William Greer is a runner. Like many of us, he runs sometimes on roads and sometimes on trails. He has a regular Saturday morning running group. He has run half marathons, marathons and ultras working through everyday challenges like overuse injuries and trying to qualify for Boston. Unlike many of us, William has trouble seeing. He was born in Chicago then grew up in Texas. He was out riding a bike at 17 without a helmet and crashed. The open skull wound led to his lasting visual impairment, and he has been legally blind ever since.
That event doesn’t seem to have slowed him down much. He went on to finish high school in Wyoming and then Kenyon College in Colorado. Will held a variety of jobs before joining the Coalition of Texans for Disabilities, where he started out helping with fundraising and now works on a couple of projects each year: their Film Fest and the Adapt Fun Run (AFF). For the AFF, runners see how many laps they can run on the track, and donations per lap are donated equally to Adapt and a non-profit of the runner’s choice. The Film Festival started as fund raiser to raise awareness about people with disabilities and has grown in size and funds raised every year. Will says, “One of the things I love most about running is how supportive the running community is.” He always sees people giving support to people with all kinds of running issues and needs.
Like a lot of us, William started running out of a basic desire to be more active. His early runs were short distances, working up to 3 or 4 miles at a time. He became aware of the Brain Injury Association of Texas, which was raising money for veterans with head injuries. His brother was a helicopter pilot in the Army on his third tour, not injured himself but many of his comrades were and William wanted to support veterans. He decided, “OK, this is something I’ve got to do; this supports people in the military who are getting injured and coming back.”
William never thought he would run a marathon, but a friend convinced him to run a half and that led to the full. His first marathon was the Austin Marathon. William felt good up to mile 18, and he didn’t hit the wall until mile 24. At mile 23 he didn’t believe in a wall, but, again like most of us, had the big revelation that marathons seem to always provide. His first out-of-state marathon was San Francisco, where he was able to qualify to run the Boston Marathon.
William ran the Boston Marathon in 2013 with Peter Sagal. Mr. Sagal is the radio talk quiz show host of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (WWDTM)” on National Public Radio, a Runners World columnist, and an accomplished runner (who has come and led group runs in Austin). They ran well together and finished strong. Four minutes after they crossed the finish line, they heard the bombs go off. They both first thought they were hearing a celebration, like a cannon going off. They slowly learned what was going on. It took William’s wife an hour to get in touch with him. Despite this experience or perhaps because of it, William was determined to run the Boston Marathon in 2014. He qualified but broke his metatarsal and had to sit that one out.
William had some nice times running with Peter Sagal, and their friendship has continued beyond the marathon. He says that Peter is a great running companion but so funny that when running with him William was “laughing so hard it makes it hard to breathe.” When Mr. Sagal came to Austin for a taping of WWDTM, he gave William and his wife VIP tickets. He ran with William’s running group (Jeri’s Kids – just a typical running group, not one devoted to folks with disabilities) in the morning, making time to run with all of the different runners in the group, whatever their pace, and made a point of talking with everybody. When William ran the Chicago marathon, Mr. Sagal gave him four complimentary tickets to the show in Chicago.
In the middle of his thirteenth marathon, William decided he was ready for an ultra, a race distance longer than a marathon. When he was in his first ultra, around miles 24 or 25, he decided he was ready to try a 50 miler. He is now training for the Rocky Raccoon 50-mile trail race, now known as the Rocky 50 Trail Run, By Altra, coming up next February. One of the things that occurred to him while he was running the Prickly Pear ultra was that he had been in three marathons with divisions for blind and visually impaired (VI) runners and that division made a big difference for him. It made it easier to find sighted guides and to start the race and provided all kinds of support and help along the way. William notes that a lot of the blind and VI runners have the physical ability to run a marathon, but having their own division provides them with necessary support such as guides and registration assistance. He notes that if they can do it in Chicago and Sacramento and Boston, it’s about time we do this in Austin. He says that we “gotta bring that to this city. It’s a great marathon and we need to include this as well.”
Initially, William tried to find running guides on his own without success. He then tried working with a running group, but that didn’t work out, either. He finally contacted the Austin Marathon and talked to John Conley, the former race director, who found 5 or 6 people who volunteered immediately. William ran that Marathon with Adam Chase (great name) who guided him through the end. After that race William contacted High Five Events, the current group putting on the Austin Marathon, who sent out an email and he heard back a great response.
What’s more, the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon William now have separate divisions in 2017 for visually impaired runners, and the Paramount 5K is also considering these divisions. (Read below for more details.)
Training for long-distance races also presents some challenges. William says that he is not completely blind but is visually impaired. Because of low vision, he sees optical illusions, perceiving an obstacle from a distance but thinking it is one thing from far away but finding it is something different up close. He has thought something was a person but turned out to be a traffic cone, and once could have sworn he saw a Great Dane dog that was something else entirely. Curbs are tough because he can’t always tell if he needs to go up or down. In the Austin Marathon near the Texas State Capitol building, he went head over heels but still ran his best time. For a long time, William did his training on his own. Now he runs with the local running group Jerry’s Kids a couple of days a week unless his work schedule gets in the way. He William do his speed work on a track and distance running on trails or streets. He is surprised how much he likes trail running. He has fallen while running more than once. In the beginning it seemed like he fell every 3 months, now it is more like every 6 to 9 months. Interviewer’s note: he falls less than I do and I’m not visually impaired.
William provided some recommendations for being a running guide. A Guide needs to be faster than the person they are guiding and for a marathon needs to be able to easily finish marathon 20-30 minutes faster than the person being guided. A guide needs to be able to run while speaking, offering guidance, and stay alert to hazards and what is going on around him. Guides keep contact with the runners they are leading either verbally or using a tether, like a rope or a towel. Occasionally guides William keep direct physical contact by holding on to a shoulder or arm. Generally, the guide runs slightly ahead of the guided runner, announcing obstacles, turns, and crowded areas, as well as hopefully whether a curb is up or down. William recommends that runners and guides practice running together several times before a marathon to develop a comfortable technique. The best thing to do is put runner and sighted guide together and let them work out the system that suits both.
Here are some more facts about William:
- His personal best in the marathon is 3:47.
- His preferred GPS device is an iPhone with the Run Keeper app. It verbally announces every half mile pace and distance, which can make a big difference towards the end of a marathon.
- His most significant running accomplishments include the Dallas Whiterock Marathon when it rained with temperatures in the 40s for the entire race; the Boston Marathon of course; and his ultra-marathons.
- His long-term goal is to continue to run into his eighties, and he has looked longingly at 100 mile races.
It was a real pleasure interviewing William Greer. Happy Running!
Blind and Visually Impaired Divisions
Two organizations help in setting up divisions for a race: Achilles and the United States Association of Blind Athletes.
The Austin Marathon and Half Marathon will offer three divisions for visually impaired runners according to the standards established by the United States Association of Blind Athletes and used by the Boston Marathon. These divisions are:
- B1 for runners with no vision or practically no vision;
- B2 for runners with roughly 20/60 vision in their best eye, seeing better than light/dark and vague shapes; and
- B3 for runners with overall 20/200 vision, able to recognize many objects but without clarity.
High Five and the local organizations’ big challenge right now is building interest in these divisions for both the full marathon and the half marathon. Because these divisions are new, getting the word out and recruiting runners to the events takes effort.
People with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment, presenting additional challenges with the costs associated with recreational running. Out-of-town runners often need help finding affordable lodging in town. The Texas School for the Blind can sometimes offer assistance.