Goal in Sight: Team with a VISION 5K
A new Boston road race aims to provide a competitive venue for the nation's blind elite runners — and encouragement for a new generation of visually impaired athletes.
Posted Monday, 2 September, 2002
Joe Quintanilla sometimes chafes a little at the well-intentioned and often effusive congratulations he receives after finishing a marathon or road race.
"It's flattering to have someone come up and say, 'Wow, it's so inspiring to see you run the marathon, now I know I can do it too,'" said Quintanilla. "I appreciate that, but you know, it's not a miracle. I'm out there performing, doing what I've trained hard to do, doing what I love. At the end of the day, I'm toeing the starting line like everybody else and pushing as hard as I can."
But Quintanilla is not like everybody else: he is legally blind. A competitive runner with a personal-best marathon time of 3:11:00, he is also race director of the Team with a VISION 5K, a new Boston road race with a mission to recruit and encourage other blind runners.
"There are just a small number of blind runners out there," Quintanilla said. "We'd love to recruit new runners to this race, people who think it's impossible to run, and let them know that it's not that difficult. This is something they can do."
Now in its second year as a road race, the Team with a VISION 5K is open to blind and sighted runners alike, but the focus this year will be on a cadre of blind elite athletes from around the country who are coming to the race to compete.
"We want to make this the premier road race for the blind, and the nation's top blind athletes are going to be our elite runners," said Quintanilla. Although the prize money is modest with a first-place award of $600, the Team with a VISION 5K offers more money in the visually impaired division than any other road race in the country. In fact, only one other race, the Kemper Chicago 10K, offers prize money at all.
"It's great to see that wheelchair athletes are increasingly on par, with most races offering prize money for the wheelchair division, and I'd like to see blind athletes start to get similar opportunities," said Quintanilla.
The Team with a VISION 5K course is a fast loop on the shores of Boston's Charles River. The race starts at Artesani Park in Brighton and follows Soldiers Field road, crossing the river at Arsenal Bridge and back again on Eliot Bridge before returning to the finish. The bridges are the only elevations on the course, which is otherwise completely flat.
"We want this event to grow, and we're hoping that our flat, fast course will draw fast runners from around the region," Quintanilla said. Race organizers expect about 25 blind and visually impaired runners to compete in the October 5 road race, with an overall field of 1000 runners and walkers.
Started in 1988 by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind as a walkathon fundraiser, the event this year will expand to benefit five additional agencies for the blind: the Carroll Center for the Blind, Greater Boston Aid to the Blind, National Braille Press, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and Talking Information Center.
"It's a challenge, but with corporate support in the future, we hope to be able to get all the top blind runners here, to get them rooms, to get them funded," said Quintanilla. "Right now we're just trying to establish the race, to offer prize money and to have the top blind runners in the country come and have this be their race, the race they want to do every year."
Among the runners in this year's race will be Pennsylvania runner Pam McGonigle, 34, and Michigan runner Mike Castle, 39, both fresh from July's International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Lille, France. McGonigle took silver medals and set national records in her vision classification for both the 800m (2:20.5) and 1500m (4:46.2). Castle finished sixth in his classification in the marathon, posting 2:58:30 in 93 degree heat.
McGonigle, who holds 11 national records, has limited vision but requires a guide runner to help her compete. Particularly in high-speed track events where split-second timing is all important, the communication between runner and guide becomes a kind of art form.
"The relationship that develops between the guide and athlete is phenomenonal because there's so much communication, both verbal and nonverbal, that goes on," McGonigle said. "There's not always time for my guide to communicate in words what's going on, so he'll tap my wrist or give me other nonverbal cues. It can be pretty subtle.
"I need to trust him immensely because sometimes he'll say, 'Now!', and I have to make my move," McGonigle added. "There's no time to think about it, I have to respond to what he does."
