Being Ashley’s Eyes: Guiding A VI Athlete
As pretty much everyone in the CHAARG community knows, I am a *runner* + have been running for the past 16 years. I love helping other people learn to love running (hello CHAARG Run Club!) + I have found that running + the community I’ve found through it has opened so many doors.
One of the best doors it has opened for me has been the opportunity to be someone else’s eyes.
I met Ashley Eisenmenger this past summer when I went to a tandem bike clinic through an organization called Dare2Tri — an organization with the mission to enhance the lives of individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments by building confidence, community, health and wellness through swimming, biking, and running. I had run with the co-founder of Dare2Tri (Hi Dan!) through my running group for a couple of years + had always wanted to learn more about the organization *(you can learn more about how amazing they are here!). I also thought it’d be really cool to be able to ride a tandem bike.
Ashley is a visually impaired elite triathlete. You can read more about her story here (++ yes – you’ll be just as obsessed with her as I am). Even though I had never ridden a tandem bike before, Ashley had no fears about hopping on the bike with me (I was way more nervous than she was). Surprise: we didn’t crash! + Ashley was able to coach me through riding around the parking lot with no hesitation. By the end of the clinic, I felt pretty confident on the front of a tandem bike + knew that becoming more involved with Dare2Tri was something I really wanted to do.
The following week, I was so excited when Ashley came with another friend to our Thursday morning speed workout. I was even more excited when I had the opportunity to be her eyes for that workout.
In all honesty — I had shown up to that morning’s workout in a bad mood. It was early, I was tired, + I had no interest in doing a speed workout. But the challenge of doing something different + guiding someone while running really got my blood pumping. Guiding a VI athlete was something I had never really thought about. In fact — I had only seen a few VI athletes throughout my time competing in high school cross country + running half marathons + full marathons as a post-grad.
As with trying anything new — I was nervous. A thousand what-if’s + questions went through my mind. Am I talking too much? Why are there so many sticks on the ground? Will we make it under that tree branch? But, Ashley, being the pro she is, ended up guiding *me* through most of the workout + affirming what I was doing. I finished that workout in a much better mood than I had started — it was honestly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. It was such a mental challenge + kept me *in the moment* the entire time.
Since that workout, I’ve had the opportunity to start consistently guiding Ashley once to twice/week ++ learning more about her journey as a VI athlete. Every time I run with her — I’m blown away by her confidence, kindness, + sense of humor. I believe that being able to guide another athlete has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life + is something I would encourage everyone to do.
Since doing anything for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience, below I’m sharing the 3 biggest lessons I’ve learned from guiding Ashley:
#1] Don’t hesitate to ask questions. I’ve lived with able-body privilege for my entire life + haven’t had many experiences with visually impaired or disabled people. So, I realized early on there is A LOT for me to learn! I sometimes would find myself not wanting to ask questions out of a fear of sounding ignorant… but I quickly realized that if you don’t ask, you’re not going to learn. Thankfully, Ashley is incredibly gracious with my questions + has never made me feel ignorant when answering them. It has been incredible to learn more about her + her lived experiences ++ has opened my eyes (no pun intended) in such a new way.
#2] This is a mental + physical workout. Guiding a VI athlete is just as much of a mental workout as it is physical. You need to stay completely present in the moment + communicate all of the things you are seeing. Branches, shifts in the pavement/earth, curves + turns, how much you have left in the workout, what pace you’re hitting… it all needs to go from your visuals to spoken + timed so that the other person can adjust accordingly.
#3] Build a relationship with the person you’re guiding! I’d like to think that Ashley + I hit it off pretty quickly ++ I think that is a big part of what makes me love showing up to workout with her. You’ll get more out of your workouts with someone when you invest in getting to know them + learning from them!