It’s been nine days since I guided a disabled athlete during the NYC Marathon. It’s taken me just as long to gather all of the thoughts I have had rolling around in my head so I can truly sum up this life changing experience. I’ll do my best and hopefully by the end, your mind is made up as to whether or not you should give back to the sport by guiding, too.
First, I’d like to start off by saying that running isn’t a sport that I naturally excel at. Like anything else I’ve ever done, I’ve had to work hard over the years to see results and build my endurance. However, running is a sport that has paid some handsome dividends with NYC being the most lucrative of all (figuratively speaking). I never made it my goal to one day take to the streets of my hometown in the biggest road race in the world. Quite honestly, I didn’t know when my next marathon would be. But, after reading Peter Sagal’s account of guiding a blind runner during this year’s Boston Marathon, I sought out to learn more. I was amazed, inspired, and curious.
Long story short, I came upon Achilles International and found out that they accept volunteer applications to assist disabled athletes during NYC every year. I was skeptical of my own guiding ability for fear of the unknown and because of my own partial sight impairment, but I clicked “send” anyway, kept my fingers crossed, and kept a close eye (no pun intended) on my e-mail for a confirmation, or a very heartbreaking declination. The rest is history.
Fast forward to race week. After getting to know the stellar group of women affectionately known as “Team Denise” over the past month, I was excited, nervous, and apprehensive. Could I live up to the task? Would I disappoint? What if something happened to Denise and it was my fault? General race jitters are all the same, probably even heightened, when you’re guiding. Yes, it was my goal to guide, but it was Denise’s goal to cross the most celebrated marathon finish line of them all. I had some big running shoes to fill and I wanted her to have the experience of a lifetime.
After spending some time at the expo on Thursday and meeting up with co-guide Erin, we had the opportunity to first meet Denise the following day with the Achilles International Colorado chapter entourage. Denise was one of several athletes from the chapter and we were so excited to meet her and the rest of the crew. I am grossly understating matters when I say that this group of athletes, guides, and supporters was the kindest, most selfless group of people I have ever met. They are committed, they are fearless, and I strive to give back just as much as they have given to each other. There are truly goodhearted people in this world.
On Friday I also met co-guide Maria. She was funny and sweet, and the tallest race walker I have ever seen. She is so kind and in the short amount of time I got to know her, I came to realize that she is the type of person to give you the shirt right off her back – plus her shoes, pants, and whatever else you might need. And, if she doesn’t have what you’re looking for, don’t worry – she’ll find it for you in a hot minute. Maria, Denise, and I sauntered through the crowded expo (a little overwhelming and a lot crowded) like we had known each other for a lifetime. We were old friends, never having met before this day.
That evening, all guides and athletes were invited to an Achilles International pasta dinner and awards ceremony. Erin and I accompanied Denise and entered a jam packed ballroom of folks from around the world – Japan, New Zealand, Germany to name a few. Wheelchairs filled the room; athletes with prosthetic legs and arm braces soon swarmed in. There were some who were blind, others who had physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, little people. However, in this ballroom, at this very moment, there weren’t any disabilities – there were goal-setitng, determined athletes two days before the best and biggest race in the world. The ballroom was awash in race anticipation, laughter, hoots, hollers, and thunderous applause for the few who received awards. Smiling was not optional here, it was mandatory and came easily.
Sunday started out bright and early (well, not really bright at 3 AM). I made my way into Manhattan to meet up with Denise, Maria, and Erin at 4:30 which gave us enough time to line up at the shuttle pick up for Achilles. The hand crank wheelchairs loaded first, followed by ambulatory athletes and their guides. Wheelchairs had an 8:55 start, with the remaining AWDs (athletes with disabilities) starting at 9:40. This meant the obligatory long wait on Staten Island before the horn blaring and your wave actually starting. Time flew and if I had to guess, we probably waited around for about two hours. Achilles had their own warming tent with breakfast, as well as their own bag drop off trucks, and handicap accessible port-a-potties. The organization itself made it extremely easy and seamless and has the process down to a science. Nervousness and excitement filled the tent as the race spirit wafted over all of us. The day was here. We were about to do this.
The weather was cool, overcast, and blustery and the four of us shed the layers we needed to shed just after the National Anthem belted out by none other than the PS 22 chorus of Staten Island, the most talented children singers I have ever heard (I’ve been a fan for a while). Denise decided that she wanted to walk the start (gradual incline over the bridge) and then slip into a 3:1 run/walk. We started on the lower deck and were shielded by most of the strong winds although it remained chilly. We settled into a good rhythm and Denise reiterated that she wanted us to push her in the second half. We stopped when she needed to stop and picked up the pace when she felt ok to do so. This was her day.
