June 22, 2014 | by Lori Riley from the Hartford Courant
Achilles Volunteers Offer Guiding Hand
Erin Spaulding was in the middle of training for a half-marathon when one day at work, a 350-pound cabinet came loose from the wall above her desk and fell on her head.
That was in 2010. Three years later, she did get to run her half-marathon, at Disney World, with two people running beside her.
“I have some visual problems, balance and coordination problems,” said Spaulding, 42, of Branford. “I have to run with two people beside me in case I fall.”
The two people were volunteers from Achilles International, started in New York City in 1983 by amputee Dick Traum. The organization helps people with disabilities compete in road races and triathlons. Spaulding joined in 2012 and is now the president of the Connecticut chapter, which has about 45 athletes and 110 volunteers.
They compete all over the state — Sunday, a group will be in Glastonbury at the Firecracker 5K. On June 29, a large group will be in Stamford for the Half Full Brewery 5K, as Achilles is the charity recipient of that race.
They are visually impaired, like David Alejandro of Naugatuck, who runs with a guide runner. They are quadriplegic athletes, like Tom Branchaud of Simsbury, who races in a wheelchair. They are amputees, like Brett Sloan of Simsbury. Or they are like Spaulding, who had to learn how to walk again after she was injured, graduating from a walker to crutches to a cane, before she could run.
“I used a lot of that determination I had when I was training for triathlons and long-distance running,” Spaulding said. “I channeled that. My physical therapist ran marathons. She worked with me. She told me, ‘You’re going to walk again. Run again. Be patient.’”
Ten years ago, when he was 30, Alejandro was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes visual impairment and eventually blindness. He can still see, but his peripheral vision is limited and it helps to have a guide when he is running, especially in a crowd.
“I was going to do my first marathon [in New York City in 2010],” Alejandro said. “A lady picked me out of the crowd — I was looking for the color code for my [pace] time. I told her, ‘I can’t really see that well. I’m visually impaired.’ She said, ‘Are you with Achilles?’”
He wasn’t. So she took him to the Achilles tent.
“It felt like home,” he said. “They asked me if I needed a guide. I said, ‘Sure.’ So the first time I did a marathon, I had an Achilles guide. I did not know they had a group of people that help you. Even my wife thought I was crazy [to do it alone].”
He finished in 4 hours, 41 minutes. In 2011, he finished in 4:30. This year, with his guide, Jon Romeo, he finished a half-marathon in 1:58:19, a personal best.
“He’s a little bit faster than me,” said Romeo, 50, of Cheshire. “It would never hurt my feelings if he traded me in for somebody faster.
“He prefers to run with a tether. We each hold an end of it. We run wrist to wrist, elbow to elbow. When there are things to navigate, we are closer. It’s harder than running by yourself. You have to be very aware of lots of things, like if the road is uneven. I make mistakes all the time. David is very good-natured about it.”
Romeo got involved as an Achilles volunteer at the New York City Marathon about six years ago. Volunteers get different runners at different races, so Romeo has run with a number of runners in the big marathons. But Romeo and Alejandro have been racing partners at many races in Connecticut. They will run the NU Hartford Marathon in October and NYC in November.
The Achilles club encourages members to try new things. Alejandro, who joined in 2010, competed in a half-Ironman triathlon in New Hampshire in 2012. He had to learn to swim properly first.
Branchaud, who was paralyzed in a car accident in 1991, has raced in wheelchairs since 1995 and also plays rugby. He decided to compete in his first triathlon in 2012 in Madison, using a borrowed handcycle. There, he met Spaulding and joined Achilles. Branchaud now has his own handcycle, with some funding help from Achilles, and hopes to compete in more triathlons this summer.
“Instead of having to borrow equipment, which wasn’t quite right for me, now I have a competitive handcycle with 20 gears,” he said. “That was huge for me.
“It’s been great. For such a young chapter, Erin’s done a great job of making it grow. We also have a lot of people who are guides. There is so much out there I had no idea about. It was amazing when I saw [Dave] running. I was blown away by all the stuff people have been doing.”
For more information about Achilles International in Connecticut — either competing or becoming a volunteer — go to achillesct.org.
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