I first saw Rhonda-Marie Avery at the April 2011 Ennismore Half Marathon. But she didn’t see me. Not because of the crowds or where we were lined up in our pace groups. Rhonda didn’t see me because she’s legally blind.
Rhonda sees only 8% of what you and I see. And that’s with her glasses.
We were both at the start line in the same pace group and I remember seeing her Blind Runner bib pinned to her CamelBak. I thought it was one of coolest things ever and snapped a picture of Rhonda and her guide runner. I was too nervous and wound up about my own race to introduce myself, but I hoped to connect with Rhonda and her guide over the next 21 kilometres (it takes me a good five to seven kilometres to shake the jitters out and, after that point, I’m a social butterfly and chat up everyone). But race conditions were awful and I was under-trained so I ended up with my head down, tromping through sleet and snow, grinding out the rest of the half marathon on my own and didn’t see her for the rest of the race.
Through the power of social media and old-fashioned six degrees of separation, I stumbled across Rhonda on Daily Mile when looking to meet other runners in my neighbourhood. Through Twitter, Facebook and blogging, we formed an online friendship and cheered each other on as the race season progressed. Over the summer and fall I read about her adventures as she worked full-time as a massage therapist, parented three gorgeous and energetic children and trained alongside her equally running-addicted husband. Most days before I was out of bed, Rhonda had already posted a swim, bike or run workout to Daily Mile because, in addition to fulfilling a New Years resolution to run every day in 2011, she had a goal of completing a sprint distance triathlon (check) and qualifying for the Boston Marathon (check).
Finally this past January our schedules allowed us to meet in person. And of course, we went running. While my two-year-old daughter and her four-year-old son laughed and played in my double Chariot stroller, I helped Rhonda navigate the dark city streets. Truth be told, Rhonda knows the local running routes better than I do, having memorized the sidewalks’ dips and turns so that she can do most of her training in the wee hours of the morning and spend her days with her clients and her family. Being a guide runner for that short time was a tremendous pressure and honour. Over the next few weeks we’d run together, sometimes with her middle son, sometimes with another local running mother, sometimes with her husband. Each time I was struck by Rhonda’s quiet confidence. On our last long training run together, a 20K on a cold and windy Sunday, each time her Garmin beeped out a kilometre, she’d make a joke about being cranky. The 20K was her longest run in months. But instead of complaining, she carried on quietly, 100% tuned into her surroundings, one foot in front of the other, while myself and her other guide runner pointed out puddles and parked cars. After our run was finished, Rhonda confided that the reason she was so determined to finish that 20K run was she wanted to race the Peterborough Half Marathon. Solo. This would be her first ever solo half marathon.
Leading up to race day I watched the weather. Warm and cloudy would be perfect for a blind runner to attempt a solo half marathon. Race day was just the opposite: cold and sunny. I offered to be her guide runner (training on my own to be half marathon ready in case I was needed). I texted Rhonda right up until the starter’s gun went off to provide support and encouragement and updates on the road conditions. I’m actually surprised she didn’t block my number because I’m sure my concern could have been interpreted as harassment. For the next few hours I thought about my new friend, hoping that she made it through the race safely and achieved her goal.
And of course she did. (Her full race report is here but grab a tissue because it’s a tear-jerker)
If you’re wondering how she can top a solo half marathon, let me tell you: a guided half-Ironman in July and a guided ultra-marathon in October. I’ve also talked her into swimming a 4K open water swim and I’m also trying to convince her to run a spring ultra-marathon with me.
It’s awesome to have crazy friends who inspire you.