Amelia Dickerson is a 32-year-old visually impaired runner from Boulder, Colo., with a charming smile, ambitious personality and uncanny zest for life. Although she’s been blind since the age of 14, she’s as passionate and committed as any runner you’ll meet. With her tenacious spirit and the help of many running guides (including those with the Lending Sight and Achilles International Colorado training groups), Amelia runs five to six days every week, which often includes a 20-miler on the weekends. She’s set numerous American records from the 5K to the marathon in recent years and this summer hopes to participate in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Here is Amelia’s story in her own words.
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We were 13 miles into the California International Marathon on Dec. 6 when I hit that critical decision point that comes in every race—how badly do I want this?
Cal International is the United States Association of Blind Athletes National Championships, and I am a blind runner. I was favored to win, and I felt the pressure of that expectation. I am almost entirely blind with light perception in one eye, so I rely heavily upon guides to help me maneuver the obstacles of a road race. Just over halfway through the race, though, I’d lost one of my guides, and my second guide, Neil Galvez, who was in severe pain, wasn’t able to keep running. Guides are human, susceptible to all the same ailments that can knock anyone out of a marathon. I wasn’t sure what to do next.
Despite the obvious dilemma, I really didn’t want to stop. The year before, I had pulled out of a race at 17 miles, and I dreaded repeating the disappointment I felt after that. Running at about 7:40 per-mile pace, Neil and I continued running silently along the road to Sacramento as we considered our options. My thoughts felt clear and detached from the physical demands of the race.
I asked Neil if there were any other blind runners around. Perhaps someone had a spare guide? Nope.
Maybe I could run without a guide, I thought to myself, and follow the other runners by sound. I always race with a guide, the two of us holding onto a two-foot length of bungee cord, my tether. I deduce a lot of information about what I should do through what is happening with the tether, but it’s also a safety blanket—as long as my guide and I are holding on, I know what to do. I can’t really imagine racing without my guide and the tether. But, at that moment, the need to run was stronger than the fear of being—both literally and figuratively—untethered.
In my mind, I was willing to go it alone for the final 13 miles of unfamiliar terrain with potholes and aid stations, not to mention thousands of other runners who wouldn’t understand that I couldn’t see anything, in order to avoid quitting. Part of me thought it was a little crazy, but a bigger part of me wanted to stay in the race and keep running.
When I was younger and had a bit more sight, I’d go running alone on familiar paths. Sometimes I’d wind up rolling down hills or flipping over the top of fences, but the chance of injury was a small threat when compared to my need to run. Some day, they will find a pattern in the brains of compulsive runners and it will become a diagnosis. In the meantime, I simply call myself a runner.
How I Got Started
I know exactly when I went from someone who liked to run to someone who had to run. I started running in middle school and loved it. But then my life changed forever at 14 when I was involved in a devastating car accident. I had a severe head injury, I couldn’t eat because of all the damage to my face, I was very weak, and I was newly blind. I was lucky to survive, but the challenges were immediate and immense.
One afternoon, I decided to try, for the first time, to get to the bathroom on my own. I became disoriented in my small hospital room and I didn’t make it. I sat down on the floor, sobbing loudly, until a nurse came to help me. I was a high school freshman with classes and friends and running. I was not a severely injured, blind hospital patient who wet herself. I had to make people see who I really was. I had to run.
My physical therapist heard my protests. She improvised, both of us holding onto a hula hoop, her in front and me behind. We ran the four full hallways that made up the in-patient rehab unit. I was so happy. I was starting to move again.
Sometimes we cling more tightly to what we might have lost. Even now, when I’m frustrated and overwhelmed by things I can’t handle, I run. It’s where I find solace and balance and rhythm and friends. It’s also where I find my identity.
People sometimes comment that they would also be afraid to run blind, that they couldn’t trust someone else to guide them. For me though, I guess the drive to run overcomes any fear or distrust. I accept that I’m going to fall at some point during a run; it’s rare when my knees don’t have scabs on them. When I accept that there will be a few scrapes and a little blood from time to time, I no longer have to fear it. Of course, if someone repeatedly guides me into things, I do eventually lose trust in them, but that is the exception, not the rule.
Persevering to the Finish
I’m lucky that so many people out there are willing to run with me. In the California International Marathon, with Neil quickly running up against his limit, we found one of those willing people. At about the 15-mile mark, Neil approached a man we’d been running with for several miles to ask an enormous favor: if he’d take over running with me. The complete stranger, Jim Eckford, accepted. I don’t have much to tell people about guiding—give me a head’s up about left, right, large bumps in the road, hard objects, other people. It’s simultaneously simple and hard to actually do it. You are holding onto a tether, which messes up your form. You need to be aware of twice as much space and then communicate both big and little details on the fly.
Without any practice, Jim nailed it! He guided me 11 miles to the finish. I crossed the finish line in 3:20:28, a time that not only beat the PR I set a month earlier at the 2015 New York City Marathon (3:21:29), but it also lowered the women’s American record for a visually impaired runner. What I am most grateful for, though, is Jim’s willingness to guide a blind person in the spur of the moment. We ran the hardest part of the marathon together, so there wasn’t much energy leftover for talking. We parted shortly after the end of the race, but I hope to someday go for an easy run with Jim, learn a bit more about the person who was not afraid of me, and maybe take him out for dinner afterwards.
Amanda McCracken learned the art of guiding a visually impaired runner through practice and patience over the years with Amelia Dickerson. She wrote about the challenges, joys and veiled truths of guiding a visually impaired runner, which you can read here:
Out on the course, I also learned that there’s a possibility of going to Rio de Janeiro this summer to represent the U.S. in the Paralympics. The Paralympics occurs just after the Olympics, bringing together athletes with disabilities from around the world to compete and represent their countries. There’s still a lot of hard work for me to do if I’m going to make it, but I now know it’s an option and am hoping to make it happen.
As I look towards Rio, I get to use races like Cal International to help me build my confidence in myself and the goodness of people around me. I wish I could go back and find that first physical therapist, show her how far I’ve come and thank her. Now I depend on other people to help me reach my running goals. Sometimes that frustrates me, I wish I could do it on my own. But when I get past wishing things were different, I find myself grateful to be surrounded by people who are willing to come alongside me and help me be the runner I am.
Design: Ryan Wood
Copy Editing: Brian Metzler and Emily Polachek