Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful for Life Lessons

(all photos in this blog entry were shot for The Boot Girls and The Boot Campaign, and are courtesy of professional photographer Scott Roeder of Scaughty Photography)

In 2005 I had a successful LASIK surgery. After wearing glasses or contact lenses since sixth grade, I became the poster child for LASIK, as I could see better than 20/20, I didn’t suffer from any “halo vision,” and my eyes did not dry up. It was neat to be able to purchase sunglasses and not have to pay the extra $200 - $300 to convert them into prescription sunglasses, or if a particular style could even be converted. Gone were the days I had one pair of prescription sunglasses, as my sixty-nine pairs of Oakley eyewear can tell you … I loved it! Then on October 16, 2010, I felt blind to the world around me.

My friends and I regularly participate in the Irvine Lake Mud Run (ILMR), a 5K muddy obstacle course along scenic Irvine Lake in Orange County, CA. Nothing like thousands of runners tackling hills, mud pits, walls, nets, and even more mud, all in the name of fun! On October 16 our Gavin’s Groupies team planned something special, with two runners who running blind: John Flores, Team Captain of the Gavin’s Groupies team, and model Heather Rene Smith, would wear specially designed goggles. These goggles were spray-painted so John and Heather would not be able to see. This was a way to experience how a little two year old, Gavin Stevens, experiences the world around him.

Gavin was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a very rare, genetic hereditary disorder that causes blindness in infants and children.

Not novices to the muddy fun at ILMR, it was always neat to see that at each race the ILMR organizers continued to top the previous race with more muddy surprises and challenges. However, imagine running a 5K muddy obstacle course blind! Imagine the day of a race you were to lose your sight. How would you find your way to just make it to the start line? How would you know what obstacle awaits you? How would you even take that first step? Would you even take that first step … and miss out on the fun others would have just taken for granted? John and Heather took that first step, in order to bring awareness to Gavin and the mission of the Gavin R. Stevens Foundation. As such with someone losing their sight, friends and family are around as support, and Jayson Nelson volunteered to be John’s guide and I was Heather’s guide. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
Heather and I didn’t practice the blind/guide coordination, and quickly we learned how it would be in real life should one be stricken with blindness out of nowhere. Let me just add to the equation that John, Jayson, Heather and I wore combat boots from The Boot Girls, to support our troops, as it made it that much more difficult to not step on each other’s feet when I’d say, “turn left,” and I really meant “turn right.” Come on, how many times has a sighted person had to verbally say such directions? It was quite humorous at first, but I think we were both using humor to hide the fear, the fear of uncertainty. Oh my goodness, what were we about to get into?

At the start of the Gavin’s Groupies wave, the organizers of ILMR asked Troy Stevens, Gavin’s dad, speak to the crowd about our Foundation, who the Gavin’s Groupies are, and what John, Jayson, Heather, and I were about to do. Whatever fears I had about tripping over Heather five steps into the race were slowly going away, as Troy spoke about all the Gavin’s Groupies teammates wearing orange, and how we were there to help find a cure for Gavin’s blindness … SOON. It was an emotional talk by Troy.

Around me I could see the sea of orange shirts and I could hear the cheers, and it was comforting. My strategy with Heather was to interlock our arms and I would turn her hand the direction we were to go, and provide verbal cues about hills, dips, mud pits, etc. Oh boy, easier said than done. Heather was blind before we got to the start line. I had to describe the hundred yard dash to her, as it led to a hill where we would have to hang left. She was already asking what we needed to do first, what was just ahead of us, how far away it was. Oh my… During Troy’s talk I felt calm. Now that Heather was asking me all these questions, I started imagining the running sound of the hundreds of runners in the wave we were in who were behind us, stampeding behind us as we charged across the field. The horn sounded and our wave took off!
I looked at John and Jayson to observe their stride, and they were fearless (Oh, did I mention the four of us did some friendly trash-talking among us before the race? Such grownups … who knew? LOL). I observe folks on a daily basis, looking at verbal, auditory, and kinesthetic cues, to see if they’re congruent or in conflict with each other. That start of the race had to be one of THE MOST classic example of congruency ever. There was no holding back from Heather that she was friggin’ shocked at this experience: squeezing my arms and hands, the haste in her tone of voice, and the words she used … yeah, no mixed signals there! Could it have been the sound of shoes pounding the pavement around her? Could it have been the uncertainty of the terrain her boots made contact with with each stride that she took? Or could it have been the misdirection of her guide (ahem) who had problems with his left/right directions, causing some minor crashes?

