Photo: Team With A Vision Runners and guides after the 2016 Cambridge Half Marathon
I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but wasn’t sure how to best approach it. I began lending my sight to runners with visual impairments about 2.5 years ago and it’s something that has brought so much joy into my life. Sharing a race experience with another person and helping them participate in a sport that has given me so much has been life changing. It also has given me inside view into some of the struggles that adaptive athletes face while training and racing and many times that struggle has nothing to do with their diagnosis.
Stella Young, who sadly passed away in 2014, was an amazing advocate and activist for people living with disabilities and delivered a TED talk entitled “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much. Her TED talk is engaging and laced with humor which I think is why it’s so perfect.
Video: Stella Young’s TED talk “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”
So why am I writing about this on my running blog? I can tell you without exception, every race I have participated in as a sighted guide has included a runner passing us while yelling a variation of “you’re so inspiring”. I think the adaptive athletes and I all understand that this is coming from a positive place and is absolutely meant to be supportive and encouraging. Unfortunately, as Madonna said in the song 4 Minutes “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
I’m a firm believer in the “when you know better you do better philosophy” so I saw an opportunity to educate and be a true ally to my friends who are adaptive athletes. My experience with adaptive athletes has been primarily with runners with different visual impairments but about six months ago I met someone who has changed that. Adrianne Haslet is known to many as one of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, I’m lucky enough to know her as a teammate and friend.
Photo: Adrianne and I racing along Memorial Drive with our Heartbreaker teammates
My mind was definitely made up that I needed to write this post after the Harpoon 5 Miler a few weeks ago. I wasn’t racing the 5 miler myself, but tons of the Heartbreakers were running so I finished my scheduled long run and made sure I ended it on the course of the race so I could cheer them on. Everyone looked great out there and I snapped tons of pics of everyone as they went by. I soon spotted Adrianne (who was a little sore and had to walk a bit) who perked right up when she saw me and threw up the Heartbreakers sign.
Photo: Adrianne taking on the Harpoon 5 Miler
Something that day made me do something impulsive and when Adrianne got to where I was, I jumped in and decided I’d run her to the finish line so she’d have some company. In the last mile of the race, at least 3 people came up and said something involving Inspiring and I realized how often this must be happening. During the 2018 Boston Marathon, countless people told Kyle he was an inspiration as they were passing us. Kyle is an amazing athlete but also has an great sense of humor and would respond “Then why are you passing a blind guy? Don’t you know that’s very rude?” causing looks of shock on the faces of the other runners.
Photo: Topo Athletic & Nathan Sports Ambassador (and my friend) Kyle Robidoux and I on one of our training runs
I’m not one for complaining without offering solutions, So here is how you can be supportive of adaptive athletes without being offensive… treat them as you’d treat any other runner on the course. “You guys look great!” “Keep up the good work!” are things everyone appreciates during a run. It’s really that simple.
I love one of Stella Young’s quotes “I’m not here to inspire you. I’m here to tell you that we’ve been lied to about disability. Yeah, we’ve been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It’s a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.”
I’m so lucky to have people in my life to teach me these lessons so I can pass them on. Being and advocate and ally means using the voice you have to invoke change in the world around you. That is the intent of this post. To many who are reading it, I was just like you and didn’t know this was how many adaptive athletes feel. Be a part of making this world better for everyone, it’s truly a gift.