Back last fall when Team With A Vision asked if I’d be willing to join their team and help guide a runner in the Boston Marathon, the dooce that you probably think I really am came roaring up out of my face and I was all, “HELL, YES!” Fearless and vulgar and pungent. But then two minutes after I got off the phone with them the dooce that I really am clobbered the persona dooce and was all DOES SIR WISH TO DIE.
The real dooce was very much like Chuck was in real life: often brooding, capable of seeming and genuinely feeling outgoing but much more of an introvert than I ever realized. In desperate need of downtime after spending time in large groups of people. Can balance a beer bottle on my head. Scared of my father.
AND THEN. And then after I ran the Golden Gate Half Marathon last November and they saw my time, they said they’d found the perfect person to pair me with. And here’s where I reveal just how terrible I am at being a feminist: the name sounded like it belonged to a man and my immediate response to her was, “You are very mistaken.”
Because, um… I don’t run so good. I’m slow. I would never qualify for the Boston Marathon on my own, and here they were pairing me with a guy? Go ahead and shake your damn head at that shameful stereotypical thinking, I am doing it with you. Unfriend me on Facebook, I am unfriending myself:
“Oh my god, I didn’t think it was possible for that woman to be any more awful, but would you look at that.”
Last week during a Skype call with Simon Wheatcroft, a British ultra-runner who happens to be visually impaired, I discovered why they thought that he and I would work well together: he runs long distances to challenge himself, not to beat a certain time or intimidate the competition. He thinks the pursuit of the distance and what it requires of the human body is in and of itself the reason to do it.
“The only reason I gravitate toward endurance is because I enjoy pushing. I don’t particularly enjoy going quick, I enjoy pushing and pushing and pushing. There’s always an interesting point in the marathon as well, around about what people talk about hitting the wall, when you become so emotionally drained that anything begins to upset you. Quite often it’s difficult to keep it together emotionally because you’re getting upset over anything. And then you finish the race and think, why did I get so upset 20 minutes ago? I can’t believe I was that upset! What went wrong?!”
I’ve written about this before, my fascination with exploring the ability of the human body to experience, cope with and process pain. And I’ve also written about that point in the marathon, in particular the one I ran in New York in 2011 when I wanted to murder every single person cheering along the last two miles of the race. Who did they think they were, standing there lazily, perfectly hydrated, not burning a single calorie, all bones intact, telling ME that I could do it HOW DARE THEY.
Simon was born with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, and now at age 32 his vision loss is nearing completion. In his own words:
I no longer have peripheral or central vision (loss of acuity on central), edge detection, colour detection, compromised light sensitivity and complete night blindness. In terms of what that looks like when observing a scene, I just have a fog of dull colour that covers a small percentage of visual field. For example I can no longer see faces or details of people, just a sense of figures that move.
He wasn’t a runner before he lost his vision, and in an essay he wrote for a running magazine explains why he took up the sport:
I had become constrained by my lack of vision. Frustrated and bored I sat on my sofa, having recently taken voluntary redundancy and waiting for my new start at university, I had a lot of time on my hands. I thought to myself “maybe I could just go outside and run?”. This thought plagued me for a while until one day I decided to just do it. I headed out to a football pitch behind my house, positioning myself between the goal posts and ran up and down the pitch. Feeling exhilarated I was quickly brought back down to earth by the dog walkers — they assumed I could see, I assumed they would move.
Becoming unsafe I persuaded my wife to drive me to a closed road. I knew I would be safe and I could just run up and down the road to my hearts content. It proved relatively easy, I could feel the double yellow lines underfoot and used them as my guide. While I could feel the hump of the line I knew I was on the right track — I was beginning to be less constrained by my lack of vision. Around the same time I began to use RunKeeper on my iPhone — a running application that reads aloud distance and pace information. I began to notice that I always felt the same grates underfoot as RunKeeper spoke the distance.
Runkeeper has become a vital tool for Simon as it has for many runners (I’ve often used it myself), and he has used its verbal cues to memorize specific points along the routes he runs to determine where he is. It gave him quite literally true independence and will be a part of a “kit” he’s preparing for a 250 km race across the desert without a guide. A week after the Boston Marathon. He will be the first blind competitor to ever attempt this. I wondered how he was preparing for this, especially since most of the time he’ll be slogging through sand.
“A lot of sleepless nights,” he answered, and we both laughed. “I’m not so worried about the terrain. I’m always of the belief that you just have to accept it. Yeah, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt like hell. I’m probably going to be in the doctor’s tent a few nights, you know, probably going to be a lot of vomiting. It’s going to be absolutely awful. It’s not going to be a fun happy time, but when I look back on it it’s going to seem like a fun happy time because I achieved something that was a true challenge.”
“How many miles will you be running each day?” I asked him.
“First four days it’s 26 miles. Day five it’s 45 miles, but you’re allowed to take that into day six if you want. And day seven, it’s more of, hmm… a victory lap? You all just run together, no one is really racing at that point.”
“And they aren’t handing out food along the course?”
“No! You have to take your own food for seven days. And at the minute I’m just trying to get all my kit together. What’s really annoying is that for me to do this challenge, I’m taking a lot of technology which is enabling me to do it. And that weighs a reasonable amount. And my technology… if I wasn’t taking it, I could take four and a half days more worth of food. So I have to sacrifice food for the technology.”
You know, I’m certainly curious about the human body’s capacity to endure pain, I am. But probably not seven days worth of that kind of pain. Let’s keep it to five hours, shall we, curiosity?
“I just read your post about the 20-mile run, and I’m so impressed that you’re doing it all on the treadmill. That is some going,” he said, and I covered my red face with both hands. I don’t know why I find it so embarrassing, but what kind of insanity is it to run on a treadmill for 20 miles? And have an ultra-runner read about it? He wasn’t judgmental about it, though, and actually gave me some great tips about chafing (like, don’t run on a treadmill, HEATHER), and some great advice about fueling for the long runs.
“Chewing while running is impossible,” he explained. “I know guys who will eat chocolate bars and flap jacks while running and I’m like, ‘How do you chew it?!’ I can’t do it. I still can’t do it!” AHA! I am validated by an ultra-runner! In the name of Jesus Christ, AMEN.
He continued, “But here’s what I do: from mile 6-8, that’s when I start eating, and then I’m eating every 15 minutes, throwing back Shot Bloks. It levels you out. You get a constant influx of energy. But then at 18-20 miles you can’t really stomach sugar anymore. What I generally do in Boston is take the food from the crowds. They’ll hand out pretzels and licorice and apples and oranges, so just grab all that. That way you don’t have to carry the food!”
I felt a little incredulous at his trust in the fine people of Massachusetts and added, “And hope it’s not laced with something poisonous?” I was raised not to accept food from strangers, especially not Ben Affleck.
Since he’d brought up his experience in Boston I had to ask him about Heartbreak Hill and whether or not we were going to drive a car up that incline instead of running it.
“It’s not even that much of a hill,” he said and I could tell he was shaking his head. “It’s one of those things where everyone builds it up to be grueling so when you get to it it’s got you beat already. They’ve named it that just to make it tough. When I ran it for the first time… obviously I can’t see the hills, I don’t like people telling me if we’re near the top of the hill because it messes with you. People are really bad at judging distance, so my guide will say it’s 20 meters. And I’m like, you don’t know what 20 meters is! It could be 10 feet or 50 meters. So now I’m like, don’t tell me. It’s a hill and I’ll just keep on going.”
I was furiously taking notes: DO NOT TELL SIMON IF WE ARE NEAR THE TOP OF THE HILL. Which is a stupid note to take because I’ll be crying at that point anyway and unable to form words.
“There’s a point in Boston, and there’s this really tall tower and everyone uses it as a marker for when you’re nearly finished,” he said giving further advice on the course. “I can’t remember what it’s called. But it was around that point last year when I was like, ‘WHY DO I KEEP COMING OUT AND DOING THESE THINGS? I GODDAMN HATE THE MARATHON!’”
“I’m sure we’re going to hit that point somewhere in the race,” I said giving him every confidence that I am qualified to be doing this in any way whatsoever, when what I was trying to say is YOU SO GET ME.
We talked about Nicole Perry who will be running with us, how fit she is and how we think she’s going to put us to shame. I mean, she’s a certified personal trainer and routinely blogs about her incredibly healthy lifestyle.
“You and I are going to be breaking out cigarettes, chugging a beer, maybe getting a tattoo,” I joked.
“We’re going to stop at mile 20 and stop in at a bar just before we have to go up that hill,” he added, removing any doubt that TWAV has paired me with a brother from another mother. “It will be far easier once we have a drink or two, ha! You know, there are a couple of people on the team who are professional marathon runners, who dedicate their lives to being incredibly good marathon runners. They run away at the start and then you don’t see them again until the end. We’ll have fun at the back of the race. That’s where the fun is. It’s not a proper race if you don’t stop for a donut.”
Simon lives in Rossington in the north of England, an old mining village that suffered economic calamity when the mines shut down. The top 2% of the poorest people in the UK live in this village, and while Simon is hopeful that some recent investments might turn things around he attributes much of his ability to endure to growing up in this environment.
“I think more than anything, maybe, it’s where I grew up that enabled me to learn to push and to be willing to perform under constraints. Because there are a lot of people who would have perhaps not even taken on that running challenge, not being able to see, not being able to afford to eat. But you stick with it because you’re used to that.”
He’s also the father to two young boys, ages five and two, and he began all this ultra-training the week his older child was born.
“I really wanted to show to my children that even though perhaps there’s a few difficulties and a few obstacles, you can still push and achieve incredible things. It’s easy to tell your children that, but it’s better to demonstrate.”
I couldn’t agree more, except when I walked in the door from my 20-mile long run Leta looked at me and said, “You look terrible. Why are you doing this again?”
I could not be more thrilled to have the opportunity to run with Simon and represent Team With A Vision in the 2016 Boston Marathon. They are doing amazing work, and every dollar donated on Simon’s behalf supports Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s statewide network of vision rehabilitation services, which include 14 low vision clinics, 34 low vision support groups, and 300 volunteers matched 1:1 with blind individuals.
I’ll be announcing my bib number before the race so that you can follow along and watch as we approach Heartbreak Hill, if you’d like.
T-minus 13 days!