Friendly Fridays: Running with Achilles’ athletes
28 Jul, 2017 – Posted by Nana Quainoo
Umeshaa Pararajasingham is a Policy Analyst with the Licensing and Policy Branch, below is her account of the volunteer work she does with Achilles International’s Toronto chapter.
Umeshaa Pararajasingham, a ministry employee and Achilles volunteer, guides athletes with disabilities to run long distances. She is pictured with an Achilles athlete after a run.
I am a runner and I run as a guide for people with disabilities as part of Achilles’ International’s Toronto chapter. However, it wasn’t always that way.
One Saturday morning in the late summer of 2015 I worked up my nerve and showed up at the Beaches’ parking lot by Lake Shore Blvd E. and Northern Dancer Blvd, one of the Toronto chapter’s regular meets. I was nervous. I wasn’t a “runner.” I wasn’t even a graceful person. The furthest I had run was 10k with (very) regular walking breaks. I wasn’t an endurance athlete.
But the athletes and guides took me in as I was and coached me into guiding for distances of up to 32k with no walking breaks. Now I’m there nearly every Saturday morning of the year. I became a part of something bigger.
Achilles provides a way for athletes with disabilities to be active, build self-esteem and be a part of a community. It breaks down barriers between able-bodied people and people with disabilities. It helps create a richer, more inclusive world.
Who is “guiding” who?
The athletes I guide have visual impairments, which can mean that I run beside them, matching my pace to theirs and call out obstacles on the road (e.g., “Low speed bump in 3, 2, 1) or that I run with a tether held in one of each of our hands, using both it and verbal signals to communicate the terrain between discussing more important topics such as last night’s dinner or a new movie. We also have athletes who experience mental health challenges or have other physical disabilities, such as amputations.
I can’t tell you the strength of the athletes’ and guides’ courage, humility, compassion. They run ultra-marathons (more than a 42 km marathon or a 100 km trail race). They run in all weather conditions (-30 degrees Celsius and the August heat don’t stop them). They run and/or walk from distances of less than four km to more than 42 km. Almost always they continue to enjoy each other’s company over brunch. They show up and are there for each other. We are there for each other. It’s a community.
When I was first presented with the idea of writing about Achilles, I was shy to share this intimate and important part of me. Then I realized it was an opportunity to spread awareness, encourage funding for athletes’ goals/races and extend an invitation to anyone who wants to be a part of the Achilles’ community. Athletes and guides are welcome. Walking guides are particularly needed. No distance is too short. No pace too slow. Check out https://achillescanada.ca; choose how you want to support us; and connect with us.
Background on Achilles:
Achilles International was founded in New York City in 1983 by an amputee marathoner, Richard (Dick) Traum. Achilles has since grown to more than 140 chapters on six continents.
Brian McLean who is both visually and hearing impaired established Achilles Canada in June of 1999.
Achilles provides the unique support and training to runners, walkers and wheelers of all levels. With the assistance of volunteer instructors/guides, the Achilles athletes participate in weekly clinics to help them reach their goals.
A strong support system of able-bodied volunteers provides additional confidence and support during such workouts and at races. Many of the Achilles athletes go on to run in internationally renowned marathons such as the New York City Marathon, Boston Marathon and both the Scotiabank Waterfront and Toronto Marathons.
Visit Achilles International Canada for more information. Thank you.
Stories like there are amazing!
If you have stories about your experiences training, learning or participating in specific event, we would love to hear from you!
Just send us a quick email and we will share it with all our Achilles athletes in our Newsletter and on the Website.
Or if you are thinking about running a specific race, check out our past athlete stories and see what others have said and what types of experiences other have shared.
Just send your stories to Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scotia Bank Half Marathon
As I sit here with my not quite Frankenstein legs the day after my first half marathon, I think back to all the varying moments from yesterday. The story of a race can get a little blurry, you start, you run, (if you’re me you walk) you finish. Yet there are all the little moments that are captured in between. Some of those moments that stand out for me include:
- finding so many Achilles friends before the race and how we were all there for each other
- pushing through the throngs of people to find our corral
- my guide Marcie picking up discarded trash rain ponchos for the three of us while we waited in the rain
- Larry being his race social butterfly self and finding an old friend who stayed with us for 3km
- seeing at least 3 signs that said “If Trump can run, so can you!”
- the cop marshal who finally had a response to Larry’s cheer of where’s the beer?…the reply was, “in the other direction”
- the different bands and cheering sections that pumped me full of energy
- cheering all the Achilles members we saw on course, Yes I knew it was you Randy when you yelled out Pinky! And no I wasn’t offended.
- the woman with squeaky shoes that we kept passing and then she would catch us, I finally asked her name, it was Helen, at one point I turned to her and joked, he’s all about where’s the beer station, I’m just waiting for the shuttle bus! She laughed and said me too!
