The most rewarding race

scottlandThis past Sunday ranked up as one of the most rewarding races of my life (completing a marathon with my Mom is right up there!) I served as a guide for a visually impaired athlete running his first 5K. What a great experience!

I have long said I wanted to serve as a guide, and at the beginning of 2013 looked up the Achilles International website and sent an email expressing interest in volunteering. I didn’t hear anything for months, as apparently there wasn’t a chapter here in Denver/Boulder. Then about 6 weeks ago I connected with a guy (Michael) looking to start a chapter – great! But his problem was that he was new to the area and didn’t have any connections with athletes that needed guides. I was telling Rick and Laura about this conundrum when they mentioned they knew a local woman (Deb Conley) who coordinates a similar program (Lending Sight). We looked her up online and saw she was actively looking for guides. Laura made a virtual introduction and within a day I was assigned a runner (Scott) for the race! I also connected Michael with Deb, to join forces.

This all happened right before I went on vacation, so I told Scott we’d get together once I got back. While I was gone, Michael and Deb started really getting a program in place, including scheduled runs every Monday night in Denver. Since I didn’t have class on Monday nights, it was a perfect opportunity for me to meet up with Scott and get some training in!

Deb did amazing coordination, getting us all registered, arranging for singlets and bibs and carpools.. I can’t imagine how much time she put into this event.

.. and then it rained or snowed the next four Monday nights. Already the drive from Boulder to Denver after work isn’t ideal, but it just didn’t seem prudent to be training with that kind of weather. Every week Scott and I would chat on the phone, and then have to cancel. FINALLY we met for the first time the weekend before the race. We went to Sloan’s Lake and ran 3 miles at a 9:30 pace. Scott had mentioned to Deb he wanted to run a 7/8 minute mile, but I knew he didn’t have much training under his belt and just wanted us both to be comfortable with the short tether that connected us and my guiding him.

We chatted the whole way around Sloan’s Lake, he was a really interesting guy. He lost his sight later in life but it hasn’t seemed to slow him down too much – he’s been skiing and plays this blind sport called GoBall that just seems brutal!

And then of course it snowed the following week, so we ended up running the race only having met once before.

I picked him up to make things easy, and we met about 25 other blind athletes and guides before the race (a HUGE THANK YOU to the Cherry Creek FedEx for opening up for us to be a meeting spot). Then soon enough it was time to head to the start. The race was giving us a 1-2 minute head start for the 5K, which was nice. We set off, and I was surprised at Scott’s pace, we were booking it! I kept checking in with him, not wanting him to go out too fast and struggle at the end. The visually impaired runners spread out, and before I knew it we were third, behind a guy with his seeing eye dog and one other pair of runners and guides. We went through the first mile at 8:21!!

Whereas in training at Sloan’s we’d managed to stay nicely side-by-side with no jostling, running on the road at a faster pace meant we had a little more arm-swinging and drifting. Not a big deal at all, but it really struck me how much I take my orientation on a course for granted.

As we ran I kept glancing at my watch in surprise – Scott actually sped up after the first mile! We ran 7:50 for the second mile and 7:51 for the third. Even if he couldn’t see them, Scott was definitely motivated by spectators and when someone cheered for us I could feel him surging forward. I had expected we’d run a nice comfortable 9:30, but this definitely seemed like a real race!

The last tenth of a mile was rough for him, I think. In my encouragement I’d told him we had one last turn and pointed out we could hear the announcer, and as a result I think he thought we were closer than we were. Also, according to the USABA, the blind runner must finish ahead of his guide, so I’d slow a bit and Scott would think we were done. :-/

We crossed the finish line in just over 25 minutes, and I was dragged poor Scott around to get a photo together. I then saw a couple standing by the finish waving at us – it was Scott’s parents. They’d driven up from Colorado Springs to see him in his first race (Scott had told me he hadn’t run more than a mile outside since high school – over 20 years prior!). I felt so thankful to have been able to take part in the event with him.

Deb had also made up medals for each of us, with braille on the back. What a nice touch!

Scott caught his breath and then headed off for lunch with his family. I hung out and waited for some of the other runners to come in. I felt energized by the experience and wandered around and just chatted with other folks at the event. I latched onto another runner and guide and we navigated our way through the crowd to get a banana and water. I had registered for the 5 Miler as well (to get in my miles for the day), but running with Scott had been more intense than I’d expected, and it was starting to get warm. I was supposed to run an easy run anyway, so I decided to just bag it. As had been my initial plan when I signed up to guide, today was not my day to focus on my own running.

I headed back to FedEx to chat with other guides and runners and see how things had gone. I got into a great conversation with some folks who are also Boulder based, and in fact the runner (Tom) asked if I were available for the Bolder Boulder, as he’d be out of town and Bill needed a guide. I won’t do that, but it definitely helped me realize how much I want to continue to be involved with this group.

A few hours later reflecting on the day, I called Scott to thank HIM.

I can’t really wrap this up, because I know it’s not the end. I want to continue to be involved, although the time commitment is definitely going to be a challenge. But today Scott called to say he was coming to Boulder to go rock-climbing (See?? I told you this guy doesn’t hold back) and invited me along. I contacted the group he was coming through and they said they didn’t need any guides. So I called Scott back and he said he hadn’t been asking me as a guide – he thought we could just climb together. It was VERY sweet, and although I didn’t end up going (I am not confident enough in my climbing skills), I definitely want to go in the future. I feel very appreciative that I was able to share my running with Scott, AND make a new friend out of it.

A few news clips about the event: