The challenges, joys and veiled truths of guiding a visually impaired runner.
During one of the first runs I went on with Amelia Dickerson, she tripped on a slight raise in the sidewalk and banged up her knees. I felt horrible, knowing my job was to guide her around obstacles she couldn’t see, and keep her out of harm’s way.
But, to my surprise, Amelia popped up like nothing had happened. When I apologized and expressed my utter disappointment in myself as her guide, she was quick to put me at ease.
“If I wanted to avoid having bloody knees, I’d stay at home on the couch,” she said with a smile.
So began my friendship with Amelia. We’ve run together many times since that day three years ago, enjoying the miles and enduring a few scraped knees along the way.
I met Amelia in 2013 as a runner who lived in her neighborhood and offered to guide her on occasion. I’ve been running for a long time and had some previous guiding experience, but I never imagined how Amelia would guide me over the next couple of years.
After running a pretty fast time in the Cherry Creek Sneak 5K in Denver in 2013, Amelia’s friend Deb Conley suggested she run in a track meet to see if she could break the women’s American record for a visually impaired (VI) runner. On the track, she ran a 20:47 with help from local guide runner Tom O’Banion at her side holding her tether. Then, a few weeks later, she shaved a few more seconds off her best, finishing in 20:38 with the help of former University of Colorado All-American Kenyon Neuman.
As sighted runners, we are unaware of how much sensory input our vision provides us—it’s like our built-in security software operating in the background, sending cues to our bodies to adjust for an incline, step over a crack, duck our head to avoid a tree branch, pick up our feet to run over a speed bump, and swerve to avoid another runner who suddenly slows down or stops in front of us.
As a perceptive guide for a visually impaired athlete, you have to navigate that software in the foreground, giving audible and fast-reactive physical cues when there’s no time for full sentences. Tripping is inevitable and, as a guide, your unconscious reaction is much like when you’re driving a car that stops suddenly and you quickly cast out your right arm as a reflex to protect the person in the front passenger seat. As a running guide you are a pilot, a dance lead, a vocal stopwatch, and sometimes a motivator.
Be Present, Not a Perfectionist
Amelia runs with one of the two training groups organized by Achilles International Colorado. One group meets on Mondays in Denver and the other gathers on occasion in Boulder. “They have been really helpful and supportive getting in miles,” Amelia says. She’s also joined Rocky Mountain Runners and has recently started receiving training input from Boulder-based coaches Sandi Nypaver and Sage Canaday at VO2 Max Coaching.
There’s no doubt that the opportunity to guide is both intimidating and inspiring. You feel good to be entrusted with such a task, but the responsibility can also feel daunting. Amelia encourages her guides to drop any notion of being a perfectionist and simply enjoy running with her. The key for a guide is being present in the moment.
“It means so much to me just having the ability to get out and run—even if that means tripping, falling, running in circles on the same route, tip-toeing around icy conditions—all the things people would normally apologize for,” she says. “I’m not interested in someone guiding me if I get the vibe the guide feels like it’s a chore—as if I can tell the guide is thinking, ‘Will someone else please take her.’”
I’ve run with Amelia dozens of times, and when I’m not feeling my “A” game and don’t know if I can be 100 percent present, I remind myself I don’t have to be perfect. Amelia will love the run just the same—even if we both go down and come home with bloody knees.
Humility and Confidence
There’s a certain balance of humility and confidence in a good guide. You must have enough confidence to take charge when appropriate, but not too confident that you assert what’s best for the runner in every situation. With the right combination of selflessness, poise and rapport with a VI runner, a guiding experience will feel less like you’re “taking” someone for a run and more like you’re “going” for a run with that person.
As guides, we learn a lot about ourselves and others—most particularly about trust.
“The more trust the blind athlete puts into his/her guide the better the flow,” says Michael Oliva, who founded the Achilles Colorado chapter in 2013.
Think of the guide as the lead dancer in a waltz: there’s a rhythm and there are push and pull cues that direct both the guide and blind runner. Anyone who has guided Amelia will tell you, she puts herself at ease which in turn puts her guides at ease.
“With Amelia you feel that and you feel like you are running with a friend (except with a tether between you),” Oliva says. “With other VI runners I’ve had to adapt myself more to athletes’ needs and wants. Amelia is willing to take more chances and go with the flow.”
Amelia runs five to six times every week, often averaging 50 to 55 miles per week if she’s able to get a 20-miler in on the weekends. She occasionally trains—and races—on the track too. Last summer I helped her run a 5:42 mile in a local all-comers meet, but I think she could have run much faster if we both had more practice at running around the oval with other competitors.
Conley has run with Amelia as a guide runner and also helped fund some of her travel through the Lending Sight club. She thinks Amelia has the ability to lower her marathon PR to 3:10, maybe even 3:05, as long as she can find a trained guide who can keep up with her.
Amelia estimates she has “trained” about 100 guides during her 18 years of running. While that statistic is impressive by itself, the number of lives touched exponentially grows. If just 20 percent of those guides ever guide another VI runner again, that’s another 20 VI runners who Amelia is indirectly helping—not to mention what those guides bring to the community in terms of their experience (a vast majority of beginner guides have never interacted with a visually impaired person).
From an outsider’s perspective, the guides appear as the ones giving the gift. The truth is they are the ones receiving.
“Amelia’s courage inspires me to be bolder and braver,” Boulder runner Silke Koester says. “She has shown me what it means to be daring, push harder and run stronger. And it has nothing to do with the fact that she can’t see. Her determination, ambition and positive attitude are a gift.”
Running with Amelia has taught me how to trust better and let go a bit more. My hope for Amelia is that she and others recognize the value of her gift to the running community and the world. She continues to become faster and stronger, and able to cover longer distances and more difficult terrain.
Even more than that, Amelia continually reminds me about the pure joy of running. Anyone who runs alongside her—guiding or not—will feel her passion and her presence.