Runner’s World Online Edition June 11, 2013
Visually Impaired Runner Proves to be True Powerhouse
Amy McDonaugh finished the 2013 Boston Marathon in 2:52:05 and will be back in 2014.
By David Block
Many runners have done “repeats” now and then. But the term means more to the visually impaired marathon runner Amy McDonaugh, of Irmo, South Carolina, than it does to many others. Without being able to find guide runners on a regular basis, McDonaugh has to rely on more familiar ground, her one and a half mile neighborhood loop, for instance. When she does long training runs alone, she covers that loop repeatedly, but she never gets bored.
On those rare occasions when she has a guide and can run somewhere else, the change of scenery makes no difference to her because it does not look special or new. Her vision is quite blurry. “I like where I run because I know the loop so well and it’s safe and nearly traffic free,” said McDonaugh. “I never get bored with it.”
To understand what McDonaugh can see, cover your right eye and then press a paper towel tube into your left eye. That’s how McDonaugh sees the world. She cannot always see the runners in front of her, but she can usually identify their shirt colors and she can tell if a runner has long hair. She found that running alone has given her independence from not having to rely on guide runners, and a perfect example was when she ran the 2013 Boston Marathon. Her first guide, who was supposed to run with her to the 10K mark, dropped out after four miles because she was too fast for him. From that point to the 10K, she had to rely on herself. She met the challenge with no problem. Challenges are not a new phenomenon for McDonaugh.
The first 10 years of her life were completely normal. “I had friends and I was happy,” McDonaugh remembered. Then one day, she developed a serious toothache. Her family thought that a trip to the dentist would solve the problem. To their horror, doctors found that she had an arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal tangle of blood vessels, in her right cheek. For the next 18 months, McDonaugh had 18 operations. She went from having 20/20 vision to having partial sight in her left eye and being blind in her right eye. Doctors also removed the middle of her tongue.
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After all the surgeries, “My friends from before were now uncomfortable around me,” said McDonaugh. “Their moms told them to still be nice, so they said `hi’ but nothing beyond that. I felt like nothing, nothing but a medical case.” Kids who didn’t know her made fun of her and called her names. Emotionally hurt, depressed, and without friends, she cried a lot.
At age 20, she met her future husband, Jim, a volunteer who gave her frequent rides to the community college. It turned out he was incredibly shy like her, so they hit it off.
After giving birth to her third child nine years ago, McDonaugh was depressed and overweight. “I was stuck in the house all the time with three kids, so I had to get out and do something,” she remembered. She began running 20 minutes three times a week and liked it. “That was the first time in my life I did any type of sport.” With practice, her endurance and speed improved, and her depression began to lift.
She found herself getting fitter and faster. She knew that she had a future as a runner.
After winning local races in her area, the United States Association of Blind Athletes read about her and invited her to compete with some of their top athletes. She accepted their invitation and was glad she did.
To date, her best marathon time is 2:49.28, which she clocked at the 2011 California International Marathon. At the 2013 Boston Marathon, she was slightly off the mark, 2:52:05, but it was fast enough to be the first female visually impaired finisher. The second female visually impaired runner was Lisa Thompson of Texas who clocked 3:21:46.
After the two bomb explosions, McDonaugh no longer thought about failing to achieve a new personal best. Instead, she thought about her friends who were running the Boston Marathon and prayed that they were all safe. She also alerted her family via email that she was okay and returned home the next day.
The tragedy in Boston fueled McDonaugh with determination to run the Boston Marathon next year. She said she would have probably run the marathon again, eventually, but as a result of the tragedy, she left Boston knowing she would definitely come back in 2014. “If I were to be discouraged about racing or returning to Boston, then I’d be discouraged about going to movies, or sending my kids to school,” said McDonaugh. “Something like that (the explosions) can happen anywhere. We can’t live in fear.”
On May 18, nearly five weeks after the Boston Marathon, McDonaugh competed in the Desert Challenge – a competition for athletes with disabilities – in Mesa, Arizona. There, she won the 1500-meter, 5:19.65, against other female sight impaired runners. Her performance qualified her to compete at the Paralympic Nationals on June 16 in San Antonio, Texas. A possible goal for her is to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in the 1500.
McDonaugh is also training for the 2013 California International Marathon this December and after that, the 2014 Boston Marathon.
David Block is a legally blind documentary producer/director/freelance journalist based in Ardmore, PA. To learn more about him or to review some of his films, go to www.blindfilmmaker.com