We made the first hill and turn relatively OK, and we were not trampled upon. As we reached a downhill slope Heather went at a lot faster pace than I would’ve expected. Considering we were interlocked at the arms, she went forward, I slowed down, she slowed down, and I went forward… we could’ve been a pair of bobble-heads filming a skit. What the heck? Couldn’t Heather read my mind?

It was at this point that it really clicked, “Reggie, she’s blind and you are her guide. You need to build trust, and trust is a two-way street.” I should no longer rely too much on mental telepathy. She should no longer rely on my cracking jokes when we ran into each other. We should experience our surroundings together. This was BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #1. (It was a much-needed epiphany for us to get through 5K of this.)
I found that while I tried being proactive and describe the layout way in advance, it didn’t matter too much. What was important was the here and now. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #2.

Aside from the fact that Heather was blind, she is quite a capable person. Know that she can handle herself; as long as I don’t steer her wrong, I should concern myself to focus on us moving forward. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #3.
When I sensed uncertainty from Heather, it was my job to recognize those signals and counter them with acts of confidence, so she could build trust in my judgment and direction. It was fun to crash into each other and into our surroundings, but it was more important to let her know that I knew what I was doing and that she could trust me. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #4.

At times I had to let go of our interlaced arms, place myself ahead of her, and face her, so I can test the terrain sliding down the muddy embankments. Doing so, Heather could just slide down against my arm, knowing I’d stop us both at the bottom. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #5.
At times I had to loosen my grip of death, when the path was flat, clear of rocks or hills, so she could enjoy as much of the surroundings as she could. It was neat to see her smile and actually run with some freedom. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #6.
This was the ILMR, where mud and fun mixed well together. Enjoy life, have some laughs … and dunk your friend in the mud, given the chance to do so! It’s pretty rewarding to enjoy some fun, especially as your goals are well at hand. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #7.
I’m not a swimmer and I don’t execute the best swimming strokes at all. Being so close to the edge of the lake at times, and with Heather crashing into me she didn’t know any better that it was too close for comfort for me running closest to the edge of the water. Face your fear, run along it, and it will just blend in the background with everything else. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #8

Folks would stare, point, and make comments, at our mishaps during the course. When they found out Heather was blind, their demeanor was open and helpful, and offering cheers of encouragement. Awareness of other people’s circumstances helps bring the inner Good Samaritan out of people. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #9
Over the course of various walls, hills, mud pits, tires, and rocks, I observed Heather’s transition from showing signs of excitement change to fear to confusion to trust and to accomplishment. Our official photographer for The Boot Girls expertly captured moments of our race, and as I look back at those pictures, each picture is definitely worth a thousand words. I consider Heather a close friend, but I found out even more about how she views life, from the interaction and conversations we had about the course, in addition to the casual interaction and conversations we had about random topics. Sometimes during the most obscure and challenging times is when you find out the most about the people you surround yourself with. BLIND MUD RUN LESSON #10 … wait a second … these lessons don’t seem to apply to just BLIND MUD RUNS now. Wow.
This whole experience gave me a perspective of Gavin’s life, and others who do not have sight. Gavin relies on his family and friends to support him, but he also wants to experience life as he “sees” it. Gavin has trust in those who he has built a relationship of trust with. It’s not a matter of just verbal cues or physical cues, but a matter of his experiencing the world together with them. As a sighted individual, I felt blind to some of the emotions associated with walking, running, falling, and getting up. I was humbled by what I experienced that day. I was humbled by how two year old Gavin impacted me this way. I was humbled by how The Stevens Family opened their world to Gavin’s Groupies.

We walk around with blinders that we inadvertently place there, which hinder us from what we want to do, while those without sight live life blind to barriers as nothing could hinder them from what they desire to experience. I’m dedicated to helping find a cure for Gavin’s blindness, as I know Gavin will do amazing things. I hope you can help us? (check out our video on this page)


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