Blind Runners Don’t Let Their Disability Slow Them Down

Shelley Morris was born without sight in her right eye. In her left, she is only able to see from the upper right hand corner, a result of the optic atrophy she was born with. “It’s a little like looking through a McDonald’s straw,” she says. Ms. Morris doesn’t let that get in the way of her running. When the 50-year-old recruitment and referral services coordinator at Volunteer Ottawa competes in triathlons, she is tethered to a sighted guide. The rules demand it.

When she is out running, though, she leaves the tether at home. Her guide calls out verbal cues – “go left,” “we’re coming up to a hill,” “get ready to duck under some tree branches,” “there’s someone coming up on the path so come over to my side.” Even though she doesn’t need it for the event, Ms. Morris says she will probably wear the tether when she runs the 10K race in a field of more than 10,000 runners at this Saturday’s Ottawa Race Weekend to make her presence known.

For the first time in its 38-year history, the Tamarack Homes Ottawa Race Weekend has included a new category in its 10-kilometre race for blind and visually impaired runners. The event has always had a policy to accommodate all runners, so it’s not as if blind and visually impaired individuals were barred before. But the new category is welcome recognition of the fact that they are gunning for the finish line like everyone else.

“Blind folks are not just going to sit quietly on the sidelines,” Ms. Morris says. “We show up, we’re here to play too.”

Jim Robinson, race director and president of the Ottawa Race Weekend, explains the significance by comparing it to the early days of the event when there was no category for walkers. Even if a person finished first among walkers, their results would only show up in the giant mix of all the people who ran the marathon. With a category, however, they become a distinct group. “They’re able to see and understand their results in relation to other runners who have entered in the same category,” Mr. Robinson says.

As of Thursday, 19 athletes with vision loss were registered to run in the Ottawa event. Jason Dunkerley, the founder of Achilles Ottawa, says the new category will help encourage a greater number of blind and visually impaired people to lace up.“We hope it’s helping to bring some other people out who may not have [run]otherwise,” he says.

Guides are generally matched with athletes based on height, weight and race times.“We always try to match runners with guides who are slightly faster than the athlete because not only do they have to be able to keep up and pace, but they have to talk throughout the entire race. We’ve always joked that we like chatty guides,” says Jan Ditchfield, the founder of Won with One, an Ottawa-based organization that aims to provide opportunities for blind and visually impaired people to participate in sport.

Sometimes, runners and guides are introduced the day before a race, although it’s obviously better if they’ve had more time to get to know each other and train together, Ms. Ditchfield says. Ms. Morris met her guide, George Hajecek, through a fitness class for visually impaired people where Mr. Hajecek volunteers. “We started talking, and the next thing we know, we’re doing a 10K together,” Mr. Hajecek says. They did their first run together last year, at the Ottawa Race Weekend. They’ve done three more 10K races since then.

There were a few hiccups early on, including one run where Ms. Morris collided with a little girl on a bike. “It was very, very low speed,” Mr. Hajecek recalls with a small laugh. “It was more funny than anything else. It wasn’t me letting her know soon enough and I figured the girl would just stop,” he says. But it didn’t take long to get into a rhythm together, he adds.

Last year, their goal was to reach the finish line at the Ottawa Race Weekend 10K in less than 70 minutes. They finished in about 68. This year, they are hoping to beat that time. The key, Mr. Hajecek says, is communication. “A lot of it is trying to navigate through the crowds,” he says. “When it is tight, we will have physical contact. I’ll put my hand on her shoulder or I’ll say, ‘Come in behind me. There’s a hole coming up. Come to my left and we’re going to go shoot through the hole.’ ”

Being in a field of so many runners can be nerve-wracking – that can be true for everyone. But there’s nothing like the rush of a race, Ms. Morris says. “The sounds that you hear at a race are just panoramic. It’s amazing the things you hear. I love it. I just get so caught up in the hype and the excitement,” she says.

Natalie Fraser, a 29-year-old policy analyst in Ottawa, will guide Charlene Caines-Luffman, a 44-year-old a manager of IT security at the Canadian International Development Agency, in the race this weekend. The two have been running together since meeting through Achilles Ottawa last fall, with Charlene usually holding onto Natalie’s right elbow. “When you run with someone and they’re that close to you, you get to know each other pretty fast. Together, we talk about our lives, we talk about what’s going on with our friends and our families and our jobs,” Ms. Fraser says.

Ms. Caines-Luffman, who lost her sight as a child growing up in Newfoundland, says the new category will help raise awareness of runners with vision loss. “There’s a lot of us out there, and I think a lot of people are quite surprised. When I get dressed up in my running gear to leave work I’ve had a couple of people saying, ‘Why are you dressed like that?’ ” she says with a chuckle.

Come Saturday, no one will wonder why she is decked out in her running gear. And while it will be Ms. Fraser’s job to guide Ms. Caines-Luffman through the course, it’s also up to her to convey much of the race day excitement. Doing so isn’t a chore; it’s pretty awesome. “Part of the beauty of running is seeing everything that’s around you and seeing the other runners, so I look forward to being able to tell her what the funny signs say, how the other runners are doing and, especially, that moment when the finish line is in sight for me, letting her know just how close we are to it,” Ms. Fraser says.



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