Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Community First

What community are you a part of? How do you define community and work to support members of your community? These questions and the topic of “community” have been rattling around my head for the past couple of days.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hosting my friend Diane Berberian, who was in town from Florida to run the Boston AthleticAssociation 10k with Team With a Vision, Diane is racing in the BAA Distance Medley which includes the 5k, 10K, and half marathon. Diane is a legendary athlete, coach, mentor, and teacher who has completed marathons and IronMan as well as countless 5ks and sprint-tris.

Although we kept busy with lunches, dinners, chocolate factory tour, little league baseball game, brewery visit (paired w/ the chocolate!) and the actual 10k, the highlight of the weekend was chatting with Diane over coffee in my kitchen about the community comprised of athletes who are blind/visually impaired.

I identify as a community organizer and my family is very active in our local neighborhood/community. I have a strong network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues who share similar interests and passions as I do (politics, local beer, running, community service, etc). However, I am relatively new to the world of athletes who are blind/visually impaired (B/VI).

My first introduction was the 2013 California International Marathon (CIM) which is held every December in Sacramento, CA and also doubles as the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) National Marathon Championships. Well over 40 athletes who are B/VI participate in either the marathon or relay. This was also my first marathon in which I was running with (two kick ass) sighted guides. Outside of my co-worker, who I flew out with, I didn’t know anyone else at the race. To say the least, I was blown away by the entire experience. As is the case with any race that has a lot of runners who are B/VI, the running took backseat to the networking, learning, and relationship building.

Since December 2013, I’ve been focusing on building my running (and now also alpine skiing) community. I keep in touch with athletes over Facebook, texts, group runs for folks who live in Greater Boston, and a couple of times a year a group of us are at the same race such as the Boston Marathon, which brings together over 25 marathoners who are B/VI.

Fast forward to this past weekend to my conversation with Diane. We talked about the balance between personal performance and the community as a whole. We talked about how the community (or as she calls it the Village) is more important than any one athlete, sport (there is a lot of cross-over between runners and triathletes), and race. Our individual performances are incredibly important and we should celebrate our personal accomplishments. But we should do this in addition to promoting our community and ensuring that as athletes who are B/VI, we represent our community to the best of our ability while recognizing that we are in a sense always representing more than just ourselves.

We also talked about the importance of mentoring and lifting up athletes who are new to the sport including young people. In order for our sport to grow, we need to encourage and work with young people to become active and share our examples of individuals who have some challenges with our limited vision but these are simply bumps in the road, not roadblocks. We chatted about the need to cultivate more races that are friendly toward people with different abilities and tactics and strategies (there is the organizer in me!) to connect with race directors. More friendly races means more opportunities for athletes to compete especially locally.

Finally, somewhere around my third mug of coffee, we discussed the need to create more community programs at local organizations who work with people who are B/VI, including young people and individuals who are active. Diane is very interested in replicating some of the community programs that the Massachusetts Association for the Blind andVisually Impaired (where I’m fortunate to work at) runs in here hometown.

Here are some ways in which we can build and support our community. Please comment below with your ideas.

·         You don’t have to race every race. A few times a year forget about setting a PR or staying on pace and run with a friend. Sharing miles at a comfortable talking pace is a great way to pass the time and get to know another athlete.

·         Join a running club or attend a weekly run at your local running store. This is a wonderful way to meet knew runners and if you are B/VI a great opportunity to recruit new sighted guides.

·         Go old school and call someone you know to wish them luck on their next big race. Social media and email are fantastic communication tools, but sometimes a direct personal greeting is more effective.

·         Recruit a training partner to stay motivated. Your training partner can be local or someone who you keep in contact with over the internet/phone.

·         Organize an informal fun run (including families) in your neighborhood followed by a potluck lunch/dinner at your home or nearby park. If you enjoy adult beverages, you can run then share some bottles of local craft beer.

This weekend reaffirmed all the beautiful things about our community and that we are strong and a talented group of athletes and have very supportive families and allies. Our community is very lucky to have so many athletes already working on this front and I hope to leverage my experiences and skills to do the same. At the end of the day, no matter what race I just completed or training activity I rocked or struggled through, I will always put OUR community first.