Guide Testimonies

Allison Brooks, Guide. Testimony Wine and Dine Half Marathon

Chassity and I participated in the Disney Orlando Wine and Dine Half Marathon in early November. We had a great time, but we also learned a lot and further deepened our very close friendship. We trained for the race, but we both faced some injuries and other challenges that limited our runs. Amy and Lizzy went above and beyond arranging convenient hotel accommodations and efficient flights. And… a Disney race is like everything Disney does…. perfect execution, friendly staff, and HAPPY RUNNERS. 

The best part of the experience was also the worst… we did not finish the race. We were simply too slow to meet the pace required, and we rode the bus back to the finish line with other disappointed racers. We were surprised as both of us are experienced half marathon runners, and we assumed we could just “suck it up” and run off adrenaline and excitement. 

Humbling…yes, but also very instructive. No matter how healthy, experienced, and fit you may be, there is no substitute for preparing by putting in the miles. 

Achilles enriches lives in so many ways. Sure, the running is wonderful and enhances health, but for me, that is only a means to an end…. I’ve met the most amazing and inspiring athletes and while I “trained” them to run, they have “trained” me to be more patient, optimistic, resilient, and courageous. 

Chassity shows me by example how to live with kindness, vulnerability, and love. I’m forever indebted to her and to Achilles for helping me grow.

Ed Sieffert, Guide Testimony, Boston Marathon 2018

Guide Ed Sieffert and athlete Tim Hornik
It is often said that “it is better to give than receive”.  That axiom is never more true than when you talk about Achilles International (Nashville).  The riches, blessings, opportunities I have been privileged to receive by being associated with Achilles are too numerous to count.
It all started nearly six years ago when I saw flyer on the community center on Murphy Road.  I thought to myself  “I run the Greenway almost everyday, I could certainly help someone who can not run with the ease or freedom that I do”.  After that first Wednesday run, I was hooked and have never looked back.  I was always one who shied away from individuals with disabilities because I was uncomfortable.  Since I became involved in Achilles I am now surrounded with all types of people with disabilities, sight impaired, amputees, mobility challenged, and the list goes on and on.  The list goes on and on.  I often think that I have received much more from Achilles than I have given.

Achilles gives you the opportunity to help people in your own community.  They also give you a chance to meet people in other parts of the country and their network of different groups is immense.  The story is too long to go into here, but through a connection with another disability organization, I was recently able to join the Achilles Freedom team to guide a sight impaired veteran in the prestigious Boston Marathon.  The weather was terrible and it may have been the most challenging five hours of my life.  But through preparation, fortitude and most importantly, teamwork, we were able to finish “Boston Strong”!

This was a challenging day to say the least, though don’t be deterred.  Even though it is occasionally challenging, Achilles is never work.  Many times on a 2.5 mile run/walk around the Greenway loop with a disabled athlete you might not even break a sweat.  But seeing the joy of accomplishment and smiles that come after completion of that loop cannot be measured.  Achilles rarely asks for a large commitment, just do what you can, when you can.  You may just be enabling someone to get outside and breathe the fresh air for an hour that they might not have had otherwise.
You see, that is what Achilles is really all about: giving just a small bit of yourself to help others in need.  By giving just that little bit for someone else, you are actually rewarding yourself tenfold.
Thank you Achilles for allowing me these opportunities.
Rachel Dillard, Guide Testimony, California International Marathon 2017
Guide Rachel and Athlete Annie Donnell Laughing
Guide Rachel and Athlete Annie Donnell at the finish line

The California International Marathon was hands down one of the best races. I learned a lot during the race as well as over the entire weekend. Every part of the trip was organized and educational. From the speakers and the runners, I learned that visual impairment is only a minor stepping stone and how many goals each of them have accomplished. It was amazing and influential to hear all of the different stories and how much they have been through to get to where they are today.  Through running the half marathon as a guide, I learned it is more than just my eyes guiding. If it were not for Annie, I maynot have finished the race. I was injured at mile 6 and with the encouragement from Annie I kept going. At one point I even asked her if she would like for me to stop another guide so she could finish faster… but her words were “of course not, we started this together and we will finish together”. And that is exactly what we did! I helped guide her to complete her first half marathon, and she helped me mentally push through 7.5 miles of shooting pain in my knee. She completed her first half marathon in under 2 1/2 hours.. which is awesome! All of her hard work paid off and I was so happy to be by her side! I am so thankful for Achilles and USABA for putting together the trip and all of the activities during the weekend. It was such a great experience!

