Running a marathon is challenging. Fatigued muscles, cramping calves, and heat exhaustion are just a few side effects of the 26.2 mile endeavor.
However, what few of us know, is what it’s like to run 2 marathons in 6 days with little to no eyesight or hearing.
Sarah Dever, age 30, has a condition called Usher Syndrome. The main symptoms include an eye disorder called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), and hearing loss. RP causes night-blindness and a loss of peripheral vision, due to a progressive degeneration of the retina.
But this doesn’t hold her back. We spoke with Sarah and her two friends and running guides, Sammie and Olivia, who empower her competitive running, and helped her complete the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. Sarah is now the first blind runner to complete the Challenge — a feat that would have been literally impossible without her friends by her side.
We’re celebrating Global Running Day with an inspiring story about the Power of She and the power of friendship.
Q: Sarah, how did you decide you wanted to do the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge?
Sarah: I knew I would be the first visually impaired runner to complete it, which is a big part of why I decided to do it in the first place. I ran my first marathon in 2014. I had run many half-marathons and four full-marathons since then, but I had never tried to run two back-to-back. Both Sammie and Olivia, my friends and guides, have many more races to their names. I’m not even sure if they still keep count!
Q: Take us back to the beginning, Sammie. How did you, Sarah, and Olivia meet?
Sammie: The three of us met through an organization called Team in Training, which raises money for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society. I was new to endurance sports, and Sarah and I got to talking after we realized we were both signed up for the Nike Women’s Marathon.
When we met, I had no idea that Sarah was losing her vision or that she was missing part of her hearing. It was 5 or 6 months after we had met that I learned of her condition. I was giving her and another friend a ride to a training one evening — Sarah was sitting in the backseat. The three of us had been talking normally, but once we got in the car, Sarah completely stopped responding or engaging in the conversation. Later while we were training, I asked her if she was upset about something, because she had gotten really quiet in the car. “No, not at all” she said, “But I’m losing my hearing and I usually have to read people’s lips to formulate what they’re saying. From the backseat, I couldn’t hear you guys.” I was so surprised. If you look at Sarah, you wouldn’t know she was struggling with anything – let alone her hearing or vision.
Q: Sarah, were there any unforeseen obstacles you came across?
Sarah: For Big Sur, every runner has to sign a waiver for insurance purposes. When one of the directors learned I was legally blind, he said it would be too hard for me. He tried to dissuade me from going through with it. It was very discouraging. Ultimately he came to understand. But it was a great lesson in standing up for myself and for what I believe in.
Q: Sammie & Olivia, can you take us through the process of guiding a blind runner?
Olivia: The runner and the guide are bound together via a tether tied to one of their wrists. I wear a bib over my shirt that reads ‘BLIND GUIDE.’ The back of Sarah’s bib reads ‘BLIND’. If Sarah and I are passing other runners, I’ll yell out something like “blind runner coming up on your right!” or “on your left!”
Sammie: When we run, Sarah’s left hand is tethered to my right, and she runs up against the right edge of the course. It’s safer that way, because no one has to pass her on her side — they can only pass the two of us on my left. I usually call out when there’s a dip in the road or an object in front of us.
There are various obstacles that you don’t anticipate until you try guiding. Often during a marathon, runners will remove a lot of the clothing they wear when they first start out. Sometimes it’s really cold in the morning but gets really warm as the day progresses (and as you start running!). Runners throw their garments on the ground, which isn’t really a hazard, unless you can’t see them in front of you.
Another obstacle is rain. I guided Sarah through Boston last year, and the rain blew out her right hearing aid, making it difficult for her to hear me and forcing her to rely on the little tunnel vision she has to keep one foot in front of the other.
Q: Olivia, what’s one thing you’ve taken away from this journey?
Olivia: I am more appreciative of many things. I am grateful that I am able to run, and that I can be aware of my surroundings. And not only do I have to be aware for myself, but I have to be aware for someone else as well. I’m constantly looking down at the road in front of us, asking how I can help her, trying to see and make sure that I’m making this as easy for her as I can. The funny thing is that because I’m not so focused on myself – because I’m not focused on my own pain and my own struggle – the run goes by a lot faster.
Running with Sarah has given me an even greater purpose. I’m not only helping someone out, but I’m physically there for her as her seeing eye. Through this experience I’ve learned just how much of an effect I can have on somebody. It feels great knowing that I can be helpful in more ways than I even realized.
Q: Sammie, what’s one thing that inspires you about Sarah?
Sammie: Sarah will say things as we are running the race like, “I don’t get why they’re telling me I’m amazing right now, they are all running the same race as me.” She doesn’t pat herself on the back. She’s very humble and doesn’t realize how amazing she is. Her humility is definitely something I admire.