Running as a Guide for Achilles: The Shift from Self to Other

February 16, 2017    |    Michael Lo Presti

In some ways, running can be considered a selfish sport. It’s all about you, and the time you personally dedicate to getting in your miles or crossing that finish line. After nearly 20 years of running races ranging from 5Ks to ultramarathons, I know how much “me” time and energy it takes to train and race year-round.

But there are lots of ways for running to be an incredibly rewarding team sport, one in which the emphasis shifts from the self to the other. I learned this the first time I met Erin.

Erin, a triathlete and mother of three, was recovering from an accident that caused a traumatic brain injury. After learning to walk again, she set an ambitious goal: To return to sports by running the Walt Disney World® Half Marathon. She was given the opportunity to run through a partnership between Cigna (my employer) and Achilles International, an organization that enables people with different abilities to participate in mainstream sports events.

Achilles athletes are matched up with one or more guides during the race. The purpose of the guide is simple: To help the athlete complete the event by providing support along the way.

I had first heard about Achilles and guiding from Cigna’s CEO, David Cordani, who had served as a guide the previous year. He inspired me: If our CEO can do it, why can’t I?

Erin and I met for the first time in December about a month before the race. We went on a practice run together in her Connecticut hometown. We weaved our way through the shoreline community streets on that cool late fall morning, getting to know each other and talking about what all runners talk about: family, relationships, politics … and, of course, running. As her guide, this practice run gave me the chance to understand her unique running needs: How I can serve as an extra set of eyes for her impeded peripheral vision, how I can give her an arm to lean on for stability around turns, and how I can give verbal warnings for bumps or potholes in the road.

During the run, I was virtually unaware of my own – suddenly minor – aches and pains. It was the shift from self to other. All that mattered was helping Erin finish that run safely, which we did.

We became friends that day, and that friendship carried us through the Walt Disney World Half Marathon. We shared an amazing race experience, along with her husband who served as a second guide. We reveled in the energy of the crowd. We cried when we caught our first glimpse of Cinderella Castle. We took lots of pictures. And we crossed the finish line hand-in-hand-in-hand.

It’s been both thrilling and humbling to be part of the Cigna and Achilles teams these past few years. I’m grateful to Cigna for being an employer that cares about my health and well-being – even encouraging me to keep up with my annual check-ups and stay on top of my important health numbers (Body Mass Index, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol). And I’m also grateful to Achilles for the racing opportunities they provide athletes and guides around the world. Both organizations help people do amazing things.

I’ve since guided many Achilles athletes, but that first experience with Erin – who has become a good family friend – marked a material shift in my running career. The shift from running being a mostly solitary endeavor to being a way to help others achieve their dreams. A way for me to give back through the sport I love most. And a way to make our community of runners stronger.

Michael Lo Presti is the Communications Director at Cigna. Cigna is the presenting sponsor of Walt Disney World® Marathon Weekend and Disneyland® Half Marathon Weekend.