Watch This Visually Impaired Runner Crush Her First Trail Ultramarathon
With the support of her long-time running guide and friend, Melissa set out to prove that there were no limits to what she could accomplish.
Trail running is not for the faint of heart. It can be a difficult sport filled with obstacles such as dangerous terrain, mercurial weather, and unknown circumstances beyond your control. While you may be able to run five miles "effortlessly" around your neighborhood's paved roads, trying to tackle that same distance on a trail is a very different—and humbling—experience.
What's more, thinking about conquering a road marathon is daunting in itself, let alone an ultramarathon across rocks and tree roots, through creeks, and up and down hills.
Tired yet? Now, imagine trail running a 50K (that's 31.1 miles) ultramarathon trail race without really being able to see where you're going.
Melissa Blume, who is legally blind, did just that when she crossed the finish line at The North Face Endurance Series 50K race in May 2019 at Bear Mountain in the Hudson Valley in New York. And I was with her every step of the way—literally. I served as her running guide to ensure her safety throughout this process, but Melissa's journey to the finish line didn't just happen on the day in May. She had spent the last four years building stamina and working hard to become a stronger runner—this meant early mornings and late nights logging miles and doing speed work. Then, the months leading up to the ultramarathon were filled with gritty training, tears, laughter, blisters, and, frankly, a lot of pain. But the pain was worth every minute and every band-aid.
Melissa and I first met in 2016 in Central Park while preparing to practice with our run group, Achilles International, a non-profit organization that pairs disabled athletes with able-bodied athletes. I had just become a running guide for the organization, and we chatted all things fashion, went for a four-mile run, and bonded immediately. Since then, she and I have been running countless races together including the TCS New York City Marathon and California International Marathon. (Related: Two Badass Wheelchair Runners Share How the Sport Has Entirely Changed Their Lives)
I am her eyes on the road. She is my cheerleader in life.
While it's true that we've accomplished a lot together, individually, we have our own mileage under our belts: Since 2016, between the two of us, we've completed 19 marathons, and countless half-marathons, 10Ks, and 5Ks. Still, Melissa (or Mel, as I call her) and I got into the running game "late"—she in her early 30s and me in my late 20s. Running gives us both freedom, community, and a sense of purpose, not to mention keeps us grounded in health.
Getting to Know Melissa
Melissa's visual acuity is very limited—20/200, to be exact. This means she has to be as close as 20 feet to see what most people can see from 200 feet away. She also has a condition known as Nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) and Aniridia (no iris/absence of eye color), which reduces the sharpness of vision and causes sensitivity to light. She also has cataracts that have progressively gotten worse with time. As a result of these conditions, contrasts on the road and depth perception are severely impaired and her peripheral vision suffers, as well.
But Melissa has an ever-present resilience most people could only strive for. She was adopted from an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea when she was three years old by American parents who are also both blind. As I came to learn, her adoptive mother tragically lost her second biological child and couldn't bear to carry another, but still felt that she wanted another. Enter, Melissa, who arrived in the U.S. as a shy, scared little girl who spoke zero English. But this didn't stop her from diving right into her new life. Nor did growing up with a visual impairment stop her from tackling sports or partaking in any other activity.
In fact, growing up, Melissa was active in gymnastics, dance, and cheerleading, but while she excelled in sports, running wasn't something she had even tried to tackle on her own. The truth was that she needed someone to run with her. This wasn't exactly easy to find at a moment's notice. Mel wanted to run; the desire was there, but she was constantly held back by the fear she may trip and hurt herself. It just wasn't safe, so she resigned to running on the treadmill.
But the itch to get outside and hit the pavement never went away, and when she joined Achilles at the suggestion of her friend Laura Burkett, that dream became a reality. She would be paired with guides like me, who would ensure her safety on the road, making up for what she could not see.
A Rocky Run
My relationship with running has been rocky at best. As an avid athlete (and striving perfectionist), growing up, I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to go faster, train harder, and be the best I could be at any sport. This pressure ultimately amounted to a dangerous crash—physically and mentally. I developed anorexia that had haunted me since age six. (Related: How the Coronavirus Lockdown Can Affect Eating Disorder Recovery—and What You Can Do About It)
I remember trying to make up an excuse to get out of a timed mile run during a lacrosse practice in my sophomore year of boarding school. In my head, I had an aggressively fast time I wanted to achieve, but in my heart, all I felt were pangs of anxiety. The pressure of the timed mile became a trigger. A trigger that made me want to be "perfect," to be "the fastest," to be "the best." I was spiraling out of control trying to control my food, surroundings, and self. My lack of energy from restricting food and my whithering muscles meant that for now, sports were over for me. This meant no more running as well. Anorexia killed my dreams of playing lacrosse in college and being active for quite some time. My kidneys were failing, I was severely underweight and just taking a shower took every ounce of energy I had. Looking back, as dire as my health was then, without this fall, I wouldn't have picked myself up again later.
