Blind runner Maria Williams' Olympic vision
More than a decade after totally losing her sight, Maria Williams took up running. Now she's gearing up to compete in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Halfway up the Auckland Harbour Bridge, it all got a bit much for Maria Williams.
"This is killing me," she groaned to Melissa Moon, who was just to her left, closely matching her pace.
"That's a negative thought," snapped Moon, and Williams shut up, forcing herself to think about something more uplifting than the state of her fatigued leg muscles.
When Moon gave a hint Williams took it. Moon was her friend, mentor and trainer. More importantly, Moon was the person who was holding the other end of a short piece of thick, braided rope that was looped around Williams' fingers. Without the rope, without Moon, Williams would soon trip or fall or run into something. Maria Williams is totally blind, and Melissa Moon is her guide.
That was a year ago, during the Auckland half-marathon, Williams' first long race. When the event came around again this month the pair ran the 12km route because Williams is recovering from a stress fracture, and this time when they reached the crest of the bridge she didn't even think about moaning to her running mate. She's come a long way in 12 months.
Williams, 46, is an adviser at the Ministry of Social Development, and a novice in the world of athletics.
Moon, also 46, is a former professional athlete – two-time world mountain-running champ and winner of numerous New Zealand titles before she retired on a high note by winning the 2010 stair-run to the top of the Empire State Building.
They both live in Wellington, and started running together in July last year. In April they ran the London marathon. For their next trick, Williams wants to represent New Zealand in the marathon at the September 2016 Paralympics in Rio, with Moon at her side.
The week Williams finally lost her sight she was on holiday in Hong Kong with a friend. One eye was long gone, but now the retina on her "good" eye was detaching itself. It was like there was a curtain slowly being tugged across the world from one side to the other, and it closed a little further each day.
She went to her friend and said: "Don't freak out, but I"m going to be blind soon."
The friend did freak out a little, but there was medically nothing to be done, so they got on with the holiday, and Williams spent her last few sighted days sticking to their itinerary, visiting museums and taking in the view, somewhat reduced, from Victoria Peak.
Williams was 32 but she'd been going blind all her life, after being born with congenital glaucoma.
At school in Christchurch she would be last to be picked for team games because she was hopeless at catching, and she recognised people by voice and clothes rather than facial features, but she could still read, and jump on a trampoline. It was a pretty normal childhood – her mother just told her never to ride a bike on the road, and always to cross at the crossing.
After Williams' sight deteriorated further in her 20s she went on her OE, setting out to remember how the world looked before it was too late, from the flamingos and elephants of Tanzania, to the winter sun in Scandinavia. She took some photos, but didn't really look at them. She thought, "I've got to remember them, and take it all with me."
Yet when total blindness finally arrived it was almost a relief – the long anxious wait was over and she could get on with her new life as a blind person, mastering the accessibility computer software (brilliant), trying out the tappy white stick (awful), getting a guide dog (wonderful). Fourteen years on, she still dreams in colour a little, but that's starting to fade.
Then a few years ago, when she was living in Auckland, a workmate started nagging Williams to take up running, telling her she had a runner's build. The friend hadn't guided before and they didn't really know what they were doing, but it still felt good to be moving fast in the fresh air along the Auckland waterfront.
When Williams moved to Wellington last year she needed a new guide, and was introduced to Moon, who'd been guiding visually impaired and blind runners for 23 years, starting with her former husband Clive Moon.
All Moon had in mind was a regular trot to get Williams out in the elements, but after a couple of months she saw there was potential for much more. They set a goal of the Auckland half-marathon and ran a good time, despite Williams' crisis of confidence on the harbour bridge.
"After that," says Moon, "I wanted to fast-track poor old Maria."
Since then they've run many hundreds of kilometres together. They chat and solve the problems of the world as they go, but Moon's not afraid to push her friend, and teach her to accept the physical discomfort of being a serious athlete.
"When she vomits when she finishes, I'll know I've done my job."
They did another half-marathon in Wellington, then the full marathon in London. There's been no vomiting yet, but their London time – 3:44:00 – vaulted Williams to the number two spot in the international paralympic rankings for fully-blind (T11) woman marathoners. If things go well, says Moon, there's no reason why they shouldn't make it to Rio.
A spokesperson for Athletics NZ said selections for the Rio Paralympics won't be made till early next year, but Williams is currently tracking well, and has the backing of the high performance para-athletics programme.
END OF A TETHER
Earlier this month, after finishing their 12km trot in Auckland, Moon and Williams kept their running kit on and headed to Mangere Mountain in south Auckland – a good spot for Fairfax's video team to get a drone in the air for some footage of the pair running in tethered synchrony.
It was more of a scramble than a run – the Mangere volcanic cone may be photogenic but it's also pretty steep and rocky, but as the drone buzzed just behind their heads, Moon kept up a gentle commentary on the unfamiliar terrain for Williams.
"This bit's slightly uneven ... not too bad ... keep lifting your feet ... great …"
The rope between them was about 40cm long, a stout piece of rope from Bunnings with a loop tied at each end. Moon tangled the rope tight around her hand, while Williams held her end more daintily – a couple of fingers in the loop like it was a teacup. When they got a bit of speed up on the flatter bits, Moon timed the swinging of her arms to match Williams. Much of the time the rope between them was slack.
When they first started running together Moon would talk a lot, building up the blind woman's trust with plenty of verbal cues.
"I'd be thinking 100 metres up the line all the time and telling her what I saw.
"Now she trusts me, so she can just let herself go. Basically it's just a tug to the left, a tug to the right, or I'll say 'people in front' or 'sharp corner to the left'. We've got it down to a fine art."
She loves being a guide for the same reason she loved mountain running – the mental challenge of observing and strategising, even as you're pushing yourself physically.
"The mental aspect is quite significant," says Moon. "You've always being observant about what's up in front, what's going on, what's around you."
The biggest danger they've met when training, she says, is people glued to their cellphones coming toward them in the street.
'They'll have their headphones on, so I can't even say 'Hey look out!'."
Williams has a guide dog, and when she went on her first guided run there was something very familiar about receiving information about the world through her hands.
She has no hesitation in making Moon responsible for keeping her from running off a kerb, into a pole, down a pothole.
"I have total faith."
"We get the best out of each other," says Moon. "Maria has a confidence within herself so she can just let herself go. There's no hesitation with Maria. We can get a nice long flow in our running style and in our rhythm.
"She's not fearful, and for a guide that's magic."
- Sunday Star Times