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Trails for All: Opening Up Trail Races to Visually Impaired Runners

Impaired sight isn’t stopping a growing number of runners from hitting the trails and competing in races.

kyle resizedKyle Robidoux, sandwiched between guides Dane LeBlanc (front) and Ray Charbonneau at last year’s Vermont 50.

There are some runners who make trail ultras look easy. Folks like Killian Jornett or Devon Yanko, for example. But even those at the top of their game will tell you running 50 or 100 miles is never an easy undertaking.

Imagine, then, adding an extra element of difficulty to the game. Say, running those same ultras without the benefit of sight. That’s just the challenge a growing number of ultra runners are proving doable. These visually impaired runners have decided their disability won’t get in their way of doing what they love. They’ve run 50Ks, 50-milers and even some of the most legendary monster runs, such as Leadville and Badwater, all within the same stringent cutoff times as their sighted counterparts.

Each will tell you, however, they couldn’t do it without their wingmen (or woman), skilled guides who offer up their vision to get visually impaired runners across the finish line. Together, the sighted and sight-challenged runners make up a determined, fierce team that can navigate the gnarliest of trails for miles on end.

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Finding a way around

When 41-year old Kyle Robidoux was growing up he was an active kid and played an assortment of sports. As the genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP) led to progressively limited vision in his 20s, however, he became less active and more convinced that he couldn’t run.

In his early 30s, overweight and a new father, Robidoux started walking in a nearby park to drop some pounds. “One day, in my work clothes and shoes, I just started running,” he says. “I tried again the next day for a little longer and then just started increasing my runs.”

It wasn’t long before Robidoux started running marathons, and after mastering the art of guided road running, the next step was getting onto trails. “I wanted to change up my training and I love being outdoors in nature,” Robidoux explains. “I started with shorter trail runs and progressed from there.”

Now he has an impressive number of ultras under his belt, all with the help of skilled guides by his side. “I have tunnel vision, so I like to run two steps behind my guides,” he says. “I can mostly follow his or her back but I can’t see anything of the terrain we’re covering.”

This is where a guide’s ability to call out all obstacles—from logs to roots to rocks and steps—becomes essential. Robidoux has a regular pool of guides from which to draw in New England, where he is based. “When you know your guide and run with him or her regularly, you can relax and trust that they will get you through it,” he says. “My favorite call out is ‘smooth sailing.’” That’s when the team hits a patch of smooth, buffed trail without anything technical to face.

In the course of a typical ultra, Robidoux will use several guides, usually in 15-mile increments. The job of guiding is not only physically taxing, but also mentally tiring, thanks to the laser focus it requires. He has found about half of his guides via United in Sight, a visually impaired and sighted runner matching service, which has been around since 2015.

One of Robidoux’s guides last year was Amy Rusiecki, a 37-year old ultra runner and race director of the Vermont 100. “Kyle first contacted me asking about qualifying for my race,” she says. “We got to talking and I offered to help guide him at a 60-mile qualifier.”

It was during their 15 miles together that Robidoux proposed an idea to Rusieck: Offering up a disabilities division at this year’s Vermont 100, the first of its kind at an ultra race.

“We talked about how to do this and what the advantages were on both of our ends,” she explains. “This is a group we want out there, and by having a division with a different set of regulations, it opens the race up to runners who otherwise might not be able to do it.”

Decorated ultra runner Maggie Guterl will be among Robidoux’s guides at the VT100 and looks forward to the job. “I’ve been guiding runners for three years with the Achilles team,” she says. “And when I heard he needed guides for Vermont, I volunteered.”

The day of the race may be Robidoux’s and Guterl’s first time running together, but that doesn’t concern either party. “What he’s doing is brave and cool, and having a chance to pace him will be fantastic,” Guterl says.

The master

Jason RobidouxJason Romero is guided through the dark by Brandon Stapanowich during the 2016 Spartathlon.

While he missed the cutoff for the Vermont 100 this year, Jason Romero, 46, from Denver, is perhaps trail running’s most well-known visually impaired runner. He can count Leadville 100, Badwater, Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, and even a run across America in his list of accomplishments. He’s excited by the new division at Vermont this year: “Creating a challenged athlete’s division is a monumental step in acknowledging and inviting people with disabilities to challenge themselves at the highest levels,” he says. “We need more champions like Amy in all areas of life.”

Like Robidoux, Romero is impacted by RP, and hasn’t allowed it to take away from his enjoyment of trail running. “I have about 15 percent of my sight,” he explains. “It’s like looking through two toilet paper rolls.”

When logging his miles at night, Romero likes to use handheld flashlights and headlamps, along with reflectors on his guides’ ankles. He also likes running with experienced trail runners. “They’re going to take the path of least resistance and for a blind runner, that’s essential,” he says. “They also have to have a certain personality type.”

Romero wants a guide who isn’t going to be frightened of the task or pity him. “I almost want a drill sergeant,” he says. “My guide’s job is to get me from point A to point B before the cutoff. I want to compete.”

Since getting started on trails around 2010, Romero has seen the numbers of guided runners increase exponentially. “I’m amazed at how many more are hitting trails now,” he says, “but I want to see more. People with visual impairment can do so much more than they realize.”

Visit United in Stride if you are interesting in sharing your sight as a guide or if you are looking for a sighted guide near you.

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