27. Running Blind

27. Running Blind

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Running Blind

What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.
 ~Helen Keller

Our story began when I responded to a blind runner’s request on the local runners club website. He asked if anyone would be interested in volunteering to be his sighted running guide.

“Ha,” said one of my daughters. “That would be the blind leading the blind.”

She wasn’t necessarily referring to my eyesight with her remark. It’s more about how I’m not the most coordinated athlete on the street. In fact, I was once politely asked to not jog on the club’s treadmill since my predilection for getting tossed off, going airborne and then crash landing into the yoga classroom was considered disruptive to the others.

I hate treadmills as much as they apparently hate me and so I took to the open road, lonely paths and happy trails.

I wasn’t the most qualified person to guide a blind runner but as it turned out, I was the only one who replied to his e-mail.

Before our first outing, I asked my smart-aleck daughter to practice with me. Somehow, I convinced her to wear a blindfold and let me guide her down the street.

I yelled “curb!” just as she tumbled head first into the garbage cans.

“That went well,” I said, hopefully, as she threw off the blindfold and declared me unfit for service.

I did a little research before we met. He was a perfectly sighted police office, writing a routine traffic ticket, when a drunk driver crashed her car into him. His head slammed onto the cruiser and, multiple brain surgeries later, he emerged from near death with scars, crushed bones and a completely pulverized optic nerve.

Before his injury, he was a runner who loved nothing more than to run outside. Since his recovery, he’d been condemned to running on a treadmill, something he despised as much as I did.

Using adaptive software to communicate by e-mail and text message, I got directions to his house and picked him up early one morning. He showed me how we’d run “tethered” with a shoelace held in my right hand and his left hand.

We started off with a slow trot, my heart pounding as loud as his shoes clomping next to me. He was double my weight and height and his stride was at least double mine. I scurried like a little rat to keep up with him. It was a balmy day, not a cloud in the sky and a few runners headed our way.

“Hey, what do I do about, uh, here comes some runners,” I say to him. I started to get anxious.

The runners were coming straight for us and there wasn’t any way I could move his bulk far enough to the side of the path, without him toppling over.

Frantically, I waved at the runners, motioning them to pass me on the left.

In exchange, I got what would become a typical reaction.

Annoyance, irritation and the occasional middle finger as we hogged the path instead of passing single file like considerate runners.

Eventually, the other runners must have figured it out because they began saying hello as they passed, waving at me ahead of time and generally scooting out of the way.

We have some rules when we run. If we start to sink into negative commentary, we change the channel immediately. Of course, he has a lot more to be negative about than just about anyone I know but we don’t dwell on that. Instead, we use the time to really look at the world.

I start off every run by describing the weather. He wants to know about the clouds, the wind and the sun. As we trot along, I give him his bearings. The river is on the left, a barge is coming from the south, a hawk is flying overhead, I tell him as our foot strikes synch up.

Before I was a sighted guide, I ran blindly through the miles. Instead of listening to birds or the rhythm of my feet on the path, I blasted the Rolling Stones into my headphones, muting nature with the flick of a finger. The part of me not absorbed by the music calculated the miles, marking them off like a dreaded to-do list. Only 2.5 miles left to go, I’d tell myself, trying to cajole my reluctant feet.

All that changed when I became his eyes. Suddenly, I had to really be present. I had to focus intently on the moment, scouring the path for obstacles. A branch blown onto the path by a gust of wind could trip him face first into the gravel.

Once, we were engrossed in a conversation about the best running songs when I couldn’t get my brain around what was draped across the trail. I would have screamed but my vocal chords froze. Somehow, our feet sailed in unison across the sunning copperhead and it wasn’t until he was singing the chords of “Born to Run” that I fell completely apart.

“Snake!” I yelled, weak with relief.

He told me later that his legs turned to spaghetti.

It hit him full force that he was completely dependent on me. On my skills, my powers, my sense of direction. My ability.

“Yeah, that must be more scary than a snake,” said my daughter, shaking her head.

It is. Or it was.

But over time, he’s developed a sense of trust that gives me a sense of purpose. I run with new confidence and heightened senses. I anticipate obstacles before they even arrive.

Over the miles of stories we tell, some common themes emerge. His utter devotion to his wife and unborn son top the list. She’s permanently seared in his memory and will never age past his last glimpse of her. We discuss current events, new books and Alabama football. Mostly, we talk about things that go right in our lives. At some point, we argue over our choice for the best running song ever.

“We need a theme song. You know, something that sums up our running partnership,” he says one day. I’m leery. I’m not a “what’s your song,” kind of gal. But he’s humming as I trot alongside, waiting to see what he comes up with. Finally, he grins and says, “I got it!”

And then, as we sprint to the car, he sings “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all the obstacles in the way.”

“Here comes the sun,” I tell my daughter later. She rolls her eyes.

“Did he notice you can’t carry a tune in a bucket?”

He’s never mentioned it.

~Carolyn Magner Mason

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