Monday, January 24, 2005

Sensing The Trail In Front Of You – An Interview with Sharlene Wills, Blind Trail Runner

If you have completed trail races west of the Rockies in the last three years, you’ve probably run with Sharlene Wills of Southern California. She’s 5’1”, in her mid-50’s, and oh yeah…the only blind woman on the trail. But that hasn’t stopped her from completing over 40 marathons, a dozen trail runs, and most recently the Helen Klein 50 miler. Trail runs are challenging enough for someone who can see, so if you’re probably asking the same questions I did when I heard she finished the Bizz-Johnson Marathon with all smiles – What? Why? HOW?!?

Sharlene was nice enough to give us some insight.

1) Your story is amazing. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found trail running.

SW: I’ve always been one to seek out new experiences, and running was something I started in the early 90’s after successfully walking the L.A. Marathon. About three years ago, I started trail running to get more into nature. I’ve done the Catalina Trail Marathon, Lone Pine, Ridge Crest, the Bulldog 30k, two attempts at Pike’s Peak, the Bizz-Johnson Marathon and recently completed the Helen Klein 50 miler. Trail running has been a wonderful experience, and the people are great. I plan to keep doing it as long as I can.

2) For most runners, trail running is largely a visual experience - how would you describe your trail running experience?

SW: It’s amazing! There’s nothing like being out in nature and feeling all the sensations. You can smell the flowers, pine, and eucalyptus. As you climb out of the canyon, the sound of the river dissipates and you get this sense of majesty and awe. As you descend again, it all rushes back to you. When you can’t see, you have to go a bit slower since your next step could be anything from flat path to stone or four inches of muck. But when you have to go a bit slower, like me, you really get the full sensory experience. You really can commune with your surroundings, and understand you’re out in the wild.

3) After reading your story, I went for a night run to see if I could simulate the experience. I made it about 20 yards before taking a digger. How in the world do you keep from falling on every rock and turn?

SW: There are three things that help me along – guides, tethers, and trekking poles. First, I always have a guide. I’ve been lucky to have raced with some great guides, and we have learned to communicate well about what is coming up on the trail. I can also steer myself by listening closely to the sounds of the guide in front of me, and the terrain around me. Sometimes I tether to a guide with a short rope and two carabineers, and that gives me a good sense of their direction, particularly on the single trail. But I don’t like to tether if I can go it alone. I’ve found the trekking poles to be very helpful on the rugged terrain since I can “feel” in front of me for steps, creeks, and rocks.

But don’t think that I don’t fall – I certainly get my fair share of that. I prefer to use the Helen Klein 50m mantra – “if the bone ain’t showing, keep on going”. Still, my biggest injuries aren’t from falling, it’s from all the odd foot placement. My feet can take weeks to heel from blisters after a tough marathon.

4) What are the most useful ways your guides describe the trail in front of you?

SW: Brevity is key. You can’t do a long description or else I’ll be on top of it before you finish. Short statements like “rock in the middle” and “stay to the right” are more helpful than “wide step” or “three inch gulley”. Inches don’t mean the same thing to a blind person. “Duck” is a good one - very clear, very short. I also like descriptions of texture, such as gravel, pebbles, and waist-high boulders on your right. But I’m 5’1”, so make sure you’re talking about “my right” and “my waist”!

I also get a good sense from the non-verbal cues. For example, when you approach a log, I can feel and hear how my guide steps over that log, and that gives me a good sense of what I need to do. And as long as they face forward when they talk and don’t stop, I can get a sense of where they are going too.

5) How about creeks, river crossings, and that sort of thing?

SW: I’ve learned it’s much easier to walk through a creek than try to boulder hop. Plus it feels nice on the feet.

6) Are there any races you feel you couldn’t do?

SW: There’s no terrain I couldn’t do, but it is difficult for me to hit time cut-off’s like at Pike’s Peak (especially since I also can’t use trekking poles). But it’s such a beautiful run, I keep going back. Weather can be tough, but not impossible – in 2004, we did the Catalina Marathon in rain, wind, and hail without falling, even though it was like a Slip-and-Slide all day. I would love to do the Leadville 100 or Western States 100, but it would take me well over 48 hours. Maybe someday.

7) What have been the biggest highlight and lowlight of the your trail running career?

SW: The 2004 Bizz-Johnson Marathon was definitely the highlight. It’s such a fantastic race. And even though it took me a while, all the volunteers, Eric Gould (the Race Director), and Michael Fretz (the winner) were at the finish line to cheer me on. As soon as I got home, I signed up for 2005.