- our moments of race karaoke, I had compiled a list of cheesy 80/90 songs to sing along to and Marcie had loaded them on her phone
- how quiet it got at the back of the pack when we were eastbound on Lakeshore and the cheering was minimal and they were starting to cleanup the water stations
- thinking how many streetcar tracks there are in downtown Toronto
- pulling out my song at the 20km marker and belting out I Will Survive just as we passed through an underpass, it had an amazing echo, Marcie said we got a few crazy looks and might have embarrassed Larry a bit
- how good it felt to cross the finish line and know there was no farther left to go
- the funny pictures we took afterwards, posing all wrapped up in the space blanket. It wasn’t the best race for me, I hit the wall at 16km. And when I say hit the wall I will admit that it was trying to run to the 16km marker, slowing down into a walk with no breath left and just bursting into tears. I was able to put it back together enough to keep going, Those last 5.1 kilometers were pretty rough. In the end I achieved my goal and ended up with a pace and time that was smack dab in the middle of what I had predicted.
If you had asked me five years ago if I could picture myself completing a half marathon my answer would have been hell no! And that is the victory. One congratulations I received while I was still emotional and overwhelmed was “it’s hard but that’s what makes it special”. Amen.
I wanted to give a race report for the Scotia Bank Half Marathon. Firstly, I didn’t know prior to running how much I had from an endurance perspective how much I had to give that was needed to run a race. This is important, as this is the first time in my own life that I had to sustain actual effort to complete a goal. Always previously, slowing down when reaching a pain point or a level of discomfort meant I had the option to “dial it back” This denied me the opportunity to push boundaries and to challenge what I was actually capable of. When I am out on the course, and the running is difficult, reaching into myself to find the reserve needed to keep going is a new experience. The act is deliberate and specific because there is nothing but you and the time. It all is honest. There are no shortcuts to performance but the hard line of the time. Options narrow, you either rise to the occasion or you do not. Actions and intentions are specific. The feeling of being close to a personal best out on the course can either spur motivation or drive you down. Finding the reserve to achieve can unlock the mystical.
When I knew that I was close to a personal best, I increased effort to a flagging second half run. During the race, I do not want to know the minutia of my run. My body tells me what I am capable of; but within some space, my body can grant me the space to achieve and to excel. By achieving a personal best I was granted the privilege of without knowing in advance I could. But indeed achieve, showing that I could.
By writing this, I want others to know that it is ‘ok’ to reach within that well of yourself and extract the best you can offer as a person. To push boundaries, to reach forward as an individual. It is a uniquely human and important experience. It would be my wish that others whom are Achilles athletes know and experience this opportunity because each person has more to give to achieve then they believe themselves possible.
Harvest Valley 50k Ultra
I just got back from Wolfville NS, where I ran the Harvest Valley 50k Ultra with Sean Dixon, a guide with White Rabbit Pacing in Nova Scotia! Sean and Mike Kennedy ran the Ultra with me and we crossed the finish line 2 minutes shy of my goal of 5 hrs! 4:57:36!! Once again thanks to Achilles for finding these wonderful people who are willing to assist people on their run journeys!
Queen City Marathon in Regina
I am a visually impaired runner from Ontario who is running a marathon in all the provinces, to date I have managed to not get lost, fall in a pot hole or trip over a curb by running alone. (The only time I have gotten lost was in a 5k run and the funny thing is a dozen other people followed me – only to find we had only ran 4.5 km). After finding out about Achilles I inquired about having a guide for the Queen City Marathon in Regina and was contacted by a Guide – Rob. After corresponding and finding out his finish time was generally sub 3 ½ hrs, he knew he could get me to the finish line under my goal of sub 4 hours.
We arrived the day before the race so had little time to meet, but Rob graciously offered to pick us up from the airport and take us to the race expo and our hotel! A stop at Timmies gave us the opportunity to get to know each other! Rob then picked us up in the morning and knew where ideal parking was for the marathon! I finished my marathon in 3:55 ! We both went into this relationship blindly and it turned out to be a fantastic experience and Rob has offered to meet in another province in the future as I complete my bucket list. Thanks to Achilles for creating this service.
Ottawa Marathon Race
Hi Mike, I hope June is going well for you so far.
My sore legs from the Ottawa Marathon are long gone now. That run with you is now one of those experiences that I like to think about and talk about. It was definitely the most meaningful running race I’ve done. Those last 10k were the toughest ever but I think that made the whole race that much more meaningful.
I’m just enjoying running at the moment but thinking of a fall marathon and considering Boston 2017.
Thanks again for helping me have such a great experience in Ottawa. I did not buy any race photos. I’ve attached the 2 photos that best represent our run together.
I was like so many others. A child of proud Military Men & Women, lining up to show our support in The Army Run’s 10th race. I trained (but not hard enough) and proudly arrived early (But not too early) to shake the hands of the men & women who were soldiering on. It was going to be a hot race day. 39 plus with the humidex. Our 5K wounded & ill category was to go first. I was racing a bike I had never used before. A recumbent Catrike Speed. My guides lined up with me. David Shaw on his 2 wheeler would be my snow plow. A term we lovingly give to the person who has to clear the path or warn me of any bumps, potholes or people. It’s an extra challenge since I am also visually impaired. His partner Cheryl stayed back at the starting line up with my RX, the handcycle I would use in the second leg of the Vimy Challenge. The 10K. It went smoothly through the first leg. We were given 45 minutes maximum to complete the 5K and line up for the 10K. We took a leisurely 21 minutes.