Lena Menkes, Guide Testimony, California International Marathon 2017
Guide Lena Menkes and Athlete Theresa Khayyam

I started running with Achilles in August and never realized how much it would completely transform my life! I completed my first half-marathon AND my first race as a guide at the California International Relay Marathon with Theresa Khayyam. The race was also the USABA national championships, and it was such an incredible experience to be part of such a supportive and encouraging group of individuals. I’ve never attended a race before where I felt a part of a tight-knit community. The entire race weekend was amazing, and I felt so fortunate to hear from incredible athletes telling stories of perseverance and determination. Actual race day was an amazing experience as well, the crowds were great and everyone on the course was supportive of one another, I felt like we were all in it together! There is no feeling as amazing as the euphoria of rounding the last corner of that race and crossing the finish line together. Theresa did an amazing job, and I feel so lucky to have such an experienced race-runner for my first half marathon! After the race the runner’s high stayed with me, and I signed up to run a marathon as soon as I got home!

Randy Hodge, Guide Testimony, California International Marathon 2017

Traveling to Sacramento for the California Internal Marathon – USABA National Championships to guide Dwaine Jones in the relay challenge was a great experience for both of us. As a guide, it was very educational and inspirational for me to meet other USABA athletes and learn more about their accomplishments and journeys.

This race was a big accomplishment for Dwaine on his fitness and weight loss journey. He set a new PR at this race. And, I was honored to be a part of his journey.

from left to right Athlete Dwaine Jones and Guide Randy Hodge

Amy Harris, Guide Testimony, California International Marathon 2017
From left to right Guide Ed Sieffert, Athlete Stephanie Zundel, Guide Dog Marley, Guide Amy Harris

For months and months, our Achilles Nashville group, along with folks from California have been eagerly planning and anticipating the California International Marathon (CIM).

But even before we began our planning in Feb. 2017 …going back even further, about two years, I had the pleasure of meeting and guiding a blind athlete from California, Richard Hunter. Richard contacted Christie Beth Adams, the owner of Fleet Feet when he came to Nashville for a week and needed a guide. Christie Beth (owner, Fleet Feet) referred Richard to Achilles International-Nashville. Thus began a relationship that would grow over the years and eventually lead our group to California this past week (December 2017) for the California International Marathon.

Richard invited our visually impaired (VI) and blind athletes to participate in the 2017 USABA Marathon National Championships, a component of the Marathon, and one that he organizes. The USABA Championship of the CIM offered some financial support for our athletes as well as offering an opportunity for our athletes and guides to network, learn, and share with other athletes and guides. Our team met up with approximately 50 VI/ blind athletes from around the world and their guides. The friendships and relationships that were developed there will likely last a lifetime. It was a very warm and welcoming group with intention placed on setting the environment so people could get to know one another.

It was well worth the wait to get to the CIM weekend as our athletes and guides were treated like VIPs on our trip to Sacramento. It is hard to impossible to capture the atmosphere, the spirit. and support on this weekend. Some of the highlights included:

  • Friday night dinner provided for all at the Sacramento Society for the Blind
  • Saturday breakfast sponsored by Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  Plaza, Calaveras Paralympian Pam McGonigle shared her story
  • Saturday night plated pre-race dinner for 175 people with Olympian/ Paralympian speaker
  • Delta Gamma Sorority support all weekend (e.g., guided athletes to expo, guided VI/ blind athletes to tour Old Sacramento, help with meals, to/from race logistics)
  • Traveling with 4 service dogs in our group and having 1:1 sitters on race day for dogs
  • An awards ceremony sponsored just for VI/ blind athletes.

