Running, my lifelong Dream!
THE WEDNESDAY COLUMN
2001-04-04Sharlene Wills was born blind and will be participating for the first time in the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON.
As I stood in the midst of thousands of other runners and walkers that March
morning in 1988, waiting for the starting gun for that years City of Los
Angeles Marathon to go off, many thoughts and feelings whirled around inside
me: what have I gotten myself into, trying to do a 26.2-mile race with almost
no training? Will I be able to complete the course? Will my guide dog, Sheba,
get us lost, as the race officials predicted? Am I more than just a little
crazy for trying this, just because people said a blind person, using a guide
dog, could not? I was scared! The pre-race music was deafening, and the noise
of the media helicopters overhead vibrated throughout my body. I could only say
a prayer, give Sheba a pat and -- BOOM! We were off.
Then began one of the most exciting and rewarding events of my life, and one
that changed my life forever. Not only did we stay on course, but we prevented
others from going astray. Not only were we able to finish, but even though we
walked most of the way, we were by no means last (which dispelled one of my
worst fears). The spectators cheers, the wonderful encouragement of so many
runners and walkers, and just the sheer exhilaration of accomplishing something
physically very difficult, made the 7.5 hours that we were out there absolutely
worth every second, and I knew, when we crossed the finish line, and the medal
was placed around my neck, that marathoning was in my blood to stay!
I have to say, though, that, from my earliest childhood, I loved sports and physical activity. Yes, I was born blind, with only light perception and a little color recognition in my right eye. But I think, first because I knew nothing else, and, perhaps more importantly, because neither my parents nor my teachers restricted me overmuch or often said, "You can . You e blind", I rarely knew fear. If the neighbor kids went rollerskating, so did I. I could run faster, climb higher and was stronger than all the girls, both at school and in my neighborhood, and I could keep up with many of the boys, too. I decided, if others could ride a bike, so could I, and I taught myself to balance on my brothers two-wheeler in a parking lot where there was a lot of free space. I knew in my head that I "couldn see", but it was many, many years before I really understood that, in some ways, I was "handicapped". I was simply me and did pretty much what any other kid did, probably causing many adults a lot of worry, but never feeling that a thing couldn be done, especially running.
Since I am small and have short legs, I learned early on to step out, walk
fast and run faster. That way, I could keep up with tall people and also show
the world that a blind person need not always move fearfully and haltingly. I
think this undercurrent of determination to overcome myths about blindness,
especially as I grew older, also played a major part in my life and what I
wanted to accomplish.
Physical education is required in American schools from the 1st through the
12th grade, and I alw looked forward to this hour of the day, when I could play
ball, jump rope and, of course, run. Sports for girls, however, were almost
nonexistent in those days (the late 50s and all of the 60s) so when I and a few
other girls wanted to form a track team, it was not easy to convince teachers
and administrators. But, in my last year of high school (12th grade) we were
successful, and I competed in my first running event, the 400-meter, in which I
was not last but was not the winner, either. I was allowed to use the inside
lane of the track so that I could follow the edge with one foot, and I had
people at the turns to "talk" me through them and my coach at the
finish line, calling me "home". What fun!
In college, I was unsuccessful in getting a womens track team going, and
thus began many years of little or no running, but always, always, fast, long
walks, with cane, sighted companion and, at the age of 32, my first guide dog.
I also bought a tandem bike and got plenty of use from it, including a trip
through part of Germany and Holland with my husband and 2-year-old son, who
described every cow and horse he could see.
I majored in German at university and wanted to put it to good use, so, upon
finishing my studies at a small university in California, I left to study Music
Therapy in Germany, first in the Stuttgart area and, later, in Berlin. I
completed a 3-year course while in Berlin, married and had my son at Gertrauden
Hospital. Further, I continued my active interest in sports and athletics by
joining the Berlin Sports Union for the Blind. As a member, I learned about
Goal Ball and participated in weekly swimming workouts.
When my son, Michael, was four, we moved back to the U.S. where, after a
years fruitless search for work as a Music Therapist, I accepted a secretarial
position with the County of Los Angeles. In 1987, I was offered a job with the
Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office, transcribing police interview
tapes, and it was then, that I first began to dream of participating in the Los
Angeles Marathon. The D.A.s Office had a team at that time, and I signed up. At
first, everyone was excited and supportive, until they found out that I wanted
to do this with my guide dog. (None of my sighted family or friends were
walkers, much less runners.) Few believed that a blind person could go that
distance with a dog (they hadn heard of the Ididarod, I guess) and I had to
fight to be accepted into the race. But the more the officials argued against
it, the more determined I became and, in the end, I won, we did it, and I was,
as I have said, hooked and have been running/walking marathons ever since. In
1992, I walked my 4th L.A. Marathon with Radio Newsbroadcaster, Sharon
Kaetchen. We did an ongoing report of the race as we went, with me describing
the scents and sounds I picked up, and Sharon interspersing her verbal guiding
directions with her own observations of what was around us. For this coverage,
we received the prestigious "Golden Mike" award from the Radio
Broadcasters Association. And I still have a copy of the tape we
In 1993, I ran my first San Francisco Marathon, there doing my best time
ever! In 98 and 99, I ran in Boston, and I have participated in the New York
and Marine Corps (Washington, DC) Marathons, among others. But Berlin, my 32nd,
will be my first international marathon, and how I look forward to running
through some of my favorite neighborhoods there!
People ask all runners, "Why do you do it?" I can speak for
others, but, for me, running means freedom, a sense, almost of flying,
especially on downhills. To feel my body flowing along (or even dragging,
sometimes) to experience through smell, hearing and touch all kinds of
surroundings, to hear the cheering of the crowds, even when you don know (as I
didn , for a long time) that they e cheering especially for you, to experience
the warmth, comradery and support of other runners, who pat your shoulder as
they go by, or shout words of encouragement -- these are things that make any
pain or tiredness worthwhile and show you what a truly great world this is.
Sometimes, I wish that I could run safely without using a tether, but then, I
might not meet the wonderful people I do, and I might not have some of my most
valued friends. People tell me, "You are an inspiration!" And I
reply, "Im glad," because I figure, if, by doing what I most love to
do, I can help someone else find the courage to try something challenging, what
better way to give back in some way that which so many people have given
Marathoning is, sometimes, hard work., and, sometimes, I can train the way
Id like. I have to use a treadmill instead of a track, trail or road because I
often don have someone to guide me and not every guide dog is able to work in
this way. Im getting older -- almost 54 on Berlin Marathon Day -- and that
means, perhaps, slower. I certainly won need someone on a bicycle to keep up
with me, and Ill be happy with a 5-hour race. No matter. As long as I can put
one foot in front of the other, and keep going, Ill be out there!
May all runners, as a dear friend of mine says, "keep the rubber side
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