Until this past year, I didn’t consider myself a runner. Before I played goalball, I didn’t consider myself an athlete, either. Growing up, I firmly believe it had little or nothing to do with my blindness, but my interests went in different directions (music and books and learning languages, mostly). But in the way of most schools everywhere, all students – including this bookish, creative blind student were made to do things they aren’t interested in, or even want to do… something I whined about at the time, but am grateful for today. I try not to think about this much, as is the way of most high school memories… but I’m sharing it with you because… well, because I want to.
Grade 8, PE class. The time of year that all the students go for a 3 mile run (the exact distance I’m not quite sure of; the fact I was completely unprepared for it, I have no doubt). I was an out-of-shape thirteen-year-old who hadn’t done much physical activity since walking away from competitive trampoline more than a year earlier. I found myself walking more than running, but something in my brain clicked about 200 yards before the end of the run. My legs just went and took over my body and my brain, and I was running flat out. I know people were calling my name, I know at one point they were screaming at me to stop, but my feet and legs and body kept moving, and I just couldn’t stop… until I ran full-speed into a telephone pole.
I gave up running after that. To this day I don’t know if it was the fact that my interests truly did go in different directions, or the thought that I was too embarrassed to risk getting another shiner on my forehead. I was a blind kid with little true desire for physical activity, and – even though I was encouraged to pursue track and field – I resented the idea that I would need a sighted guide runner whose pace I would likely slow down, and it all just sounded so unfair. Besides, I had other things that took up most of my time, so I didn’t really miss it much.
I often think about that path not taken these days, since taking up running again. I’ve done a fundraising run in support of the local blind sports organization for the past five or six years, but beyond that, until this past couple years, it hasn’t been a burning need for me. Maybe if I had the confidence to run, or easier access to guide runners locally, or just more time to kill, maybe I would have done this sooner. But I can’t think that way, really, because it’s time to look forward, not back. I’m lacing up my shoes, harnessing up my guide dog, and going for a run.
Whoa whoa whoa! I am doing what?
I’ve written before about running with my guide, but since it’s a relatively unusual activity to do with one’s guide dog, and I get asked a zillion questions about why I would do this at all, here’s the route I’ve taken to this point, and where I want to go.
It all started a couple years ago after the fundraising run; I had made a great connection with my guide runner, and she and I agreed to go running together. This would involve going home from work, leaving my guide at home, taking my cane, catching the bus, going for a run, catching the bus home… and to me, that was a lot of planning for a quick run, as much as I loved running with my friend. Add to this the fact that I have a guide dog who genuinely likes to go fast (and occasionally we have “arguments” about such things), and I figured I could at least try running with her.
A friend makes sports-style harnesses and I asked her to make one for me. It has a lot of room for the dog to move and acts like a traditional harness in all other ways. The pull in the handle took some getting used to, but once I understood the feeling of the pull in the harness, we were ready to go! I started small (like, around the block small); if Jenny hated it, I didn’t want to make her run with me. She took to it so quickly that over just a few weeks, then months, we increased our speed, distance and complexity of routes. Our winter was short, so it didn’t take long for us to really get moving this spring. This past month alone, we have done our longest run ever (more than 7 km), had our fastest ever run longer than 5 km, and did our first ever big group run in support of the Fort mcMurray evacuees. That last wasn’t a flawless experience, but it taught me how to handle it, and gave me hope for other big group running events later on in the spring and summer, and even beyond. My goal is to run an organized 10K by the end of the season; we’re well on our way!
I’ve made some mistakes along the way – misjudging if my guide wanted water (the answer is usually “no”) or underestimating her willingness to go at fast speeds – but when we have this matching jogging-pace speed and are completely in sync, there’s no feeling like it. Many people ask me if I’ve ever been hurt; the answer is yes, but it’s got nothing to do with Jenny and everything to do with my thinking I know more than she does. If I listen to her quick, decisive, flawless guiding moves, I know I’m in good paws. More than once I let Jenny set the route (or, at the very least, don’t direct her as much); our neighborhood is a veritable labyrinth of angled sidewalks, roads that intersect and curve around back to each other – a residential runner’s paradise. I can focus on my feet, on my music (90s music is the best to run to!), on the feeling of wind in my face and the smell of pine sap in the air. I don’t have to think too much about where I’m going, what street I’ve crossed, if I’m lost or not, I can just run. I know my guide will run me home when she needs a drink of water.