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5 Qs for Jessica Lemond, blind high-school cross-country runner

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Lemond runs with one of the cross-country team’s assistant coaches. Photo courtesy of Jessica Lemond.

 

In many ways, Jessica Lemond, 14, of Holly, MIchigan, is a typical high-school student. She likes to swim, act, sing and write, and runs with her school’s cross-country team. But she does all this without sight.

“I was born blind, which in my mind is a blessing,” Lemond says. “If I had ever been able to see and knew what that was like, I’d feel like I lost something.”

Lemond was born with Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a rare disorder that leads to vision loss. Though Lemond can perceive light and general shapes, she cannot see color and has trouble distinguishing people or objects from one another.

“Usually, crowds and individuals look like differently sized blurry squares,” she says.

That hasn’t stopped Lemond from becoming an avid cross-country runner who does much of her training on local trails. Trail Runner spoke to Lemond about how she got into running and the challenges—and rewards—of being sightless on the trails.

 

1. How did you get into running, generally, and trail running in particular?

During the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I didn’t have much going on, and I joined the cross-country team that fall. I had a pretty rocky start. I was the slowest kid on the team, and struggled because I didn’t have a consistent guide. I didn’t ever get to fully trust [one guide] enough to just relax and run. So, instead of doing winter track, I decided to try swimming. I got a concussion towards the end of the [swimming] season, and I had to miss the first month of track season.

When I was finally well enough to compete again, my brother became my guide. Having someone that I admired so much running alongside me, making sacrifices so he could be there for me at meets and giving me really great advice helped me start to take running seriously.

 

2. What are some of the challenges facing a blind runner?

The biggest one, which comes up in all areas of my life, is getting people to treat me normally. Some people just assume that I can’t do certain parts of the workouts, or try to cut me slack. I always tell them to push me just as hard as they would anyone else. As a result, I’m really hard on myself.

Running without sight is definitely difficult: I can’t see the terrain, I have to place a lot of trust in my guide and—this one is kind of stupid—I sometimes wish I could see my opponents.

I try to think about the benefits, though: I have a personal trainer running alongside me at all times. If I’m desperate and need to get an opponent out of the way, I can just throw an elbow and be all “I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you there!” It’s a lot easier to be funny, because I can just use blind jokes.

 

3. Have your cross-country teammates supported you?

I’m somewhat of a control freak, and don’t like working together with other people, but it’s really great to have a team looking out for you. Sometimes, when I’m walking through the halls, I feel unstoppable. I’ve got about 50 kids who run with me and will look out for me. I can’t count how many times someone I don’t talk to much on the team has helped me get un-lost or explained something at practice.

 

4. How does running with a guide work?

I’ve had about 10 different guides, not counting my teammates. I either hold on to the back of their arm or use a tether so we can run alongside each other. The guide will tell me when a change in ground is approaching, as well as warning me if there is a drop-off.

Sometimes, I’ll have a guide for a longer period of time, and that kind of relationship is invaluable. It’s a different kind of friendship—when you trust your guide with your body, you also trust them with your heart, and a lot of personal stuff comes out on long runs.

 

5. What are your running plans for next season and beyond?

I hope to run track and cross country, but I injured my hip last cross-country season and have to wait for my MRI results. For a while, I went a little insane, but now I’m putting my extra energy to good use. I’ve been writing a murder mystery that I usually get going on right after homework.

I hope to be running again, but it’s not certain. But I think I’d be very bored if I knew exactly what would happen to me in life, and I love not knowing.

 

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