Some Place I Can’t Describe

By Laura Edwards

After months of training, planning and anticipation, it arrived: Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon, and my planned attempt to run 13.1 miles blindfolded to honor my little sister, Taylor, and support the fight against Batten disease.

On Friday, my colleagues at a creative marketing communications agency threw a purple-drenched pep rally, complete with the theme song from “Rocky,” a gift to Taylor’s Tale and an appearance by my husband, John (who schemed with them to plan the surprise).

At the race expo, I traded hugs with my former colleagues at the healthcare organization sponsoring the race and runners wearing purple for Taylor’s Tale on race day.

Friday night, Dr. Steve Gray, a UNC Gene Therapy Center expert whose lab’s Batten disease research is co-funded by Taylor’s Tale, arrived in Charlotte for the race.

pre-race dinner

Finally, race day arrived. John, Steve, my mom and I picked up Andrew Swistak, my sighted guide, and arrived in uptown Charlotte before sunrise. I did an interview with News 14 Carolina and took a couple of photos for Society Magazine.

News 14 interview

Andrew, Steve and I headed to the start line just as the morning’s first sunlight painted the tops of the skyscrapers. And at 7:15, I took one end of a green bungee cord, pulled down the blindfold bearing my sister’s name and ran into darkness.

start line

We got off to a slow start for the first few miles due to the policeman driving the pace car and charged with keeping the early starters at bay. We even took a wrong turn at one point when the pace car couldn’t keep up with us and had to wait at a busy intersection for the light to change before we could cross. But Andrew and Steve took it all in stride; a few miles in, the course opened up for us, and we picked up the pace.

Auditory cues mean so much more, and are so much more acute, when you can’t see. I loved hearing the reactions of people lining the streets to cheer on runners. First, they cheered for us as they’d cheer for any runner they didn’t know. Then, they’d notice something different about us and go silent before crescendoing into a loud roar. It was incredible to experience, and it gave me an extra kick. Several times along the course, we passed people who knew me or knew our story. I didn’t recognize all of them, but along one quiet neighborhood street, my good friend, Amy, surprised us. I recognized her voice as soon as she called my name. So much of human emotion is expressed in the eyes, and a thick blindfold concealed mine, but I hope she knew how much it meant to me to hear a familiar voice at that very moment.

A few weeks ago, during my longest blindfolded training run with Andrew, I ran untethered for a short period. During the race on Saturday, Andrew cut me loose a few times. Around mile 10, I ran without my guide for what felt like an eternity. I never felt closer to Taylor than during that stretch. I imagined her next to me, healthy, her legs in sync with mine, her voice dancing on the wind, her eyes drinking in the earth.

solo run

Just a short time later, we approached the Taylor’s Tale cheer station near the final stretch. Once more, Andrew took the bungee, and I ran past a screaming, adoring crowd. Their voices melted the cramps in my legs and filled my heart with love. In front of the station, I made a 90-degree turn on Andrew’s spoken direction alone, and we headed to the finish line. As we did, 70 teenagers clad in purple tutus, pompoms, sparkle and glitter took off after us. And as I hurdled over the first timing mat, then the second, and Andrew pulled me to a stop, and I lifted my blindfold and let the light come pouring in, I melted in the arms of my mom, who stood waiting for me at the finish line, crying, and the kids surrounded us, closing us off from the outside world, and suddenly, even though I had a medal around my neck and a timing chip on my shoe, I wasn’t at a race any longer, and I didn’t care that I’d just run a half marathon blindfolded. I was somewhere else, some place I can’t describe or ever return to again except in my dreams.

Mom and Laura at finish line

I ran 13.1 miles in the dark, but I didn’t take a single step alone.

We built Taylor’s Tale from the ashes of a tragedy that tried to burn my family to the ground. And Batten disease is the saddest thing I’ve ever known.

But Taylor’s Tale is not a sad story. Taylor’s Tale is a story of love and hope. And as I ran the final steps of Thunder Road, flanked by living angels and guided only by Andrew’s voice and Taylor’s courage, I knew:

Batten disease may have cast a dark shadow on our world, but I was running to the light.

I believed.

And I felt free.

the finish line

 Note: I ran the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded not only to honor Taylor’s courage and raise awareness of rare diseases, but also to support Dr. Steve Gray’s gene therapy research co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

A Blind 10K, and Some More for Good Measure

By Laura Edwards

Blind run #13This morning, Andrew and I did the most normal thing in the world: we drove to an almost deserted office park south of our neighborhood and warmed up with a .82-mile jog at about a 9:00/mile pace. But that’s when we threw “normal” out the window: when Andrew handed me one end of a short bungee cord, and I pulled a purple blindfold down over my eyes, blocking out the brilliant sunlight in the cloudless sky. That’s when two runners – one sighted, one blind – stepped into the bike lane facing traffic and picked up the pace for a 6.5-mile run.

Blind run number 12 marked not only our longest run to date, but also our fastest. Over 6.5 miles, we averaged about an 8:30 mile and even briefly dipped into the sixes on some of the downhills (without taking a double face plant). I ran faster with the blindfold than without it, even at the end of the run.

With the exception of one large loop in an offshoot, we traversed the same road – a road with a gradual climb – several times and made a U-turn each time we reached the end (doing so allowed us to practice our double U-turn skills!). That gave me a very different sensation from all of the tight cul-de-sacs and speed bumps in our neighborhood. The road also included a bridge over Interstate 485, with a different surface from the pavement covering the rest of the road. The bridge felt like corrugated cardboard beneath the soles of my high-cushioned Brooks running shoes. We passed a few walkers, runners and cyclists. Andrew told me that once, we passed a woman wearing a purple shirt (purple is the color for Taylor’s Tale). Another time, he told me that a mother driving with her teenage son in the passenger seat slowed the car and pointed, urging her son to look at us (I smiled with my eyes beneath my blindfold when Andrew told me that). We – or at least I – had one scary moment when a driver came flying down the road in our lane. Without my vision, I had no concept of whether or not I was about to be hit by a car, and I instinctively jumped toward, and almost into, my sighted guide (and my stomach jumped into my throat). Andrew told me the car was about 10 feet from us, but the driver was speeding so quickly that I felt all of the car’s force in my bones. I wonder now if Andrew felt the same way, or if I felt it at a heightened level because I couldn’t see it coming.

My goal for the Thunder Road Half Marathon is to average at least a 9:00 mile. I ran faster than that in the race last year and think that with Andrew’s direction and Taylor’s courage to guide me, I can match that even without the gift of sight.

news 14 filming

p.s. Earlier, I called today’s outing blindfolded run #12, but I didn’t count this past Monday, when I donned the blindfold and ran with Andrew for a News 14 Carolina story that aired in Charlotte. You can watch it online here. More coverage is on the way, so stay tuned!

As a reminder, I’m doing this crazy thing not just so I can talk about it, but to help support our fight against Batten disease and to save people like Taylor. Read on to find out how you can support our efforts through my run as well as how you can join our team on race day. If you plan to run for our team, please send me a note ASAP (even if you won’t register ASAP) to help us plan. Thank you!

I will run the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to support gene therapy co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support my run and our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

Join the Taylor’s Tale team at Thunder Road! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Run for us to help raise awareness on race day. Stay tuned for more details, including special shirts for team members and an informal post-race event!