in the Copper Canyons of Mexico who are considered some of the best distance runners on the planet. McDougall traveled with several top American ultrarunners to the Copper Canyons where they competed in a 50 mile race. The book also discussed the sport of ultrarunning and for some reason it captivated me. I began thinking about the trails and mountains I used to hike as a kid growing up. When hiking in Peru one of our climbing mentors kept telling me to “gear down, we ain’t racing!” I did slow down, but reluctantly. Reading about trail running made me yearn to get back out and move fast over hundreds of miles of trails. I knew though, that before I could run mountainous trails I had to be able to run…period. In order to do that, I needed to find a running partner.
In 2008 I was still relatively new to using the internet with my JAWS for Windows screenreading software. I was in charge of finding sponsorship deals for the climbing team I’d founded with my buddies Brad Jaffke and Justin Grant. My rudimentary googling skills brought me to the C-Different Organization. They were primarily focused on getting people into endurance sports like running and triathlon. The founders were Aaron Scheidies and Matt Miller who I’ve become closer with in the years since. I wasn’t interested in getting into running or triathlon at that point, but I was interested in their fundraising platform that would allow Team Sight Unseen to receive tax-deductible donations without becoming a nonprofit ourselves yet. In order to utilize that fundraising platform though I had to create a profile. The website also matched people who were blind or visually impaired with sighted guides for activities such as swimming, cycling and running. I created the profile and it remained pretty dormant for several years. Until that day I finished Born to Run and decided I needed to get my ass out the door and start running.
I logged on to the C-Different website, updated my profile and typed in my zipcode to see who was in the Orlando area. Two profiles popped up and I emailed both individuals and waited to hear back. One of those guys responded and it’s a good thing he did too because I’m pretty sure the C-Different website went defunct not long after that.
The guy that emailed me was named Mike Melton. He was an ER doctor and triathlete but was willing to do some running with me when he wasn’t doing his own training or during his easy days. After a quick chat on the phone where we deduced that this was going to be a total shit show with no rule or playbook we arranged a time to meet and give running a try.
I’d bought some parachute cord and tied it into a rope. I figured we could each hold onto one end and that’d get the job done as some kind of tether.
I met Mike at a running path that circled a lake in downtown Orlando which was pretty close to his house. We began jogging, I held one end of our makeshift rope tether and Mike held the other. Mike had never been around a blind person before and was nervous. I was nervous too but tried not to show it.
About half a mile into our run we came to our first obstacle. We had to navigate between two poles that were placed on the path to prevent cars from driving on it. Mike notified me of said poles and I stepped sort of behind him. Unfortunately I didn’t step far enough behind him and crashed into one of the poles. I had a massive charlie horse in one leg and thought I still had both testicles but wouldn’t be able to confirm that until I got home nearly two hours later. Mike felt terrible having run me into the pole but I did my best to shake it off and we continued running. In all we ran about five miles that day and despite our one mishap with the pole we decided to run together again that upcoming weekend.
That weekend came and Mike drove to where I was living with my fiancee. We ran from the house out about five miles and then back for a 10 mile day in just under two hours. Not bad for my second run. And this time we didn’t crash into any poles, and only stumbled over a few curbs.
I mentioned earlier that Mike was a triathlete. He was actually in midst of training for the Hawaii Ironman. He kept calling it “Kona” and I pretended to know what he was talking about. Over the next several months Mike and I got together to run a few times a week. I eventually landed a job downtown and Mike and I would run after I got off work. Then we’d occasionally meet up on the weekends at either one of our houses to do an 8-10 miler. Mike took me to get fitted for running shoes. We constantly reevaluated our tether system experimenting with all kinds of materials and systems to find the best tether that worked for us so that Mike could effectively guide and we could both have something resembling running technique. And all the while our friendship continued to grow and our individual personal/love lives began falling apart.
Eventually, Mike decided I was ready for my first race. He picked out the Miracle Miles 15k—a 9.3 mile road run that wound through downtown Orlando and raised money for the NICU at Whinny Palmer Hospital. I was nervous and excited. I’d never been able to run more than a couple of miles at a time, it was chilly and drizzling, and I’d never run in crowds before. So understandably both Mike and I were apprehensive. All in all though we had an incredible race. I ran the entire 15k and Mike navigated me in and around the crowds fairly flawlessly. Early on in the race Mike kept politely calling out “blind runner” to try and get people to move but nobody was paying attention until a lady running right behind us helped us out by screaming at the top of her lungs “MOVE!” That parted the crowd and gave Mike and me a bit of a clearer path. We were lucky to be running a similar pace with this woman who was acting as a pacer for a group of her friends. She used her loud boisterous nature to clear a path for us a few more times. We finished the race having averaged 9 minutes and 38 seconds per mile. Not fast by any means, but it was my strongest fastest run up to that point.
Later that week Mike signed me up for something that truly seemed inconceivable, but something that sounded too tempting not to try… My first marathon. Except there was a little bit of a “goofy” catch/twist.
… To be continuedJ