The crowd was relatively thin on the Verrazano, something I took for granted once we reached 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Coming off the bridge onto the Gowanus Expressway, you could heard the roar of school bands and the spectators as you edged closer. Up ahead you could see where the green wave (us) would be merging with blue and orange (the three diverge coming off the bridge and then reassemble). I was a little edgy but remained calm. I knew that this was going to be chaotic and potentially dangerous. At this point in the race (~ mile 4), runners are making up for lost time on the bridge. They are falling into their own pace and doing very erratic things to get ahead. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, it happens every race, and we have all done it. However, I will say that guiding someone through a sea of 50,000 stampeding wildebeests and the ebb and flow of the pace groups charging through the throngs of runners could have been very disastrous; trying to move ourselves to the side of the road proved futile.
The crowds are infectious here in Brooklyn and this is where you get your first taste of what the next 22 miles will bring. Luckily, we kept Denise safe and out of harm’s way. She was feeling great, people were yelling her name, and we made it out of Brooklyn rather quickly. Looking at my watch trying to keep her on pace we probably were a little too speedy (in the 12-13/min mile range) but it was important for us to get out of Brooklyn as safe as possible. Smiles abounded.
Queens, my hometown, welcomed us with open arms and these miles ticked by. We made sure that Denise was comfortable, we ran ahead for water/Gatorade as needed, and continually checked in with her. She was very focused but you could tell she was having a blast. She was calm and collected, more so than I have ever been during a marathon. I admired her strength and determination. You see, Denise has a slight left-sided limp as a result of her cerebral palsy. For many, they’d see this as a setback – a reason not to even attempt running, let alone 26.2 miles. In Denise’s case, this is how life is, there’s nothing she can do about it, and she charges ahead. This is how I wish I led my life all of these years. Luckily, it’s not too late to start.
As we made our way over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan (~ mile 15), Denise started to get a little fatigued. Emotions took hold and soon, tears started flowing. It was enough to cause a small chain reaction which we all immediately took hold of. What I learned about Denise in that moment is that she is completely and utterly selfless. Her tears were tears of gratitude, yet apology. She didn’t want to slow us down. Was she kidding? She was the reason why we were here. She was changing our lives just as much as we were, maybe, changing hers. This was TEAM Denise and WE were on track for a PR. There is a big misconception that running is a solitary sport. We train alone, we run races alone, but in reality, the camaraderie among runners is palpable. It is the only sport where I’ve seen runners cheer on other runners (we were doing our fair share of this), pick each other up, encourage, and inspire. It is true – in running, you never run alone.
It was after the bridge that we started to slow down and walked more than we ran. It didn’t matter, though. It was a beautiful day, the spectators were ten deep along 1st Avenue, and we were in the middle of a giant party. Say what you will about New York City, but if it does one thing right, it’s the marathon.
Winding our way into Harlem, we were greeted by some of the best musicians on the course. By this time, Denise’s foot started to catch on the road as she became increasingly tired and her back started to hurt. At one point she tripped over one of the bridge expansion joints to which we all immediately reacted like concerned parents. My heart jumped into my throat but everything turned out to be ok and she remained calm. No kissing the ground. Phew. Other runners tried to cross between the tight diamond pattern we had formed around her this entire time. Some were successful and as for the others, we politely told them to go around us.
The trek back into Manhattan and down Fifth Avenue was anything but short. The crowds were still deep but at this point in the race, the last five miles, it’s a make or break situation for any runner. We were still on track to getting Denise that PR she was silently clenching on to (she never once told us ow bad she wanted that but as a runner, you just know how important it can be). It was evident that she was ready to be done as we entered Central Park. To keep her spirits up we got the crowds roaring for her. It was clear that people were awed by her endurance. I certainly was.
We pushed Denise as much as she would let us through those remaining miles in Central Park. In 6:38:42 as the sun was setting and the last remaining beams of light were dancing on the brown and orange leaves, we crossed the finish line as a team – a one minute marathon PR for Denise; a six hour plus life lesson for me.
When I say this was a life changing experience I don’t mean for it to come across as trite. Growing up and even until very recently, I was very much consumed by what people would think or what they would say if they knew I (gasp!) couldn’t see out of my left eye. Would I be treated differently? Would I be made fun of? What if I couldn’t do something someone else with perfect sight could do? Knowing what I know now, I’ve been pretty foolish in my 33 years. None of it matters, really. All that’s important is that you chip away at the goals you set for yourself in this life, treat others fairly and with kindness, and always, always pay it forward. That’s what life is really about.