Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A LESSON IN VULNERABILITY, TRUST AND CONNECTION: Running blindfolded for the first time

When we choose to trust another with our vulnerability,
we choose to connect
- Jason Romero


I have a degernative eye condition (retinitis pigmentosa - RP) which has caused me to become legally blind.  I have 20/200-400 acuity, I see through a tunnel of about 15 degrees and I have night blindness.  At some point, the medical professionals say that my retina will completely deteriorate and I will have no light perception.

I am fearful of losing light perception.  I'm scared of the dark now - I often wonder how I will feel when my eyes can no longer perceive light.  I know running is important to me, and I want to continue this activity if my eyes get to a point where I can no longer perceive light.  There will be another big change for my running when this happens....I will need to recruit a guide to help me run.  I have never relied 100% on a guide for eyesight.  A couple weeks ago, I decided to do an experiment and run a race blindfolded.  There are 3 parts to this blog - 1. my guide's experience, 2. my experience, and 3. what I learned about life as a result of this experience.

Me and Donald Beuke at the Mardi Crawl Half Marathon
Part 1: My Guide's Experience.
I needed a guide for the race so I went to social media and asked the universe for a volunteer to help me.  As it turns out, I ended up with a volunteer who is an exceptionally gifted athlete and human being Donald Beuke.  Donald is an accomplished ultra-runner having completed some very tough 100 milers including Hard Rock, HURT and Run Rabbit Run.  He's also a mountaineer having climbed the likes of Denali.  He's also an amazing human being, having been a teacher, and now a principal in Adams County.  I asked Donald if he could share his experience of guiding me.  Below are his thoughts.

I was browsing Facebook and a new friend Jason Romero posted he wanted to run a Half Marathon blind and tethered.   I wanted to meet Jason because he is coming to my school in a week or so to do a motivaitional speech with my 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students.  Jason and I run around the same running circles or ultra runners in the Denver area and I was really excited when he took me up on the offer of pacing (the night befor the race).    My first question was what pace and he responded back 8:30 -9:00 pace.  

Phew…I can probably hang with that.  I have not been running much so I knew 8:30 pace would be comfortable but good.  I have been just hiking and mostly downhill running in prepartation for Hardrock 100 in July.  

I met up with Jason at 8:15, 45 minutes before the Mardi Crawl at Bear Lake state park in Littleton.  We chatted a bit and he showed me the tether system he created which would mean running side by side for 13.1 miles.  My first thought is that it would be a challenge and I could tell Jason was nervous about being completely in the dark.  We set our watches and took off in the back of the pack.  

We were surrounded by people and I was trying to just keep from running into people.  The paved bike trail was very smooth so I was initially not worried about it.  It took us about a mile at 9:00 pace to get in a groove and pass people.  We got to the first hill and we moved up the 300 foot hill quickly and began our descent into the turn around at about mile 6.  We were cruising at 7:50 pace and I felt suprising comfortable just chatting and talking about our past races and people we know in our amazing community.  We got to mile ten and I was wondering if we would be able to go sub 1:50.  We ran the last three miles right at 8:00 pace in the middle of the road…it was too hard to stay by the cones (I thought we would trip).  We crossed the finish line without a big fall at 1:48 (8:19 pace).  It was good enough for 25th place out of 130 runners.  

Not too bad for a first time pacer and first time Jason went totally dark.  Next time I would call out more directions and start more at the front.  It was a little scary at first starting with all the people around.  I would also be in better shape because Jason really wanted to cruise at the end.    I was shocked how well we moved basically hand in hand.  I really enjoyed the experience and would love to do that for a full marathon after I get my butt in shape.  



Part 2: My Experience.
I am really scared to have no light perception.  I figured like with everything else in life, you must face your fears and deal with them head on.  That gave me the idea to run a race blindfolded.  I did a quick internet search for races in Denver the coming weekend.  The longest race I could find was a half-marathon - the Mardi Crawl.  I went to FaceBook to ask for a guide to help me.  I had a volunteer, then plans fell through.  I felt relieved and thought about ditching the attempt to run blindfolded.  Maybe this was a sign I wasn't supposed to do it.  My fear was crippling me and I was  giving into it.  I decided this was about facing fear, and not letting it stop me.  So the day before the race I went back to FaceBook and asked for help, and I got another volunteer - Donald Beuke.  I had met Donald virtually a few weeks before, as I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at his school - Coronado Hills Elementary in Commerce City.  Donald and I exchanged a few texts and planned to meet race morning.

I needed to figure out how to make a tether - a link that I would hold with my hand, and my guide would hold the other end.  So I turned to my friend Amelia Dickerson.  She is an amazing blind runner (and American record holder for the marathon, I might add).  Amelia gave me some quick instructions on how to make a tether.  I went to Home Depot, bought a 48" bungee cord, cut off the ends, tied some knots and soon I had my tether.  The bungee would allow the tether to have some give if we needed it.  After all was said and done, the tether would allow my hand and my guide's hand to be 12" apart when we both held it.



