A tether of training, trust

Volunteer, 17-year-old will navigate streets of C-U together in April showcase

Of the two dedicated runners, it's difficult to tell who's more challenged: the blind one or the sighted one guiding her.

In awful winter conditions over the last several weeks, Ashley Eisenmenger and Elizabeth Jones have tethered up and hit the streets to train to run the half-marathon — that's 13.1 miles for you nonrunners — at the Sixth Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on April 26.

Eisenmenger is a 17-year-old full-time senior at Unity High School. The oldest of triplets born prematurely to Matt and Amy Eisenmenger of Tolono, she's been legally blind since birth.

Fellow triplet Emily's vision is good enough to drive, while sister Kailey's is not good enough to drive but better than Ashley's.

"I don't have any vision in my right eye, and in my left, I have large object perception," Ashley Eisenmenger said.

Jones, 27, is a doctoral student in theoretical and applied mechanics at the University of Illinois. A native of Villa Grove, she's married and lives in Urbana.

In addition to their small-town roots, both women share a love of running, a sense of adventure and an air of self-confidence.

When Eisenmenger sent an email to the Second Wind Running Club late last year looking for a guide, Jones was quick to respond.

Having run an ultra marathon, a marathon and four half-marathons, Jones had met her personal goal of doing the half in under two hours. The half is her favorite of those races. She's been running long distances about five years.

"I'm not terribly competitive. Once I broke two hours, I thought I was in a good position to run (as a guide) because I didn't have anything in particular I was doing for myself. You have to make the decision you're running for the person you're a guide for," Jones said.

The guide has to be a faster runner than the visually impaired runner, Jones said.

"If the guide is at their limit, they are not going to be able to pay attention enough. I need to be very comfortable with the pace we're going. I can't be worrying about the pace but (instead) need to be focusing on being her eyes," Jones said.

Through online research, Jones learned the critical importance of being direct and concise.

"To paraphrase one of the blogs, 'This is not the time for polite conversation.' You say, 'move right' then you say why. You need to say exactly what they need to do, not 'look out.' 'There's a pothole' doesn't mean anything to the runner," Jones said.

Eisenmenger is in her fourth year of running. This will be her second half-marathon. Her first was the 2013 Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, which she called "one of the most intense races I ever ran."

"It was definitely an experience to grow from, so I'm looking forward to this year. Big crowds in general are intimidating for anybody. But big crowds when you can't see ... There's a lot of extra stuff going on auditorily," she said.

Eisenmenger was the first blind runner to register for this year's Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, as far as race co-director Jan Seeley knows. Seeley said that not long after Eisenmenger registered, a second blind woman from McLeansboro contacted her, planning to run the marathon with a guide runner.

"Since we don't have a check-off box on the registration form — are you a blind runner — we have no way of knowing if there are others," Seeley said, adding she knew of two blind runners, both men, in last year's race.

Although Eisenmenger's favorite sport is basketball, she considers herself a "fairly dedicated runner." She completed numerous 5Ks and a couple of 10Ks. She also plays softball and competes in track and field through Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation. Since her first 5K her freshman year, she's run with a guide.

"I'm not going to see things on the ground, stumps, cracks in the sidewalk," she said.

She's not offended by the occasional: "Look out!"

"I think it's funny. They'll say, 'Oh my gosh, did you see that?' 'Nope,'" she deadpans.

After visiting with Jones on the phone, they scheduled a trial run together in Eisenmenger's neighborhood in early December.

"She came to me and I explained how running with a tether works and what I need from her. A guide has to be verbal. She is basically acting as my eyes. She has to verbalize 'go left, go right, sharp or gradual turns.' She'll guide me around potholes or uneven parts of the sidewalks. There is a ton of trust involved. When I'm walking to class, I can use my cane and it's all on me. I'm in control. When I run with Elizabeth, she's at the other end of the tether. She's guiding me and I just have to trust her."

Both women agreed the practice run went well.

What Jones hadn't counted on is that Eisenmenger wouldn't want to run in the dark, as Jones typically does at the end of her work day.

"She prefers to train in daylight. She is completely blind at night," Jones said.

When Eisenmenger was ready to say thanks but no thanks to their partnership, Jones wasn't.

"As a grad student, my schedule is pretty flexible. I could run any time and go to the lab earlier and stay late," she said.

Eisenmenger's mother supports the dedicated duo by agreeing to bring Eisenmenger to the Beckman Institute, where Jones works, right after school gets out at 3:15 p.m.

The two run through campus two days during the week and again on Saturdays with the Second Wind Running Club, which meets at Body N' Sole Sports in Savoy. Some of Jones' lab co-workers often join in the weekday runs, which Eisenmenger doesn't mind a bit.

"There's more conversation, a lot of laughs. It's fun, especially in this brutal cold," Eisenmenger said.

Jones said the 2-foot-long tether that connects her to Eisenmenger has pros and cons.

"It's really easy for me if we have gentle curves," Jones said. "She can just feel and I don't need to call out as much. That's kind of nice because we just chat during our runs. We talk about whatever. The best part of running is social interaction. But I do interrupt if there's something I need to call out. (The tether) definitely restricts your motion. You can't swing your arms."

Additionally, Eisenmenger's desire that Jones run on her left presents a few challenges.

"I was originally a little hesitant because when we run on roads, we run against traffic on the left and that puts her closer to the car. On the other hand, I've found that puts her in the more clear part of the street. I can run through the slush. In the end, she said she wanted me on the left, and that didn't seem debatable," Jones said.

Eisenmenger and Jones said in spite of the grotesque winter conditions, their training is going well.

"The weather has definitely made it interesting, but I like to look at it as character building," Eisenmenger said.

"I like it. I like Ashley. She's a fun girl and it's fun to run with her," Jones said.

Picking up the pace

Heading into the weekend, more than 11,000 runners from 44 states and nine countries have registered for the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon on April 24-26. Of that group, 62 percent are women. The rundown:

EVENT ENTRIES

Marathon: 1,747

Half-marathon: 4,332

10K: 1,331

5K: 3,133

Relay teams: 129

Youth run: 131

Note: Registration ends April 15, with the next price increase taking effect March 1. Register at Illinoismarathon.com.

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