Then, I moved to New York City to attend art school in August 2004 and was often surrounded by runners barreling down bike paths and through parks. I so badly wanted to get out and join the running community, but the crippling anxiety from my high school days on the track prevented me from doing so. All I could think was, "What if you are not fast enough? Strong enough? Capable enough?"
This self-doubt and disordered eating plagued me for six more years until one day I decided to run a half marathon after being approached by a sock brand to join their team. It was an abrupt decision, but the best decision. Enough was enough. I was determined to get back out there. (Related: I Finally Stopped Chasing PRs and Medals—and Learned to Love Running Again)
With the supervision of a coach, my hand was held throughout the entire process. Three months of training later I completed my first half marathon, The Brooklyn Half. Crossing the finish line was the ultimate high. Tears streamed down my face and my jaw locked in a strong smile while my friends yelled loudly and rang cowbells in cheer. I was officially a runner. I began training for the TCS New York City Marathon shortly after, and this is when I discovered Achilles. On my long training runs through Central Park I often noticed these highlighter yellow "guide" shirts accompanied by "athlete" shirts, some even said "blind runner." I had to know more. After some poking around, I applied to be a guide online. They accepted me the very same week and soon I would go to my very first Achilles practice.
Little did I know that my life would change that day. That I would guide athletes for races, even a full marathon. That I would meet Melissa. That one day I would guide her through nearly 11 hours of trail running, helping her accomplish an ultra.
Signing Up for the "Ultra" Challenge
While Melissa and I had spent the better part 2016-2018 building quite the running resumes, we both felt like there was more to do; more goals to work toward and achieve. So, one morning after an Achilles practice in Central Park, Melissa turned to me and asked "hey, do you have any interest in running an ultra with me?" Truth: I had just been researching ultra races earlier that week. Chalk it up to ESP, or the fact we had become so in sync in our friendship and running relationship. My response was, quickly, "Yes, of course! Let's do it!"
The goal, at first, was to run any ultramarathon, but as Melissa and I did our research we landed on a trail ultra—despite Melissa having little to no experience on a trail course. Our decision was based upon timing (the training worked within our existing goals and other races) more than anything, not so much the technicality of a certain race. And somehow 50K/31.1 miles seemed feasible to start as we both were used to the marathon distance, 26.2 miles. (Related: 8 Essential Safety Tips Every Trail Runner Should Know)
After extensive research, we settled on The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50K Ultra-Marathon at Bear Mountain. Technical race terrain is graded from 1-5 stars, 5 being the most difficult. TNF race had a difficulty level of 5. Melissa was pumped. I was nervous.
Training for the "Ultra" Goal
Training for an ultramarathon is intense, to say the least, but Melissa and I were up for the challenge. While we were both already in the midst of marathon training—Melissa was gearing up for the Houston Marathon and I was training for the Boston Marathon—the ultra training plan had us doing 18-20 mile runs as routinely as brushing out teeth. We both knew there had to be some personal life sacrifices made if we were going to do this; fewer late nights out, one less margarita here and there, and making sure we rested our bodies as much as we used them to run, lift, stretch, and cross-train. (Related: This Is the Grueling Reality of What It's Like to Run an Ultramarathon)
One of the most important things we knew we needed to work on was getting Melissa acclimated to different terrains. To do so, our weekends consisted of driving out to Millburn, New Jersey where there's an abundance of trails to run—trails with rooted and rocky turf, perfect for technical training. Specifically, we explored South Mountain Reservation where we worked on pace, foot placement, and safety precautions. It was imperative that Melissa was comfortable on uneven ground with tree roots. The more Melissa practiced on this type of terrain, the more comfortable she became. She started training her brain and her body to adjust to roots, rocks, ascents, and descents. There is always a risk of injury running on trails and an even higher risk of injury when running trails with limited vision. I'd ask Melissa about her concerns and discomfort—what she could see, what made her nervous, and how she was responding to the trail. Once again Mel's resilience was shining through. Her positive attitude and ability to overcome fear was ever-present on the trail.
Even still, my mind started going to, "how are we going to do this for 31.1 miles? And what if something happens along the way, and I need support?"
After careful thought and consideration, I asked Melissa if we could bring on a second guide to assist me throughout the ultra race. If I had a second guide assisting, there was additional insurance for everyone's safety. A second guide could keep me in check if I grew exhausted and lost my ability to 100 percent support Melissa. Mel was on board, and we phoned up our friend, and fellow Achilles guide, Rachel Belmont. Rachel is a nursing student and skydiver who also happens to have run 100-mile races before—even races that last 24 hours with no sleep. Rachel knew how to run, how to run long distances, and could grin and bear any amount of pain. Once we had her on board, our training continued and intensified. Mel took off to run the marathon in Houston with her guides from Texas. She PRed, crushing the course in just over four hours. I left for Boston to run the marathon as a training run for our ultra. Upon returning from our respective races, Melissa, Rachel, and I ran the Titos and Tacos 10-mile trail run in Millburn, New Jersey. We thought this would be a piece of cake.