Race day was perfect with temps in the 50’s. There was a pre-race breakfast, heated buses to the start line or relay exchange point for those doing half marathon relay, a heated tent to wait for race start…. just perfect all around. Our athletes all achieved personal goals and had great showings including:

  • Stephanie had PR on first half (2:14); qualified for Boston Marathon and placed 2nd in the blind division for females
  • Annie ran her first half marathon and finished strong
  • Dwaine and Chris both ran their best races, shaving off minutes from previous personal bests; Dwaine shared his success story from walking to running and losing weight with the entire group at the awards ceremony
  • Ricky & Christy, both coming off recent injuries, gave solid efforts in their relays and persevered through adversity

Our Achilles guides were equally impressive. Lena, our OT Doc student intern, completed her first half marathon. She and the other guides are to be commended for sharing so freely of their time and talents, taking days off work to attend, training hard over the months leading up to the event, and, while doing the same work as the athletes…. understanding that it is the athlete’s race and we are the vehicle/ the support to help them get to the finish! We had an amazing team of guides on this trip! I’m completely grateful for Ed who drove the BIG 15-passenger van and helped with every task so freely and without reservation. I was also so pleased to be able to invite Mike Pate, who lives in California to serve as a guide, Mike was a Fleet Feet Green Hills runner before he moved to Sacramento a few months back. Everyone…Randy, Kimi, Rachel, Lena, Ed, Mike, served important roles, such selfless people, so appreciated!

I have been on several trips in the past and they all have their pros and cons. This one will forever stand out in my mind as organized, educational, fun…a completely positive experience from start to finish.  I will forever be grateful to Achilles for the opportunity once again to travel to represent our group and to guide two of our athletes while there (Stephanie 1st half, Christy 2nd). I am so proud of both of them! I met so many people that I have wanted to meet (e.g., sat with Jason Romero at dinner one night; he is the blind athlete that ran approx. 50 miles per day across the US last summer to raise awareness for blind runners, Andrea Croak from the Boston Athletic Association and on a national board I serve on “Team with a Vision”).

I could go on and on about this trip but I will stop here…this is definitely one for the books and one that will always bring a smile to my face.

You might be interested in learning about all of the visually impaired runners by checking out this blog post which includes brief bios and pictures of each participant. There were 52 VI/Blind runners taking part in the CIM this year! Check out the runners and share on social media:

Amanda Hachey, Guide Testimony, Geist Half Marathon 2017
Guide Amanda Hachey behind Athlete Sara Solomon in handcycle at Geist Half Marathon
Running with Lizzy and the other Achilles guides in the Geist Lake Half Marathon in Indiana was an extra special experience for me (and us all I believe) for so many reasons.  First, Lizzy was the first-hand cyclist to EVER participate in their event so that was awesome and I was honored to be able to join her in that!  Then there was the company that was fantastic, couldn’t have asked for a better group!  Amy, Lizzy, Suzie and Lauren and of course, Uncle Tom were so much fun to spend the weekend with and so accommodating.  It felt like we were a big family from the road trip, games, meals, laughs – so much fun!  And of course, the race itself was great!  It was fun to be a part of this community event and bring the Achilles name up there!  And Lizzy killed it!!  She took those down hills fearlessly and charged through the rest of the course.  I am so proud of all she has accomplished and constantly inspired how she puts her heart into everything.  I can’t wait to see what is in store for her and can’t wait to hopefully be apart of it as well!
Some of those experiences were unique to the Geist Half but in general, that is the feeling Achilles Nashville brings to everyone and I am beyond grateful to be a part of.  It is hands down, 100%, the most positive, resilient, and inspirational group of people I have ever had the pleasure to know.  You truly feel it when you go to the Wednesday (or Saturday) practices, or the races and when you leave you just can’t get enough!  It is almost hard for me to put into words.  You’re not just helping athletes log miles, relationships form and I can honestly say that each athlete has their own unique message to share. Guides and athletes help each other in crossing whatever finish line is set before us no matter the challenge!  Go Achilles!