In road races, the guide's role shifts from helping with the track's split-second strategy to surveying the big picture of the course. Quintanilla depends on his guide to navigate the field: passing runners, following course turns, preparing for hills, getting water, getting mile splits.
"There's constant communication about what's coming ahead," Quintanilla said. "We loop a shoe string around our index fingers, and if I start to drift toward the curb, for example, my guide pulls on it lightly to give me a cue."
Beyond the close rapport between guide and athlete, blind runners have to seek out guides who run at a higher level than they do. "The person who I race with has to be substantially faster so that not only can they complete the race with me but they're able to tell me exactly what's going on," McGonigle said.
For the guides, that means running the blind runner's race instead of their own, effectively giving up a race opportunity for themselves.
"They're making sacrifices to help me achieve my goals," said McGonigle. "They run with me and do my workout instead of doing theirs. If they were running for themselves they'd be running at a higher level. It's a real sacrifice, and it's a big challenge finding someone willing to commit."
Learning To Compete
Even for runners as talented as these, the road to high-caliber competition was hardly obvious and certainly not easy. Although McGonigle competed in track and cross country in high school, she did not realize until her 20s that competing with a guide was even a possibility.
"In training alone I was constantly falling and crashing into things and getting injured," McGonigle said. "In cross-country meets, I often fell. It was not uncommon for me to leave a meet with sweatpants on so that my mother wouldn't see that I had wiped out. She was concerned, of course, when she would see her daughter come home with messed-up knees and a black eye from running into a tree branch."
Eventually, McGonigle gave up running altogether, particularly when she found competition at the college level to be nearly impossible.
"In high school, it wasn't really a problem," she said. "I tended to run my races from the front and therefore didn't have many problems because there was no one in my way. But I struggled in college and in larger meets, because I wasn't always at the front anymore, and I had more obstacles."
Unable to compete effectively, McGonigle simply stopped running. As a college senior, however, she started running with a guide and discovered that the new approach made competition possible again. Looking back, however, she doesn't regret the bruises of her early running career.
"I would encourage any parents of children who are visually impaired or blind to allow them to get out there, to fall down and get up," she said. "It makes them stronger to go through that. There's a perception that allowing them to participate in sports and athletic activities is putting them at risk. But that's often being over-protective.
"The bottom line," she added, "is that we live in a sighted world, and we need to know how to function. The best way to do that is to be treated as everyone else is treated."
Encouragement for New Runners
One of the goals of the Team with a VISION 5K is to create a showcase of elite running that lets young blind people know that athletic activities are even a possibility. Organizers are seeking volunteer runners to be guides for runners who need them on race day.
"As a kid, basketball and baseball were sports I couldn't be competitive in, but I discovered that running was something I could do well," said Quintanilla, who discovered track as a high school freshman in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I loved the atmosphere and the work ethic, and I just fell in love with the sport."
"It never occurs to a lot of blind and visually impaired kids that they can run," said Castle. "We tend not to be encouraged as children to be athletes, and we tend to be protected from these things. That was the largest barrier for me. Coaches and gym teachers didn't look at me and say, 'Wow, he can run.' In fact, they didn't really say anything at all."
Although legally blind, Castle has limited vision and doesn't require a guide to compete. He didn't take up racing until his mid-20s but was inspired early on by the Boston Marathon. "For me as a child, I thought running the Boston Marathon would be, first of all, impossible for me to ever do, but I also thought it was one of these major athletic achievements. I never thought it was something that could be a reality for me."
Since then, Castle has run 24 marathons, including nine at Boston. In 1995, Castle for the first time won the Boston Marathon's visually impaired category, the first of several victories at Boston and the moment he realized that his race times could have an impact on others.
"That's a great motivation for participating in this 5K, too," Castle said. "This gets blind and visually impaired athletes in the newspaper, on television and in the public eye so that kids say, 'I can do this.' And not just blind and visually impaired kids -- this sends a message to people from all walks of life that obstacles in their lives don't have to be insurmountable."