The 10-miler was the wakeup call we needed ahead of the 50K. Trail running is hard. Melissa took a few scary spills, and I flew 15 feet downhill after tripping on a tree root trying to protect Mel. The three of us stomped it out all the way to the finish line with big smiles, some scrapes and bruises, and drenched in sweat. We had each other's backs, but despite our most optimistic views, this was eye-opening for what we inevitably had to accomplish on the ultra race day. (Related: This Mom Stopped to Breastfeed Her Baby 16 Hours Into a 106-Mile Ultramarathon Race)
After five months of grueling training, personal life sacrifices, and a few aches and pains, we were ready for race day. Melissa, Rachel, and I had carefully listed out a packing plan. From gear to nutrition, we had every inch of this race covered. The three of us met at my apartment the night before. We cooked pasta for dinner while we listened to music and laughed over ridiculous personal stories. We had to keep the mood light. That's Melissa for you—she always knows how to keep things lighthearted even in the face of a stressful situation. We packed our bags and went over the course, dialing in on sections where we knew we'd need to dig deep. We made almond butter and banana sandwiches, and carefully counted our energy gels and protein waffles. We went over hydration, what to do if one of us gets injured, and the roles Rachel and I would play as Melissa's guides. Rachel would take her side and I was to lead; calling out every root, rock, dip, or obstacle in our way. We all went to bed early that night with butterflies in our stomachs.
Race Day Chaos
Race day started early. Our alarms blasted us awake at 4:45 a.m. I threw on my running clothes and dashed to get the car while Melissa and Rachel grabbed our bags and brewed strong coffee. We blasted oldies as we drove up the dark and empty FDR Drive against the twinkling lights across the river in Brooklyn. I can safely say we will never forget that morning.
We arrived after a 90-minute drive upstate, and the three of us went over our gear one last time, and made sure each of us finished breakfast. There wasn't much time to sit around and think; the race was starting in less than 20 minutes, so we made our way to the start line. The air was crisp and the fog low. Runners from all around the world were lining up and the energy was high; you could feel it. Melissa was calm and ready. We had a team huddle; high fiving as we told each other "I love you" and "teamwork makes the dream work." (Related: How to Deal with Performance Anxiety and Nerves Before a Race)
At 7 a.m. sharp the gun went off and we began making our way through the 31.1-mile course. It began with a quick flat and then steadily ascended for what felt like a mile. The ground was wet, which made the rocks slippery. Rachel and I were glued to Mel's side to protect her from the herd of runners coming up behind us. At mile 10, we felt the fatigue. At mile 15, our bodies were just trying to hold on. At mile 20, all we could think about were potato chips and salt dipped orange slices. There were moments when we just wanted to slow down or take a seat, but Melissa's fierceness prevailed. We had to push hard during miles 20-27. At times we were scaling boulders with me pulling Melissa up and Rachel spotting from behind. We constantly called out cues like, "Rock! Root! Watch out, tree stump! Creek! Snake!" And again, "snake!" Our cheers rang loud with, "You got this, Mel! Crush it. We believe in you. We've got your back."
Mile 28. This is when the "you know what" hit the fan. Melissa was growing tired; she was feeling depleted and had taken a few falls along the way. I had become delirious; turning to Rachel for support as we took a moment to regroup ahead of Mel while she ate a snack. We pulled it together and got Mel back on track. Runners flew past us in awe of Melissa (our team was easily identifiable due to our highlighter-yellow Achilles tanks). They couldn't believe that someone who is blind was running an ultra—let alone a trail ultra.
We had tough conversations mile 28 to 28.5—mile marker 28.5 was the last aid station. Mel's vision was straining and she was talking about possibly calling it. The three of us had to be honest with ourselves about the possible outcomes of this day. We had come so far, but safety was always number one (fun was number two). Still, I saw the fire in Mel's eyes. She was not going to give up. Perhaps the thought of calling it quits was there, but truthfully, she was always going to tough it out. We gobbled down salty snacks at the last aid station, gulped a sports drink, and off we went. We had to close out a little less than 3 miles. Rachel and I set the pace so that we could have Mel on cruise control the whole way.
Melissa Blume, legally blind with severely limited vision, was about to finish her first 50K race, becoming an ultra runner. As we neared the finish, Melissa held strong. Rachel and I cheered and reached for her Mels hands, one of us on either side of her, and we picked up the pace. With the finish line in sight, our muddy feet, tired legs, and full hearts blasted over the finish line 10 hrs and 45 mins after takeoff. Melissa had become an ultra runner.
The goal was to finish safely, nothing more, and we did just that. Shortly after crossing that finish line, Melissa broke down in tears, and we all embraced. A sisterhood was formed that day. Melissa believed in us as her guides, and we believed in her as an athlete and as our friend. She had just accomplished something most people would deem unthinkable. Melissa's strength and determination that day were unparalleled. Even in the darkest moments, her whole heart was in it. She serves as an inspiration to those who have ever thought that they can't do something in life. My friend Melissa is living proof that if you work hard and believe in the process that anything is possible.