Susie Bousquet,  Guide Testimony, Geist Marathon 2017
Susie Bousquet Guide with Sara Solomon Athlete
The Geist Half Marathon was definitely a unique Achilles experience. I had only participated in local races with Achilles, so traveling out-of-state was a little different. Because it was an entire weekend, there was more bonding time… which was awesome! For the race, Lizzy had 3 official guides and one unofficial guide: 2 running (Amanda & Lauren), 1 on bike (me), and Amy was the helpful, unofficial guide. I think having a bike guide was beneficial in this race because it allowed Lizzy to have every opportunity to reach her full speed. She even almost caught up on me on bike a few times! I’m so proud of Lizzy and everything she has accomplished since her first half in January; and her being the ONLY and possibly FIRST hand cycle in the Geist Half Marathon EVER really showed her leadership. I think the other runners really enjoyed having us participate and learning about Achilles International

Amy Harris, Guide Testimony, Boston Marathon 2017
Guide Harvey Freedman (on left), Athlete Stephanie Zundel (in the middle), Guide Amy Harris (on right

En route from a week in Boston seems like a perfect time for a reflection and a thank you to Achilles International-Nashville for allowing me to serve as a guide for the infamous, Stephanie Zundel, who we lovingly refer to as the She-Beast! Participating in the Boston Marathon this past week was a dream come true, on many levels. I spent the remainder of the week in Boston for work and actually at a hotel right on the finish line so I had a daily reminder of how lucky I was.

I had the privilege of running NYC with Stephanie back in November of 2016. As we approached the end of the long, hard training runs, Stephanie commented that this would be her one and only marathon. I mentioned in passing that she might actually qualify for Boston, that is was entirely possible as she was consistently improving on both her speed and her endurance. Stephanie’s response was “I don’t want to do another marathon, no way”, to which I half-jokingly replied “but I do and you are my only hope”! We left it at that and there was never any pressure on her or any other mention of Boston. Until…NYC…once we started the run-in NYC, Stephanie said she didn’t care what her time was as long as it qualified her for Boston…4 hours and 50 minutes later…it DID! That was the beginning of the dream, a BQ (Boston Qualifier!)

Fast forward to mid-January 2017, a few weeks before the marathon training was to begin for Boston. I was trying to get in a few miles before an Achilles practice. It had been raining hard and windy all day. I took to a wet Greenway at dusk only to get a mile out and catch my right foot on a tree limb while running downhill (yes, I had my headlamp on!), and fell hard on my left knee. I immediately knew I had fractured my kneecap. I hobbled back to the community center and once practice was over, went home to ice and elevate my leg all night. The next day, the Nurse Practitioner told me there was no way my knee was broken as I had walked in, and had good range of motion. Following an x-ray that showed a clean break across my patella, I was sent to get an MRI and meet with the sports doctor at Elite. This doctor informed me that I could be thankful there was no ligament damage and that the ACL and meniscus all looked good. It was just a matter of time, patience, and effort and it would heal…but not in time for Boston she said. I explained how important Boston was and she was thankfully very understanding and very willing to help me do whatever I could to do Boston. I left her office in a long leg brace I would wear for the next 6 weeks. I left that office to get on a flight to Houston as I was signed up for the Houston Marathon a few days later. I did not get to participate in that race although it did not stop me from racing around the course to see my daughter, Lizzy, finish her first half marathon in the hand cycle.

I’m not sure I’ve prayed quite as much or quite as hard for something in a long time. I wanted to heal well, I wanted to be strong for Stephanie, and in Boston. I was grateful all along the way for the PT’s that helped, Susie, my personal trainer, for pool running (I have a new respect for the pool!), my yoga and Pilates instructors Lizzy’s handcycle that I rode a lot! …. Time and hard work paid off as my doctor released me to start easing back into running about a month before Boston.

Being in the Boston Marathon is humbling to say the least. The city comes alive for this run and everywhere you go, everyone you see, everything in Boston is connected to the marathon that week. It’s amazing! It was an honor to be a small part of it.  Stephanie was a rock star, such a joy to run with. It was a hot day and she persevered though the miles, with the heat, a little pain, but she ended strong…Boston Strong! I would not have wanted to miss seeing her cross the finish line, so proud of her and also so proud of Harvey, her other guide who really did the majority of the training with Stephanie. What an awesome team!  A highlight for me was it was Stephanie’s dad’s birthday so having him there, along her whole family was wonderful, and to witness such loving support. It’s no wonder she has gone so far in her life….it was fun seeing all the attention she got from news folks both in her home town and Nashville where she is a student. So well deserved. I will proudly wear my yellow and blue Boston race shirt and remember how fortunate I am to have been able to run this race.

