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Chasing Adam: The Joy of Guiding Another Runner

This is the fourth edition of “Chasing Adam,” a new column from longtime running writer Adam W. Chase aimed at telling thought-provoking stories from all corners of the running world.

That sick, almost claustrophobic feeling, something akin to what Jean Paul Sartre described in “Nausea,” rocked my world as we drove up to the Mediterranean sailing docks of Tel Aviv. The water was more than churning and the white caps were a clear sign that venturing out would result in sea sickness for this land lover.

Knowing that feeling ill would be the most likely result, I had no intention of joining the scheduled sailing outing that morning with the not-for-profit organization, Etgarim, an Israeli group that works to rehabilitate physically and mentally challenged and disadvantaged children, teenagers and adults by way of extreme sports activities.

I had resolved myself not to set off from the docks; that is, until I heard one of Etgarim’s leaders, Guy Orem, explain how athletes like Elad Rosenzweig had overcome brain damage and blindness to become competitive sailors. Meeting individuals like Rosenzweig forced me to put my fear of nausea in perspective and go for the full Etgarim experience of boarding the Olympic-style sailboat fully blindfolded.

While out on the sea the water was, indeed, rough and even though I did suffer enough to turn green and feed the fish, it helped to know that those same swells had served to train many a physically-challenged budding sailor. It was uplifting when Orem explained to us that blind individuals asked him the same question: “Can you see the wind?”

My inspirational experience with Etgarim came less than a month after I had the opportunity to complete the Austin Marathon as a guide runner for William Greer, a blind resident of Austin who, through his local running club, got in touch with me about helping him run his local marathon.

RELATED: Chasing Adam—The Case of the Infidelity Tracker

Friends were quick to layer on praise for volunteering to serve in that capacity but, as anyone who has guided knows, such adulation is unwarranted because, like the sailboat ride in Tel Aviv, running with Greer through the streets of Austin was a privilege. I was the grateful one. How often do we get the opportunity to walk a mile or, rather, to run 26 of them in another’s moccasins? [Pictures with Greer before and after the marathon.]

It was Greer’s 13th marathon, including the Boston Marathon in 2013, when he finished only minutes before the bombs went off on Boylston. He was guided that year by “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” host Peter Sagal. Greer told me that it was really funny to him that people they met when they were together in Boston didn’t recognizing Sagal because they only knew his voice. As a visually-impaired person, the satire wasn’t lost on Greer.

My role as Greer’s guide was to watch his right side, running to his front left so I could aid his peripheral vision, especially through the chaos of aid stations of a course that shared the same route with the 10,000 half marathoners who started at the same time as the 5,000 marathoners for more than 11 miles. It was a hot, humid day with a welcome wind and Greer ran only a minute off his PR, with a 3:47 finish.

Those conditions, coming from Boulder’s winter, challenged my kidneys, which started to ache around mile 18. I have passed a kidney stone years before and told Greer that I might need to drop, thinking I only had a few more miles in me with the pain building. He was genuinely concerned for my welfare. Fortunately, the pain didn’t increase and we kept a very steady pace, with some variation due to the hills, for which the course is known. I went into the marathon without running on pavement and I was milking a hacking cough for a handful of weeks. I was trying to fool myself that my cough had disappeared but Greer, who is both observant and caring, noticed and asked me about how I was feeling.

Greer is a stalwart advocate for people facing challenges and during our run he told me about his disabilities film festival, the speakers he recruited community presentations and the work that his organization, Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, does in Austin. Greer wanted to know about my work as a lawyer and that led to our mutual understanding that it is much easier to work with potential adverse parties than it is to sue them, with certain glaring exceptions, when it is best to stick it to those particularly bad actors.

As Greer and I ran together through the neighborhoods of Austin that he knew so well and shared with me from a sound, smell and taste perspective, I learned there is a real difference between pacing and guiding. I have paced many ultrarunners during the latter parts of their 100-milers in Western States, Hardrock and Leadville and the role in those cases is more of a glorified cheerleader, providing moral support to exhausted runners who just need some positive charge late in their race. Plus, as an old ultrarunner, pacing allows me to relive the days of running at the head of the pack, only now I am doing it as a friend and not as far.

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As guide, however, I helped with footing and barriers, especially on Greer’s right side, and occasionally I tapped his shoulder or hovered just in case he stumbled over bumps in the road. It felt rather paternal and, as the miles racked up, I became drained from all the careful attention. Another duty was to spot port-o-lets and maneuver aid stations, where I had to run the gauntlet to pick up electrolyte drinks for Greer and get as much of the cup contents to him without spilling, as I dodged and weaved through the droves of fellow runners.

One job I didn’t have was to tell Greer how fast or slow we were going or far we had come. Greer is an adept user of technology and he had Siri and Runkeeper on his iPhone and an Apple Watch with the audio features turned on to alert us of our progress. It was ironic that we were listening intently to the sounds around us while, as I pointed out to Greer, the vast majority of participants were plugged out with their headphones.

I learned from both Etgarim and Greer that, to quote a favorite Israeli phrase, “sharing is caring.” Except that I felt I was the recipient of both the caring and sharing. I was totally inspired in both situations and they surpassed my expectations. It felt like it was only right to “volunteer” and “give back” but when you get so much in return it is more like you are getting much more than giving.

For those who want to share and care, check out your area for an Achilles International organization:


About The Author:

It’s actually easy to chase Adam W. Chase because, as a guy who just hit 50 and has run more than 150 marathons and ultra-distance races, he’s self-admittedly rather slow. Adam writes a little faster and also serves as President of the American Trail Running Association and works as a lawyer in Boulder, Colo. Adam was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame on April 20.