Running On Low

by Ken Stewart

Warwick, New York


The last time I completed a road race without the assistance of a guide was in 1994. It was my eighth marathon, which followed a 26.2 mile route on hilly country roads through my town. My life-long severely impaired vision was beginning to diminish further, mainly noticeable in very bright light. Race day was blessedly cloudy and I managed to have at least one other runner close enough in front of me to keep me on course. The trouble came when the route took us through the high school's parking lot, down a grassy embankment, and onto the school's track for the finish line.

I got across the parking lot okay, and down the embankment. Then there was trouble. I found myself facing a crowd of enthusiastic spectators. The crowd was yelling for me to go "that way," but I couldn't tell which way they were gesturing. After what seemed like an eternity, but probably only 10 or 15 seconds, I sensed other runners veering off to the right. I followed the runners onto the track and crossed the finish line in 4:00:44. My slowest marathon time, but good enough for a Second Place medal in my age bracket.

My first race accompanied by a guide is etched in my memory, too. It was a half-marathon in the same local area but on different roads. I was following my guide Eric, primarily by intermittent glimpses of him several yards ahead of me. His white T-shirt appeared and disappeared as we moved in and out of shady stretches, and alongside bright meadows or dense woodlands. Eric often shouted specific instructions and information to me: "Bending left here, Ken;" "Come over toward me a little;" "Here's a rise." Some of his well-intended words would have been helpful, some not, but that didn't really matter. I was benefiting from the location of his voice much more than the content of his messages. Then, about halfway through the race, several other competitors began complaining about the distraction of his verbalizing. Eric's explanation to them instantly turned them from critics of his behavior to cheerleaders of mine. For the rest of the race, I had many more guides than I could use. I came across the finish line like an aircraft carrier surrounded by a convoy of protective destroyers. In subsequent races, Eric wore a sign identifying himself as a guide, but nowadays with a white cloth tether connecting us, his role is so obvious, no extra declaration is necessary.

I am most fortunate to have friends willing to run races with me. In fact, my best performances were on three consecutive weekends in the fall of 1999 when three different guides got me across finish lines fast enough to take a First Place in the Yonkers Half-Marathon, Second Place in the New York State Championship Half-Marathon, and then another First Place in the Tuxedo 10-Kilometer Race. All three of the high rankings were only in my age group, of course.

While races require a guide, practice runs do not. Training on an indoor treadmill, naturally, is solo. With some planning and some luck, I still jog on the nearby country roads. The planning is required to be out on the road at the ideal time of day, dusk. A cloudy or rainy day offers a wider window of opportunity. A very clear evening is friendlier than a hazy sky. The former creates sharp shadows around significant objects I want to avoid, or find. A neighbor's trash barrel at the edge of the road or the stop sign marking the corner I must discover to get myself back home. The hazy sky, I have learned the hard way, can obscure all specificity among my immediate surroundings.

The roads I run have no sidewalks or curbs. The best edge has asphalt blending gently into roadside dirt and weeds. Along some stretches, the pavement abruptly ends at a roadside gully, the depth of which I have determined "the hard way" more than once. That looming hazard, and, the possibility of tripping over an abandoned hubcap or downed tree limb, prompts me to run far out toward the crown of the 18-foot wide roads. Fortunately, the roads usually have light vehicle traffic. On a lucky outing, I can go as far as a quarter-mile or more without having to veer over toward the side to yield to a motorist.

The particulars of the visuals I depend on while running on these country roads are multiple. Not only must I calculate my exact departure time relative to sunset, but I also keep track of the moon phase. More than once the glorious glow of that celestial body has shown me the way home. The lush green of roadside foliage contrasts better with a dry road of pale hue. The dry weeds of winter or during a drought make the edge of a rain dampened road more conspicuous.

It is that demarcation between road and roadside that is the single most important piece of visual information I use. Perhaps some day I will try to persuade the town's Department of Public Work's commissioner to add a white stripe along the edge, at least where there is a sudden drop-off to a gully. A driver on a foggy night might appreciate such a marking, too.

Motorists are not a threat to me generally. Car headlights are noticeable as they approach at twilight on my side of the road, and vehicles coming up from behind in the far lane, are announced primarily by their tire noise on the rough asphalt. These days though, car headlights seem to be brighter than ever. I think the technological advances giving the driver better forward illumination, are creating more harsh lighting not only in my eyes, but I suspect in the faces of oncoming drivers. When such glaring headlights get close, I have been known to shade my eyes with one hand while the other gestures downward frantically to the driver. I realize he wants to see me well, and I certainly share that objective. Wearing white clothing and reflective strips are standard. I also carry a flashlight. Its beam is not going to show me anything, but should make my presence more obvious. Running with low vision does not mean running with low visibility.

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