Then I switched to the handcycle. As we started the 10K the first thing I noticed was that I was struggling. The RX was causing me to labour right out of the shoot and then the chain fell off my handcycle. My guide circled back to help me and before I could even sit up, the men and women from “soldiering on” surrounded me. They held the bike still and loaded up my chain all the while telling me that I could do it. I set off again with great patriotic pride but I was still labouring. I began to get muscle cramps and for the life of me I could not figure out what was wrong. Every so often as tears of frustration ran down my cheeks, i would feel the helping hands of those brave men & women giving me a boost from behind. Around the 5K mark in the 10K event, my guide shouted out that my brakes were on! Well no wonder I was struggling. The last 5K were a breeze by comparison. I had my second wind and I was only battling the heat for the last 5K. Those men and women were true heroes and showed such sportsmanship that it continues to bring tears to my eyes in the telling of this event.
I went to support them. They raced to support me. We never leave a man behind they told me. It’s what we do, they told me. & that is what our men & women of our military taught me.
Achilles St. Patrick’s Day Race
The week before the race, the talk at our post-run/walk brunch was about everyone’s expected times and goals for the race. The past two years my goal had been 45 minutes. I got close the first year but still hadn’t made this goal yet. In “getting it done” I had never timed my runs and didn’t have a clear idea of what my time was. I secretly hoped it was faster than 45 but thought this was a realistic time to aim for, especially since just getting to 45 min would be a personal best.
The day of the race held a great spring day. There were lots of runners walking around in shorts instead of the multi layers and frozen hair of the past two wintery years. I made it to the race site with my guide Heather, her partner Daniel, my sister Sandra and her guide Iola. We quickly found the Achilles gang and chatted with everyone before the race. I managed to squeeze in just that one extra plumbing maintenance break before making it out to the start line. Heather and I made our way into the pack, trying to be near the middle. There is always such a buzz of energy at a start line. I did my warm-up wiggles to the fun music while waiting in anticipation. We cheered on the wheelchair start and then yelled out our own start countdown. Heather had told me that the game plan was to start by running. I agreed and after slowly making our way to the start, we finally crossed the time chip and were off!
That first run section I tried to keep running as long as I could. I definitely had more motivation to push a little harder than in my training runs. I let my legs and breathing tell me when it was time to walk. I think one of the main differences was that I didn’t let the walk breaks get to be more than what I needed to recover. Heather was also a great guide and coach, encouraging me the whole way. It helped that I was familiar with the route, I remember on the way back we passed Simcoe street running and I thought okay, let’s just run to York. Taking the race in little bites and chunks made the distance easier to swallow!
There was lots of cheering on the route, from the marshals as well from the other runners. Heather kept an eye out for all our team mates. With her being a part of both Black toe and Achilles, we had lots of people to cheer for! Those little shout out moments were like little bursts of supportive fuel. Though apparently if you want to coordinate a blind hi-five, I need a bit more verbal info to actually make it happen.
Finally, and yes even in a 5km it still feels like finally, we were making the turn into the home stretch. My legs felt pretty good and the race had held more running than walking which had been my goal. I got my wires crossed on how far away we were from the finish line. I took off at a dead run a bit too far away from the finish line. I then needed to take a short walk break to put a bit more fuel in the tank for the real final stretch. I did manage to cross the finish line running but I could only get one sprint section out of my legs!
I was standing there huffing and puffing while Heather exuberantly congratulated my effort. She said the clock had said about 42 minutes when we crossed. I wasn’t able to absorb my time right then and went to have our recovery food and catch the awards and speeches. It wasn’t until I got home and saw my chip time of 41.46 that I really felt the impact of my accomplishment. This was more than I had hoped for. I e-mailed one of my regular guides who hadn’t been at the race with the subject line, you won’t believe it! Her response back was, Yeah I can! It meant that all that hard work and those sore muscles and getting up early on the weekends had made a difference. “Getting it done” had gotten me past my goal to a new personal best!
I have always liked the Achilles’ slogan of “running beyond disability”. It means running beyond all that ablest negativity that is so often heaped upon people with disabilities. For me, there has also been the meaning of running beyond body shaming and having been that kid who was made to sit on the bench in gym class. It was like with each step my body was healing my heart and teaching my mind what I can do. That is the power of Achilles. And it is mighty!
I just finished reading the story about Lisa. Amazing! Inspirational! I was sitting here thinking about running, all the training, and my times, and I was feeling a bit down because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to crack the time that I want, nursing a couple of injuries and I was really feeling the pressure. I read her story, she put everything in perspective. It was a wonderful read, I still have tears in my eyes as I send this message.
Thank you for sharing your story. I cannot tell you how powerful it is to read of your strength, perseverance, and attitude. Thanks for speaking out on overcoming being victimized by body-shaming, as well. These are the stories we need to be talking about more.