Sport as a Guide for Life
A couple months ago I agreed to serve as a guide for a local runner. Joe is a paraolympian; he is blind. We were registered to run a half marathon about a month ago but it was canceled due to dangerous weather conditions. We tried again and entered another local race — the Potomac River Half — that utilizes the towpath along the C&O Canal. I thought I could help and he didn’t mind that I really had no idea what I was doing.
We emailed and spoke on the phone but didn’t actually meet until the morning of the race. He was late; his wife got turned around trying to find the race. I had to find a bathroom. We both had to pick up our race packets. After introductions and all the normal pre-race activities — from changing shoes to pinning bib numbers — we found ourselves at the back of a pack of about 150 people as a clock counted down three more minutes to the start.
Joe suggested that we work ourselves up toward the front. He thought it would be easier. I stashed our bags and his cane in the woods and we walked through the people right to the front row moments before the horn sounded.
We were a study in contrasts. I am more than a head taller, he is more than a decade older. Joe is an extrovert and wished all manner of people on the course good luck. I can comfortably listen and watch without speaking for hours. I typically run in silence and rely extensively on matching my “feel” to my heart rate. Joe runs in darkness and as a self proclaimed “numbers guy” asked me for our pace and cumulative time no fewer than 25 times. He came to the race undertrained and not really sure how a full 13 miles would turn out. Physically, I was relieved to only be running 13 miles instead of 20 or 25 miles.
Excepting a hundred yards of “practice” to learn how tightly to hold the tether, I had never guided. I didn’t really know what I was doing and had plenty of anxiety about letting him down, or worse, getting Joe or another athlete injured. After all, we were running on an eight foot wide gravel trail between a canal and a river with hundreds of people going either direction. On the other hand, Joe has been running for decades. He is easy going. His expectations were to “go for a run and get used to the distance.” If he was worried about falling or the traffic on the course, he never let on to me.
Somehow it all worked. It was fun. We laughed a few times. We talked about the sound of rushing water. I kept him out of all the puddles. When it came to the trail and hazards like a big rock or a decline as we passed one of the locks I would describe it and then count down until we encountered the problem. I’d say, “In ten meters the trail heads down at a slight decline of a few percent. It is about 20 meters long.”
There were a few miscues. At the turn around point I had to grab him by the shoulders so that he didn’t run off the trail into the canal. One time I failed to either steer Joe around a big river rock embedded in the trail or to call it out for him and he stumbled, nearly falling.
The race was being run simultaneously with a marathon and as we finished I ran us up to the marathon turnaround point instead of off the trail to the left and to the finish of the half marathon. This would have not been a problem except when I asked for the third time where to go and finally got the answer — we were only about 15 meters from the finish — I simply called out to Joe to start running. After two hours of working together and operating in tandem, I forgot that he couldn’t see. We were facing slightly different directions. He was oriented about 30 degrees left of where I was looking and promptly ran straight into a table and big empty plastic water bottles. Boom and then he almost went down.
D’oh! I had brought him nearly flawlessly more than 13 miles and now was making a huge scene and nearly toppling Joe because I missed the finish line banner.
A few days later I got a nice email from Joe. It was a thank you. I’m grateful he gave me the chance. Sport and competition allow us access a wide range of the human condition; through activity we learn and grow. Triumph, recognition and pride are balanced by monotony, disappointment and, as so often the case with endurance sports, humility. Sport also creates the conditions for connecting with each other and that may be one of its greatest virtues.