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Last season, we tested one obstacle called Dark Lightning on a few Tough Mudder courses. Part Boa Constrictor, part Electric Eel, the obstacle required Mudders to army crawl through water while live electric wires dangled over them...in pitch darkness.
Due to the absurdity of attempting such an obstacle in complete darkness, we pulled it from our course catalogue.
This October at Tough Mudder Tri-State, however, one woman will attempt to tackle not just one sadistic obstacle without her sense of sight, but an entire 11-mile, 20-plus obstacle Tough Mudder course.
Fresh off completing the Bruce Trail End to Ends trail challenge last month, an adventure endeavor covering 550 miles in 20 days, blind extreme athlete Rhonda-Marie Avery is set to take on Tough Mudder’s most storied venue-- Raceway Park.
With the event just weeks away, we caught up with Rhonda-Marie’s training partner and running guide, Ekaterina Solovieva, to discuss preparation, strategy and her experience running Tough Mudder Toronto in a blindfold.
You are running with Rhonda, who is legally blind. How did you two meet?
We were at the Salomon store in Toronto together. It’s where sponsored athletes come together to meet, greet and share some food and a beer. Rhonda looked up at me and smiled and we introduced ourselves. She almost spilled her beer and laughed at her awkwardness. As we all got up, she took out a pair of dark glasses and grabbed someone’s elbow. It wasn’t until then that I realized she was blind.
What is Rhonda’s condition?
While the retina of most people contains two types of photoreceptor cells – rods and cones, Rhonda’s retina only has rods. Rods are responsible for night and peripheral vision, as well as motion detection, while cones are responsible for the eye’s color sensitivity and visual acuity. As a result, Rhonda only has 8% vision, cannot see color and must rely on her night vision to get around.
Are you training blindfolded? How has Rhonda been training?
After completing the Bruce Trail End to End run, Rhonda has been incorporating more strength and core training into her training. I’ve done some training blindfolded as well, including obstacle-specific training like practicing on monkey bars blindfolded in preparation for Funky Monkey. I’ve also completed some shorter obstacle races blindfolded as practice.
You ran TM Toronto blindfolded. What did that experience help you understand about what Rhonda will go through at TM Tri-State?
Having run the Tough Mudder Tri-State course before, I do not anticipate that the running itself will be a problem. The obstacles will be the challenge. While running TM blindfolded, I realized how scary it can be in a crowd. There were times when I was waiting for my guides on a mud hill, terrified of someone accidentally pushing me off.
What will be your strategy going into obstacles?
Describing each obstacle in lots of detail before attempting it will be very important. Obstacles are much more challenging when you’re not familiar with them. Running Tough Mudder blindfolded, I needed a lot of verbal instruction describing what the obstacles looked like and the best way to complete them. Often times, one of my guides would complete the obstacle first and then run back to brief me.
Compared to a road race, a Tough Mudder presents an entire new slate of challenges. How active will you be in helping Rhonda through the course?
Rhonda, unlike many blind runners, doesn't run tethered. Rather, she runs by sound, usually with one guide in front of her and one behind her. She has more trouble at crowded events, however, because there's much more noise for her to filter through. Some obstacles will require more hands-on help. For example, Everest will be challenging because it's hard to know when to stop running and reach up. She also has never been electrocuted before, so I think Electroshock Therapy will be a shock, as it is for everyone the first time around.
You’re running in support of the non-profit Achilles International. What is their mission and why is this cause dear to you?
Achilles International is an organization that enables people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. Obstacle races are considered to be fairly dangerous, so right now there is very little support provided for disabled athletes who want to participate in events like Tough Mudder. I want to help provide disabled people the opportunity to do crazy things. I think everyone should be able to do crazy things.
What reaction did other Mudders have to you running Toronto blindfolded?
Everyone was incredibly supportive. The emcee at the startline handed me the microphone and allowed me to speak about what I was doing and why. Throughout the course, I was helped by a million invisible hands and heard many cries of “good job” and “keep going.” Also, I think a few people were thrown off when a chick in a blindfold passed them. We were able to keep up a pretty decent pace.