By Greg Neault
“I once was blind, but now I see.” How many times have these words crossed my eyes and ears? But never before have they elicited the response from me that they do now.
Saturday morning found me waking early with a 5k to run at 8am. Not an entirely unusual activity for me on a weekend in the warmer months. But this race was different.
This race I ran blindfolded and remained blindfolded for 6 hours past the finish line. One might say, “Why would you want to run blindfolded?” A legitimate question, for sure.
For one, it was a fundraising event. We were raising much needed revenue for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, helping them to continue their work assisting people to make a successful transition into a life affected by vision loss. The race offered a challenge and a new experience, which I always enjoy. But prime among my motivations for embarking on such an endeavor was to gain perspective.
For three years I have been guiding Randy Pierce through hikes, road races, and obstacle courses. This race provided me with an opportunity to experience life on the other end of the guide/guided relationship. I had high hopes that it would teach me some things about the way I guide and the way Randy experiences that guiding, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I walked into it with preconceived notions as to what the difficulties would be. It was a very large 5k, 10,000 runners strong, in an urban environment with lots of background noise to challenge communications with my guide. I have no experience running blind, and was unaware of how my balance and sense of direction would fare without my eyes to aid them. My confidence level was also a concern. Would I be hesitant to run at a normal pace without my sight?
Race day brought surprising results. The weather was nice, the crowd energetic, the runners forgiving of my missteps and my guide more than able. Only a few noise disruptions to otherwise fluid communication and very successful and respectable 9:45 pace over 3.1 miles.
As welcome as those surprises were, there were some not so welcome, but equally surprising nuances to my adventure. Our post-race activities included a walk around Boston Common, lunch at the Beer Works, gelato in Boston’s famed North End and a subway trip back to our parked car.
Having transitioned from Laura (my race guide) to Loren (my post-race guide), we met with some adversity. Loren had little experience navigating the streets of Boston. Though I have been known to wander Boston somewhat regularly, I had no experience navigating blind. Randy has provided me with direction on numerous occasions, but his path finding is based more around distance, number of blocks traveled and street names. My typical navigation is focused more, as you might guess, on visual landmarks. Unable to see these landmarks, I was forced to describe them to Loren and subject to her interpretation of my articulations. Some missed cues as to our current location led to some frustrations when my directions proved unfruitful after two attempts.
Lunch brought some new challenges as well. Some condescension from our waitress when I misspoke my beer selection coupled with my previously accrued navigation frustrations led to a curt response from me. Fortunately I was blindfolded, so my looks were unable to kill!
One lesson learned over lunch was the utility of a same-sex guide. The public restroom can be a scary place when you’re on your own! I’ve frequented the Beer Works for years, so I’m fairly familiar with the layout of the restroom. That didn’t stop me from spending a few minutes trying to find the hand dryer, imagining all the while the look on the face of the next patron to walk in and discover me blindfolded and scouring the walls with my hands.
My experience with the Blindfolded Challenge was enlightening in many ways. My theories about impending struggles were way off base, and challenges arose where I thought smooth sailing would prevail. When I look back at our recent California Tough Mudder trip, I think of all the focus I placed on the event. In retrospect, I see more obstacles and challenge in the travel, the airport, and the commute than I do in the mud, the hills, and the walls.
The next epiphany was that of trust. The first time I put the blindfold on and WALKED around a track, I questioned my ability to run the race. It was awkward, I felt unstable, and I was more than a bit nervous for myself, my guide, and the general public! I felt unsure as we navigated a track with scant few others using it. How was I going to fare on a street course with 10,000 other runners?! Taking into consideration that I had the benefit of seeing the track immediately before running it, I’m in awe of Randy yet again. The miles of mud, rocks, roots, and potholes of our past endeavors jump out at me and my chest gets a little tight just thinking about it. I watched Randy put his trust in Loren and Sky, whom he had never met previous to our Tough Mudder adventure, which was in a much more technical landscape than my flat track in a quiet park! The level of trust necessary to commit your well being to the discretion of another cannot be overstated. That Randy has entrusted himself to me on so many occasions, whether it be guiding him myself or in trusting that others that I have brought into the fold are quality people that will have his best interests at heart, is one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.
The last, and maybe the most profound takeaway of this experience was the last. After six and a half hours under the blindfold, after running, walking, eating, drinking, navigating restrooms and subways, it was time to call it quits. I removed the blindfold and returned to the ranks of the visually able. When I pulled back the blindfold, there was sensory overload. Bright light, cars, people. Accompanying that rush of visual stimuli was a large sense of relief. I could see again. All the difficulty and frustration left behind with the return to the visual world. Then, just as profound a revelation: the realization that I was experiencing a moment of relief that will never come for those experiencing actual vision loss.
I once was blind to the realities of life with vision loss, but now I see that I once knew very little and now know a small portion of that experience. Life is learning and I’m on the path.