Pictured is the bungee cord tether, the blindfold and vest I used
I was very nervous getting out to the race.  I had a ride arranged to take me to the start of the race. When I called on race morning, my ride would not answer.  I kept going to voice mail.  Again, I thought....this is another chance to call the run off.  Again, I had to stop making excuses to follow-through on what I had committed to do.  I took an Uber to my Mom's house, then she took me the rest of the way to the race on short notice.  I arrived and found Donald.  When I saw him, all I saw was a big ole smile.  His smile put me at ease - as I felt like a bundle of nerves.  I was anxious about what was soon to happen - I would put on a blindfold and rely on another's eyes 100% so I could run.  

Soon, the start came and it was time for me to pull the mask over my eyes.  As I did, I grabbed the tether and waited.  I felt really scared.  After I put the mask on, the gun went off and I was just standing there.  I was waiting for Donald to grab the other end so we could start running.  I didn't want my nerves to show and more importantly I needed to trust Donald, so I just stood there waiting.  Within a few seconds, Donald grabbed the other end of the tether, and we clumsily began to run together.  I'd never been guided like this before so I didn't know what I needed.  I tried to explain to Donald what I needed called out as we ran.  It took about a mile for us to get into a rhythm.  Soon, we were running together and passing people.  I wanted to run faster, but knew that I needed to restrain myself.  This wasn't about racing - it was about being vulnerable and trusting.  Donald and I had a great conversation, and I learned what a wonderful and amazing man he is.  I really got a chance to meet an extraordinary human being.  I stumbled a little during the run, but overall it was pretty smooth.  We had some long climbs - over a quarter mile in length.  It was actually good to climb without knowing where the top was.  I was forced to run at a cadence that I could hold indefinitely uphill.  Because I couldn't tell where the top was, I was forced to be more aware of my body to be able to hold the pace.  When we descended, it was hard to let loose as I didn't know when a turn was coming, or if there was an obstacle that I might go down on.  I got to a point where I just had to really trust Donald, with everything.....and I did.  At one point, we stopped and Donald let go of the tether to drop a jacket at an aid station.  I remember just standing there feeling totally helpless.  Then, I thought to myself - I trust Donald.  Just because he left me to take care of something doesn't mean he has left me forever.  I had to choose to trust that Donald would come back in order to stave off my panic; and, Donald did come back.  On our last big descent around mile 10, I was finally able to let my legs go.  We were really running.  With about 2 miles to go, we got passed.  I heard somebody go by breathing hard.  As the runner passed, I told Donald, "I don't like to get passed".  I wanted to run down the runner.  At that point, I realized that I was comfortable being blind folded.  I was back wanting to race.


Donald and I pushed to the end, crossing the finish line under 1 hour 50 minutes.....a goal we had chatted about during our run.  When I lifted my blind fold from my eyes, I couldn't see anything.  It was like a flashlight was being shone directly into my eyes.  After about a minute, my eyes adjusted and I was able to make out people, and joined a group that was having a conversation.  I had a lot of emotions going through me at that point.  It was hard to concentrate on what people were saying, as I was processing what had happened,  I was also internally celebrating that I was going to be able to run, and race when I no longer had light perception.


Part 3: What I learned about life

To me, this was much more about life than running a race blind-folded.  The night after the race, I laid in my bed replaying the events that had taken place.  As I processed what had happened, I realized that there was an Adversity, I had to Adapt, and ultimately I Achieved my goal.  Along the way, Fear was a constant paralyzing factor that threatened to stop me dead in my tracks.  I had to choose not to let Fear overtake me.  Basically, I had experienced my "Success Cycle", as I've written about in a prior blog post.

More importantly, I learned about human connection.  I was in a very weak and fragile emotional state leading up to, and during the run.  That is the reason I asked Donald to write about his experience.  I guessed that he was unaware of the mental and emotional state I was in.  I also suspected that he was unaware of the gift he has given me.  I was re-reminded that being vulnerable, and trusting in another human being when we are in that state, is a direct path to connection.  It is scary.  At times, I didn't want to take the risk and trust when I was vulnerable.  One time I was left alone, and could choose to believe a)  I was abandoned, or  b) that this other person was going to come back to help me.  I chose to trust when I was vulnerable, and I am glad I did.  I made a good friend as a result, and now have the confidence that I'll continue running well into the darkness of RP.


ONWARD!




With my friend, Donald Beuke, at Coronado Hills Elementary after speaking with 3/4/5th graders
Jason Romero is a highly sought after inspirational speaker and the 1st and only blind person to run across America.  Jason is a member of the US Paralympic Team, holds 11 world records in ultra-running, a former attorney and business executive, and a single father of 3 children.  More information can be found on Jason at www.relentlessromero.com

No comments:

Post a Comment