Video at bottom of story: Otis Taylor interviews Amy McDonaugh + Erin Shaw's Marathon playlist
Novice runner Rachel Weeks and veteran marathoner Amy McDonaugh don’t need to see to believe they can go the distance.
Both are legally blind.
Weeks and McDonaugh, friends who live in Irmo, will be pounding the pavement Saturday during the Columbia SC Marathon. Weeks, 28, will be running the half-marathon with a guide, while McDonaugh, 35, will run the marathon alone.
Weeks, who was born hearing impaired, didn’t have any trouble with her vision until she was in college. She was 19 when she went to the optometrist for a normal checkup and was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a condition that affects both hearing and vision. The major symptoms are hearing loss and retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that causes night blindness and a loss of peripheral vision. Weeks now has about 20/70 central vision.
“There was a huge adjustment time there, because I had to pack up my stuff and come home,” Weeks said. “Adjusting to not driving was really difficult, but I kept going, finished school, got married, had two children, bought a house and moved (to South Carolina).”
And now, she’s running a half marathon — with her sister, Rebecca Nickens, as her guide.
“Every time we run we still learn something new,” Nickens, 26, said. “Not only do I have to make sure that I am able to do the mileage myself, but I have to watch out for every little thing so that she doesn’t trip. It’s like I’m my eyes and her eyes and ears and everything else.”
The two run with a waist tether. In addition to Nickens’ voice commands, Weeks can also feel the tension in the rope and tell where her sister is moving.
The two run side-by-side, joking and laughing about how they are huffing and puffing up the hills around the neighborhood. Only occasionally will Weeks bump into Nickens, usually on turns and around cul de sacs as witnessed during a recent run.
“Oh sorry,” Weeks said breezily.
“Just grab my arm or something, so I know where to turn,” Weeks said after more bumps. “I don’t want to knock my guide over.”
Weeks and Nickens are still adjusting to running as an attached team, but they say this is only the beginning. They will have only run with a tether once in a race situation.
“Our thing right now is that every time we do a race, we’re going to go even farther.” Weeks said. “After the half-marathon we want to do a sprint triathlon and after that we want to do a marathon.”
The Columbia Marathon will be McDonaugh’s sixth. In May, she won the women’s overall division of the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon.
Without a guide and without expecting to win.
“There just weren’t other elite runners there,” McDonaugh modestly said. “But after I won, it opened so many doors with visually impaired runners. I had no idea that there were so many out there.”
Unlike many other visually impaired runners, McDonaugh chooses to run without a guide, despite being completely blind in her right eye and having no peripheral vision in her left. The central vision on her left eye is about 24/100.
McDonaugh had 20/20 vision until she was 11 when she diagnosed with Arteriouvenous malformation, an abnormal tangling of blood vessels in her right cheek.
Her optic nerves were damaged during treatment, leaving her legally blind.
But like Weeks, McDonaugh got married, had children and started running.
“I started running after I had my third child,” McDonaugh said. “We lived in Ohio where it was gray and dreary all the time, so I was in the house a lot and struggling with depression because I couldn’t get out. And I just decided one time when my husband came home from work that I was going to go out on a run, and it’s just progressed from there.”
Now McDonaugh trains for marathons by running the same 1.5 mile loop around her neighborhood where she has memorized every bit of the terrain. Sometimes she’ll run on a treadmill or at Riverfront Park with her husband, but she likes the quietness of her neighborhood after the kids have gone to school.
She’s been running blind for long enough now that she doesn’t need a guide. Usually she just focuses on someone in front of her and follows them. This tactic has caused her to miss water stops and turns before, but McDonaugh says her independence is worth it.
“It’s nice to be able to run on your own,” McDonaugh, who will run the Boston Marathon in 2013, said. “You don’t have to find someone who is able to go the exact pace as you.”
McDonaugh said she would like to break three hours, but might end up staying with a pace group to help navigate the turns. Her husband has been driving her around the course to help familiarize her with it, because “it’s hard to find landmarks on the course because when you’re running fast, everything blurs,” she said.
Repeat: She runs so fast that everything blurs.
She glides effortlessly over the road with her light frame and quick staccato steps. If she can navigate the 27 turns of the marathon without any problems, she’ll be a contender.
Video: Otis Taylor interviews Amy McDonaugh (Erin Shaw's Marathon playlist is below the video player)
Erin Shaw's marathon playlist
Click the playlist menu button () in the player below to scroll through the items in this playlist. Some songs contain explicit lyrics.