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Hurdling Obstacles at the USABA Marathon National Championships

Posted December 8, 2015  Athletics/Track & Field

On Sunday, two USABA athletes crossed the finish line to become 2015 USABA Marathon National Champions – but not without hurdling substantial obstacles along the course. When guides for both Amelia Dickerson and Matt Oliver experienced setbacks, these champion athletes had to adapt, trusting the guidance of strangers and new friends to lead them to the finish line.

For most marathoners, it’s all about pace. Going into a race, athletes have a goal in mind – a pace they intend to hit, a time they have trained to beat, a new PR. The 2015 USABA Marathon National Championships event was no different. Amelia Dickerson (Boulder, Colo.) and Matt Oliver (San Diego, Calif.) had trained for this race and had goals in mind.

Having set a new USABA record just 5 weeks earlier at the NYC Marathon, Dickerson had two goals in mind – the goal she was sharing with others and a ‘secret’ goal.

“Out-loud, I was telling people my goal was to break 3:20,” said Dickerson. “But really, I had a friend who said she thought I could run 3:16, and I was sort of holding onto that as my secret goal.”

Oliver, an underdog amidst multiple world and national champions, Paralympians, and ultra-runners, was focused on a 6:20 mile pace to the finish line.

It is difficult to find guide runners, but even more difficult to find guide runners who can keep up with athletes like Dickerson and Oliver. When guiding, it’s important that the guide be faster than the athlete so you’re still able to narrate the race, advising the athlete of upcoming turns or shifts in the course and potential hazards like potholes, race signage, and other runners.

Oliver had been matched with two guides; Daniel Craven (Austin, Texas) and Aidan Schaer (Vacaville, Calif.). Craven would run the first 13.1 miles from Folsom and Schrarer would run with Oliver to the finish line at the California State Capitol building.

To complete the NYC Marathon and break a USABA record, Dickerson needed 5 guides to keep her pace throughout the 26.2 mile course. In Sacramento, Dickerson would have two guides to lead her along the course; Lindsey Bartlett (Chico, Calif.) and Neil Galvez (Aurora, Colo.).
Dickerson and Oliver opted for the 5-minute head start with other visually impaired athletes. This is where marathoner Jim Eckford (Oakland, Calif.) first spotted Dickerson.

“[The California International Marathon], with its wide track, mostly smooth surface, and few corners, is the National Championship for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes,” explains Eckford in his race report. “They started a little ahead of the main start, so we saw some of them as we were passing them, each with a guide on a short tether.”

Before mile 5, Craven started to struggle and ultimately could not keep Oliver’s 6:21 pace.

“I went on running, just following random people,” said Oliver. “I usually run side-by-side or follow my guide.”

But when Oliver would lose a runner or find himself in a gap between groups, he had to slow down or even walk at some points on the course, until another runner appeared and he was able to follow someone again.

Normally, Oliver relies on his watch which vibrates and makes a sound at every mile. In this situation, it was very difficult to keep track of how many miles he was running and watch for runners. So, he began relying on the runners around him, asking them how far they were into the race.

“After I hit 13, I started slowing down a bit so my other guide wouldn’t miss me.”

Luckily, the evening before, Oliver had discussed a contingency plan with Schaer, his second guide.

“Before the race, I had told Aidan in case Daniel got injured or something went wrong, you’ll have to keep an eye out for me. Daniel might not be there to find you.”

Just past mile 13, Schaer spotted Oliver on the course and joined him. By mile 15, the two were in rhythm, headed toward the finish line. But for Dickerson, mile 15 was where the hurdles began.

Bartlett ran with Dickerson until Galvez joined them at mile 6. Though Bartlett was starting to fall behind, Dickerson said “she’s an incredibly strong woman so I figured she’d pull it back together.”

Just past the half-way mark, Bartlett had officially fallen behind and Galvez began experiencing severe pain. He started looking around to consider who had been keeping pace with them since the start.

“I gave them a ‘woohoo, looking strong’ as they went by,” says Eckford, about seeing Amelia later on the course. “Then, a couple of minutes later, they came back to me. The guide said ‘I have a big favor to ask’. I thought this meant something like fetching water at an aid station. ‘Can you guide?’ I thought about this for about 3 seconds…‘Yes, absolutely!’”

After a quick tutorial, Galvez dropped back and Dickerson had a new guide.

“[When Jim joined me], my biggest concern was that I know guiding is hard work and I was afraid of ruining Jim’s race. He had a goal and I know how much people train towards a marathon, so I didn’t want to ruin his opportunity.”

“I was also a little concerned about how Jim would take to guiding. Some people jump right in and are great at it, while others can be very tense or anxious, or not careful and mindful of obstacles. It turns out Jim is one of those who can jump in and do it like he’s been guiding his whole life!”

In Jim’s race report, he describes two falls and some self-doubt. “I made a couple of early mistakes, one of which put her on the ground.” They got up quickly and regained speed, passing runners to get back to where they were before. “So far so good, but [could] I maintain this? I just took on guidance of someone who is running faster than me, even though her goal is 3:20 too. It would be awful to slow her down or have to hand her off to someone else,” he recounts.

Despite the apprehension, Eckford pushed forward. At mile 22, he could tell Dickerson was struggling. “At this point, I am not going to hand you off. Even if you start walking, I am not going to hand you off. I hope you don’t start walking and I don’t think you will,” he said to Dickerson. She kept running.

“I didn’t have enough in me at that time to form coherent words, but if I could have replied, I’d have told him that walking is not an option,” said Dickerson after the race.

“We faded the last three miles, but not hugely,” says Eckford. “I was still steering us around other runners.”

At the finish line, Dickerson nearly fainted. “I kept her walking with a volunteer holding her other arm, and we headed to the USABA tent.”

Oliver and Schaer had crossed the finish line just 30 minutes before Dickerson and Eckford. Both Oliver and Dickerson, with the support of ‘stand-in’ guides, finished the race national champions. Oliver finished in 2:50:41 and Dickerson finished in 3:20:28, beating her USABA record, again. (Full results here).

“Jim was an incredible guide,” Dickerson said. “I think the biggest factor in the success of Jim and me as a team is that we were both ready to take on the challenge; we were flexible and adaptable and ready to figure things out.”

“I am so grateful for everyone who runs any amount with me,” Dickerson continued. “I can’t be a runner without them.  A lot of attention goes to the champion, but it’s really about the people who get them there.  Jim is one of those people who wound up in that role unexpectedly.  The grace and confidence with which he picked up the tether and ‘ran’ with it is truly amazing to me.”

Established in 2007, the USABA Marathon National Championships has grown significantly from its humble beginning. This year, 48 blind and visually impaired runners and more than 60 volunteer sighted guides participated in the race. The list of participants included Paralympic athletes, military veterans, world champions, previous USABA Marathon National Champions, ultra-runners, and first-time marathoners. Sponsored by, the event has become one of the premier distance running events for athletes who are blind and visually impaired. Full results from the 2015 USABA Marathon National Championships can be found here.