Running blind

One teacher runs a 5K race without the benefit of sight to raise funds for Perkins

Two women runners standing side by side.

Jessica Erlich (right) and her sighted guide Cheryl Austin prepare to run the Blindfold Challenge.

April 28, 2015

Eight runners and their sighted guides took on the Blindfold Challenge in support of Perkins at the Boston Athletic Association 5k on April 18. Each pair was connected by a two-foot tether and ran the same course as the thousands of other participants in the race. Jessica Erlich ran blindfolded, guided by her friend and co-worker Cheryl Austin.

It was one of those mornings when you tie up your laces and know that life will be just a little bit different by the time you take off your shoes at the end of the day. I wasn’t as nervous as I had expected, knowing what lay ahead.

My boyfriend (known that day as “the holder of everything I wasn’t going to run with”) and I drove to downtown Boston to join 8,000 other runners for the B.A.A. 5K. Among them were 35 of us taking on the task of running the route blindfolded, with guides from four different business organizations. My guide was my friend and colleague, Cheryl Austin. We had practiced twice earlier in the week but nothing had prepared me for the experience I was about to have.

As a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), I see the struggles which challenge my students throughout their lives. I thought that, through running the blindfold challenge, I could glimpse a day-to-day understanding of their experience while raising money for my favorite charity. The perseverance my students continually display inside and out of the classroom had, as always, motivated me to challenge myself.

We were corralled into the starting line. Space was tight, with people packed within inches of my face. The gun was fired. I slid my blindfold over my eyes, immediately reaching for Cheryl’s arm as the pack made its first leap ahead.

“You OK?” she asked. My stomach felt like it had jumped into my throat, and my eyes instantly welled up. Before I could answer, she let me know that we were slowing down. The false start was just what I needed to take a deep breath and get my bearings.

Minutes later we began my first blindfolded 5K for real.

Cheryl described obstacles we were avoiding, the Boston landscape we were passing and the runners that surrounded us.

Within the first few meters, the sounds of cheers and cow bells enveloped me. I remember feeling surprised – people cheering for me? It didn’t stop there. Every few minutes a runner would pass us saying, “Good work, girls,” “Keep it up, girls” and “God bless you.” Their kindness kept me focused and smiling.

Yeah, I’m adventurous, a little fearless – I’d had a mission to raise as much as I could for Perkins, and if it meant running through Boston blindfolded I was willing to do it. It was my mission, but I hadn’t looked for or expected the support I felt on the road.

Cheryl informed me as we crossed the first mile. The fear had washed aside and I felt a freedom that I had never experienced before. I wasn’t concerned about how I looked or busy watching other people. I was able to fully enjoy the autonomy of running.

Before I knew it the race was over. We crossed the finish line and I removed my blindfold. We were given participation medals and I went to breakfast to enjoy my post-5K bagel.

Jessica Erlich has worked for Perkins as an itinerant TVI for Community Programs since 2007. She recently took on the new role of Assistant Education Director of Community Programs, working with school districts around Massachusetts to provide itinerant services.