I am so grateful to Achilles too for this trip, to the Board, to our Chapter leader Carrie, to my fellow guides and all our amazing athletes for the support and for the encouragement along the way…for the opportunity to run with this amazing athlete I am blessed. Being on the plane up with Melanie Yappen (our Achilles past president) and friends added to the joy and made the trip even more special. Being a part of Achilles on a larger level, with our athletes and guides from around the world, is also very inspiring and always fun. It’s a joy to watch them all run their race and to cheer each other on along the way.

Pics of Samuel and Phillip on Amy Harris's pants legs f

This year I ran with a picture of my two sweet grandsons, Phillip my youngest running buddy, and sweet Samuel 3 months old who has had some medical issues and recently had a shunt put in. I ran with a picture of my co-workers grandson who was just released from Vanderbilt after 7 of his 8 months in the hospital and who has had open heart surgery and multiple other surgeries along the way. I ran with a picture to remind me of my Achilles running friends Amanda and Brandon, who have been having some medical issues prior to the birth of their son Mason (coming soon!)….all these young angels lifted me and my spirits and reminded me that we all have challenges….Be STRONG…Boston Strong!

Back of Amy Harris with Guide bibs and pics of co-workers son and baby mason name

I feel like my prayers were answered and that even though I had to slow down a little along the way with training, in the end, I crossed the finish line and in the end, it was the slowing down before the run, that really helped me to appreciate what we all have, to appreciate the support of friends, caregivers, loved ones, doctors, therapists, and others.

Running is a gift and one that I will forever treasure as long as I can. Boston will live on in my mind as one of the highlights of my running days.

John Lavey, Guide Testimony, NYC Marathon 2016
Athlete Joe Shaw (on left) with Jon Lavey (on right)

This is the second time for Joe and I to run the NYC marathon. Both times have been spectacular experiences. This year, I am most proud of the fact that Joe and JP finished together, and Joe shaved something like one hour (or 40 minutes, I’m not entirely sure as I don’t remember last year’s time) off his PR. Our training team included other guides, including Phil Meyer and Mike McGuffin, in addition to Frank and I. Our training was very disciplined, and the hard work really paid off with this race. Of course, with our team, there is a lot of laughter along the way.

In the days before the race, I really enjoy getting to meet the other athletes and guides from Nashville, who I don’t know as well because our training is really focused on the athletes we are with. It was great to be with Stephanie and Theresa this year, as well as Harvey and Lauren. Amy, of course, is our field leader when we are training and competing for the race.

I am so grateful for the opportunity of going to NYC for this race. I have been a runner since I was 14. And, nothing is more meaningful to me than the experience of guiding. New York is kind of the ultimate. The familiarity that the spectators have with Achilles makes the support almost overwhelming. Meeting athletes and guides from around the world is super cool. I definitely feel a part of something bigger than myself.

When the music of New York, New York starts up, it’s hard not to get emotional. All the hard work that went into being there, and then the experience of all those New York neighborhoods makes it one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Thank you to Achilles for the well-run chapter we have, and the opportunity to be a part of this ride.

Frank Downey, Guide Testimony, NYC Marathon 2016
Guide Frank Downey (on left) with JP Williams (on right)

It was really an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.  (Running the Marathon after many times saying “NO WAY” when asked if I would ever do a full.)

I was really blown away by the size and importance of the Achilles athletes from all over the world.  (I believe that 300 Achilles athletes participated in the race.)  It was very clear to me that the close relationship between the New York Road Runners and Achilles made us feel like a group of VIPs in the race.  From our own check-in booth at the Expo to a police escort on Achilles buses to the start line at Staten Island where we were taken to the Achilles tent in prime location. But the most humbling aspect was the support and encouragement that we all received not only from the crowd, but also from other runners who all seemed extremely familiar with and very supportive of our efforts.  Our group heard “Go Achilles” about a thousand times along the 26.2 mile course.  (And we really needed it…especially hitting the Park at the end!!)

I am so grateful, proud, and blessed to be a part of Achilles and specifically with this team that went to New York.  AWESOME!  Great race by all!!