Thursday, September 24, 2009

Matthews man just 'running in the dark'

For Jason Ackiss, the Hit the Brixx 10K isn't about the free pizza, or the free beer. He's not stressing out over the challenges that the hilly final mile might present.

No, the 33-year-old Bank of America project manager is viewing Saturday's race quite simply as an opportunity to see how fast and efficiently he can cover 6.2 miles -- while moving among a massive crowd of runners who he won't be able to see.

Ackiss, who is blind in both eyes, ran his first 5K earlier this year with a guide, and is using Hit the Brixx as a tune-up for the Dowd YMCA Half-Marathon on Nov. 7. He lives in Matthews with his wife of eight years; she is also blind, but their 2-year-old son has perfect vision. They have two Seeing Eye dogs, neither of which run with Ackiss. ("Seeing Eye dogs are trained to help me navigate while walking," he says. "Running would be asking too much of them.")

I caught up with him this week to get his story. It's a good one.

Q. Can you talk to me a little bit about the extent of your visual impairment?

Jason: I have very little light perception now, so in essence, I am totally blind. I had enough vision to read the chalkboard and textbooks in school until the fourth grade. I did have to sit at the front of the classroom, so I never had perfect vision. After fourth grade, I could read large-print books, but was told that my vision would most likely eventually completely go away. I learned Braille in the event I did lose all of my sight. It stayed "as is" until my last semester of college, when it began to slowly deteriorate. Over the next three years, it was lost completely. So – I have been essentially totally blind for about seven years.

Q. How long have you been running, and what prompted you to start?
I ran track in high school, but did not run after graduation. I had a treadmill that I used for exercise (just walking), but I never ran on it. What actually prompted me was a cross-country skiing trip my wife and I took. I got out of breath while skiing, and that frustrated me. I also had put on some weight since I got married, so … I began to run. I have been running for about 2½ years now.

Q. I'm told you just started running with a guide this year. What are some of the challenges of running on a treadmill versus running with a guide?

Running on a treadmill is fairly safe. The one I have has the arms on the sides, so I would just hold onto them. This worked great while walking, but wasn’t ideal for running. My form wasn’t too good because I had to hold on, so my body was tense while running. ... Running with a guide is much easier because I can use a natural running motion. There is also the added motivation of having someone to run with, which seems to make the time and distance go by more quickly. My guide simply tells me when there are changes in pavement, dips in the path, when turns are coming, etc.

Q. How has running with a guide changed your perspective on running?

Running with a guide has been more rewarding than I thought it would be. I felt like I would love it, and had set some goals for myself. There is some aspect of obtaining the freedom of running without fear of running into things – being serious there, not trying to be funny. Anyone who has run consistently knows how it gets in your blood. Well, I quickly reached that level. If I do not run, my body just feels out of whack, which in turn just messes up everything else. I pulled my hamstring this summer, so wasn’t able to run for about six weeks. I wasn’t clinically depressed, but was just off. Know what I mean? All that is a very wordy way to say that running with a guide has been very rewarding. My treadmill just wasn’t cutting it any longer.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your guide.

My guide is David Large, who is a barber in Matthews. I have been going to him to get my hair cut for about two years. Somehow, running came up in a conversation one day. Dave has been running for about 25 years and has competed in many marathons, most recently the Boston Marathon in April. I mentioned to him that I was interested in finding someone to guide me while running, and he said he was interested. After he got back from Boston, we started up. He is good for me to run with because he is faster than I’ll ever be and he has run more races than I’ll ever run. I will never have to worry about running too fast for him or running farther than he can. As a result of his experience, he is able to help me to increase my times and distances.

Q. Do you have a goal for Hit the Brixx?

There are two things I’m looking for. Number one, we’re targeting eight-minute miles. Number two, we are also using this weekend’s race to prep for the [Dowd YMCA] half-marathon in November. Since Dave and I have never run a race together, we wanted to get one under our belt before my big goal for the year, which is the half. We want to get comfortable with moving in and out of crowds of runners, as well as getting to and holding a pace.

Q. What are your long-term running goals?

After [the Brixx and the Dowd races], who knows? At the very least, I want to keep running as it is now a part of my routine. Knowing how I am put together, though, I expect I will continue to enter races and try improving on my times.

Q. Do you acknowledge that you might be a source of inspiration to others, and do you feel comfortable in that role?

I do realize that I may be looked upon as a source of inspiration to others. I am fine with that. I think some people have a hard time imagining that a blind person can get out and run. I’m not sure if this is because they feel that a blind person physically CAN’T run, or if there is another preconceived notion they have. The only thing I’m doing differently than any other runner is running in the dark. We do our distance runs at McAlpine, and many mornings it is very dark when we start. Dave has confessed that he has closed his eyes before and ran for several strides. All he said was, "Wow." I haven’t quizzed him as to what exactly he meant by that. Anyway, I am fine with being looked upon as an inspiration. If my running gets someone who isn’t currently exercising off the couch and running, then that’s great.

Q. What's the best piece of advice you could give to other visually impaired people who would like to take up running but are afraid to try?

There are always treadmills available, so if you want to run, there is an opportunity. Starting off slowly is fine; I remember when I ran a mile without stopping for the first time since high school. I felt like I had accomplished something; and I had. Now I never run less than three miles at a time. If competitions aren’t your thing, then just run for your health. ... If treadmills aren’t your thing, then ask around, and I’m betting you could find someone who would be willing to run with you. ... Why not run? It gives you something to do and beats sitting at home all of the time.


Anonymous said...

What a great story. I have seen several sight impared runners in the Charlotte area recently. I have seen guides running by holding onto the arm of one runner, and another that had a lesh devise strapped to each other's arms. I was most amazed at one person I see repeatredly running alone with his walking cane. Next time any of us "normal" runners complain about some problem, remember what we have and that others do not have.

Anonymous said...

Is there an organization that connects potential guides with blind runners?

Anonymous said...

What an inspiration. My long run tomorrow will truly have a different approach. Thank you for sharing your story. I admire the "no limitations" mentality!

Good luck in the half!