I run with Achilles International on Wednesday nights. Achilles is a group that pairs able-bodied athletes with blind or physically-challenged athletes. I ran my first race as a guide just before Thanksgiving this year and the high lasted for days; in fact, I think I’m still on it. Last week, I showed up for a training run and – as usual – felt my energy surge as I walked in and saw all these incredible, courageous people getting ready for the workout. I cannot imagine the trust it takes to hold on to a tether and allow someone to guide you as you move forward in darkness!
The group leader approached me and asked if I ever rode a bike. “Yes, I do!” I responded enthusiastically. One of the athletes was doing a wheelchair ride and needed two guides. I’m in.
Walking out behind Mike I realized that the chair he was in was not the one he was going to use for the workout – this chair looked like a standard wheelchair. The one sitting outside was low to the ground, more like a recumbent bike with a loop he rotated to move the wheels forward.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked Mike.
He said, “When I lift myself onto it, I need you to guide by legs into the pedals and strap them in.”
Mike is young, fit and has a great smile. He is studying web design in college. Two years ago he was in a car wreck and is now a paraplegic. He chats easily with perfect strangers and trusted me to guide his legs into his wheelchair so that we could go for a ride in the dark (with headlamps).
I will digress for a moment. Do I trust people that much? Have I ever been in a situation where I needed to and was able to do so with appreciation, not bitterness? Could I? I am not sure.
As we rolled out, Mike said, “Thanks for helping me out. I can’t get this chair out of the car on my own.”
Thank me, I’m thinking, thank me?
The other guide Amanda and I chatted as we rolled out and agreed to alternate who led and who had Mike’s back. These chairs are low to the ground and a car could easily not see Mike, even with his blinking lights. Off we went.
Ok, did I mention I had come to run? It was about 30 degrees and I was dressed perfectly for a run – not so perfectly for a bike ride during which the wind attempts valiantly to freeze your fingers, cheeks and toes. Four miles into the eight mile ride my fingers began to hurt, so I pulled my jacket sleeves down as far as I could over my gloves…not great results. I tried sitting on one hand and then another using my toasty glutes as a heating pad – better, but now my toes were hurting. Mike decided to do another loop and my ‘poor pitiful me’ voice started: my hands are cold; my feet hurt; I can’t move my lips; I am sure my cheeks are chapped. THAT DID IT. When the word chapped floated through my brain I said ‘at least you can feel your feet, stupid!’ Mike was in front of me using his arms to pedal, having no feeling from the waist down.
Mike asked me if I had said something because apparently in my irritated, frozen state, some part of my thoughts had slipped through my icy lips. Am I kidding? Here I am ABLE to ride a bike and after a bit of discomfort I begin to cave. No way. Not here. I decided right then, I would do as many loops as Mike wanted.
“I am good!” I said. “How are you?”
“My hands are frozen and my face hurts. Let’s head back,” Mike replied.
Whewww! Although a hero in my book, at least Mike is human! As we rode back I was Mike’s lead and we pushed hard the last mile. I reflected on the past hour and how physical discomfort impacts one’s mental state. I wondered about what it had been like for Mike those first hours and then days after his car wreck and felt ashamed at the speed with which I had let some physical discomfort lead me to a negative state of mind. The lights of the community center were just up ahead and seeing them prompted me to allow this experience to illuminate the many positives which come out of discomfort and challenge.
“Thanks for letting me ride with you,” I said as I helped maneuver Mike from one chair to the other.
He smiled and said, “I couldn’t have done it without you and Amanda. Thank you all, too. We are amazing.”
We – it’s the we that has stuck with me. Without us, Mike would not have had the experience and without him neither Amanda nor I would have either. It’s the we that makes life rich; the we that gives us opportunity to give and receive, to be concerned and be helped. Sure, the we can also result in conflict and agitation, but it’s being a part of a group of two or two hundred that produces- at least for me – incredible moments of illumination….even in the dark.
– Becky Sharpe, President & CEO