It is now Tuesday and I am just sitting down and capable of sorting through the overwhelming emotions I felt running the New York City Marathon on Sunday as an Achilles guide. It was by far the best marathon experience I have had to date! Even better than my second place marathon podium finish four weeks ago! It all started with a text message from my steady running partner Jonathan Stenger. “Any interest in being an Achilles guide with me? Looking for another 3:30 pacer for a blind runner. I want YOU.” There’s no arguing with that.
I met Amelia Dickerson, a member of the Colorado chapter of Achilles International, at the marathon expo the Friday before the race, where we were picking up our race bibs and getting final race day instructions. Amelia has an indomitable spirit and is an exceptionally resilient athlete. She has proven her talent in the short distance as she holds the national blind 5,000 meter record, but this would be her first marathon. Along with the rest of the Achilles team, I would be responsible for guiding her 26.2 miles from Staten Island to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and finally across the infamous finish line in Central Park. Needless to say, I was honored for the opportunity, excited for the adventure, but also nervous. I didn’t want to let Amelia down, as anything can happen in a marathon, even if your personal best is nearly 30 minutes faster than the goal finishing time.
Amelia was lucky enough to have a rather large Achilles team to support her through the course. The plan was for Jonathan, Othman Doubiany, Becky Popiel, and me to start out on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in Staten Island. Becky, who was filming a documentary (An Unseen Run) about Amelia would be running just a few miles and then join us again upon entering Central Park. At the half-way point, we would have two other guides join the team. The starting team met in midtown at 5 a.m. From there, we took the Athlete’s with Disabilities (AWD) bus to the athlete’s village in the starting area. It was early, we were tired, and as we walked to board the bus, someone exclaimed “Where’s Amelia?” Yes, we forgot to guide her along with us, but that was a solitary incident, from that moment on, the team was in check.
I had no race jitters as this wasn’t my race. As Jonathan eloquently wrote for Slate magazine, I was running for Amelia. This was her race. I tried to imagine all the thoughts going through her head, all the emotions she was feeling. As we sat in the warmth of the AWD tent in the athlete’s village drinking water, coffee, and consuming last minute calories, we discussed racing strategy. If we were to guide Amelia to the finish in her goal time, we needed to know her plan, as it wasn’t just her plan, but would quickly become ours as well. Amelia had no fueling plan at that point, so I took charge, recommending a strategy and taking responsibility for seeing it through on the course.
The marathon start was hectic as usual. We didn’t have an earlier start with some of the other athlete’s with disabilities, but started in the 18th corral of green wave 1, putting us with everyone else who planned to run a similar time. Jonathan and I set the pace in front, navigating the discarded clothing or kicking it aside to ease the ability for Othman to guide Amelia over the bridge. We did a lot of weaving in the first 10 miles, with only one minor spill across a timing strip around the 15k mark. Amelia bounced back up as if nothing had happened, not losing a beat. She was relentless. At that point Jonathan took the reins of the guide rope, allowing Othman and I to continue pacing, crowd clearing, and running for water/Gatorade. It was a constant check-in, not only with Amelia, but also with the other guides. We had to take care of each other, all while not forgetting to take care of ourselves. I found myself juggling when to take gels as it was more important for me to grab water for Amelia or Jonathan than for myself, but I too needed water to wash them down. At one point around mile 7 I had to take a detour to use the port-a-potty. As soon as I finished and opened the door, I set out in a sprint. My nerves were a mess as I frantically searched for my team. My worst fear was that I wouldn’t find them and that I would let Amelia down. I think it took a mile of sprinting, weaving, and searching before I finally spotted them in the crowd. My whole body breathed a sigh of relief as I relaxed back into Amelia’s pace, I couldn’t have been more happy to be back with my team, running with Amelia.
At the half-way point things became much easier as we were joined by two other experienced Achilles guides, Angela Riordan and Charles Wilson. This was my first time meeting them, but they were filled with enthusiasm, giving us energy to keep moving forward. We lost Othman at that point, but these two immediately took the reins, quickly clearing the road, yelling “blind runner…on your left…on your right….blind runner”. In retrospect, we were too nice in the beginning, it was much more effective to be a bit pushy. Some people understood the message and moved aside, others didn’t speak the language, some looked at us confused, while others had on headphones and couldn’t hear a thing. We simply plowed the way for Amelia to run. All the while the crowd was cheering and we revved them up to cheer even louder for Amelia. She fed off the energy. We fed off the energy.
After slowing a bit near mile 20, Amelia picked up her pace as we approached 5th Avenue, all while everyone else was slowing down. I can’t say I minded the previous slower pace. At mile 18, my foot began to burn with pain. The bridges and downhills were torture. There was no stopping though, and no complaining. This race wasn’t about me, but about Amelia. Even if she had other guides by her side, I made a commitment to run with her across the finish line and a little pain wasn’t going to stop me. I focused on Amelia. Thinking back to my own first marathon through the streets of NYC, remembering the pain I felt, knowing she was feeling the same way. I used those thoughts and feelings to encourage her to the finish, running strong. And that is exactly what she did.
We crossed the finish line in 3:35:44, a time just 44 seconds shy of qualifying for Boston, and still setting the national blind record for the marathon. She didn’t meet her goal of running a 3:30 marathon, but she was happy as she gave it all she had, evidenced by her collapsing into our arms as soon as she crossed the line. I was filled with emotions, but had no time to process as my guide hat quickly switched to a nurse hat. Arms around shoulders, we walked to the AWD family reunion area, guiding Amelia into the medical tent to warm up. She was medically fine, just cold and tired from the arduous feat she had put her body through. I could not have been more proud of this amazing woman sitting before me!
Amelia may have been lucky as she had her own entourage guiding her safely to the finish line, offering words of encouragement, clearing the streets, and monitoring her nutrition. This is something I have never experienced, something that very few runners do, as a marathon is a solitary adventure, but I consider myself even luckier. I am in awe of her determination and resilience, I am honored by her unwavering trust in our ability to safely guide her through the crowded streets of the NYC marathon, and I am inspired by her infectious love for running that pushes her to keep moving forward even when she can’t see where she is moving. Amelia is a hero in my book! I am blessed to have met her and been given the opportunity to run by her side. As Coach Cane would say, she’s going to “break some hearts”.