For lowlights, it’s probably not finishing Pike’s Peak. I made it as far as Bar Camp last time, which was an improvement, so perhaps I can finish it someday.

Would you mind if I ask you a few training questions?

SW: Sure.

1) Do you train mostly indoor or outdoor?

SW: Outdoor as much as I can.

2) Do you try and target a finishing time or pace?

SW: For races on fire roads, I can target a time. For Bizz-Johnson Marathon, I targeted 6.5 hours and came very close. It’s easier to run for speed on the road runs. Most of the time I’m just hoping to finish.

3) Can you tell us about your race nutrition strategy?

SW: My nutrition strategy is similar to that of any trail runner, and I eat well at the aid stations, particularly for the longer runs. I’m a bit of a junk food junkie, on and off the trail. My favorites are potatoes, gummy bears, nuts, and anything with caffeine. I would drink coffee if they served it! The Helen Klein 50 had peanut butter and jelly – that was great. The night before a race can be tricky for me. I get really nervous thinking about the unknowns in tomorrow’s race, so it’s best not to eat after 5pm.

4) What’s next for 2005?

SW: Bizz-Johnson Marathon for sure. It’s such a beautiful race. Maybe Red Rocks if I can do it with my dog, but he’s not so sure about the cones. And I would really love to try the Catalina 50 Mile sometime. I’m hoping to do the Dipsea 7-miler, which is great fun for me except for those stone steps down to Stinson Beach which can take longer than the rest of the race, or the Way Too Cool 50k. Off the trails, the San Diego Rock 'n Roll looks like a good one. Often many of my races come up because someone will ask if they can guide for me…and my answer is often “yes”!

5) Any advice you would give to trail runners, or other blind athletes looking to try the trails?

SW: Don’t forget to enjoy nature while you’re out there. I know many of you are fast and want to go quickly, but trail running is such a great experience with all the sensations and great people on the trails, you should be sure to enjoy it. It's always good to start with a smooth trail, like Ridgecrest or the Valley Crest. There's a great first time race called the Angeles Crest, which is great because he puts in a time handicap that allows us slower runners to compete directly with the rabbits.

For blind athletes I would say “you never know until you try”. You would be hard-pressed to find a more supportive environment or group of people. The aid station volunteers are always great, and even the elite runners are always patting me on the shoulder or stopping to help people along the way. It’s consistently like that at every race, and it makes it fun.If you would like to experience what it’s like to “run blind”, we’re always looking for guides. It’s a wonderful challenge all by itself, and there’s no experience required!

Thanks, Sharlene...I'll be looking for you on the trails!

- SD


  1. wow! she sounds like a trouper. so do her guides - that must be tough. she has some good friends.


  2. Are poles illegal in trail runs? I see them all the time.

    - Charlie1

  3. Actually, trekking poles are not allowed at Pike's Peak Marathon because of the narrowness of the trail, but I'm hoping they will be allowed for just The Ascent. They are allowed at other races, such as Wild, Wild West.

    I have one correction about the run where the race director allows time handicaps: it is run in the Angeles Crest area, but it's called the El Prieto Handicap, and he only allows about 50 people.
    Sharlene Wills

  4. Sharlene, thanks for responding to questions. I'll throw out another if you don't mind. Although I have no idea how you're able to cruise the Internet and respond!

    Do you ever get resistance from race directors when you tell them you want to do their race? Have you ever been told "no"?

    Thanks, Charlie1

  5. Is there a web site that talks about how to be a good guide?

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  7. Hi, Charlie1 and others,
    I'm not a computer programmer, but there is software that translates screen text into speech, so that's how I can surf the web and respond. Graphics are difficult, but the geniuses who work with adaptive technology/devices keep scrambling to help us out. As for a website discussing how to be "a good guide", not that I know of. Most people who offer to do it, I've found, do just fine, especially if they can listen to the suggestions I give them as to how to guide better and are not afraid each and every time I kick a rock or slip a little on pine needles. Every runner falls, and a good guide just says, "Ooops" and we keep on going (that is, if the bone ain't showing). Those who run trails tend, anyway, to be more mindful of their surroundings, so, in some ways, they have it easier than someone trying to guide in a road race for the first time. The most difficult thing, I believe, for a trailrunning guide is the need for quick, descriptive verbalization, which can be almost nonstop, if I don't have trekking poles. In longer races, when possible, I find that having two guides works best, because they can do the guiding in relays.

  8. Hi, Charlie1, again, Sorry, I forgot to respond to your query about ever having trouble with race directors? Actually, the L. A. Marathon gang tried to barr me from my very first marathon unless I had a sighted guide (I planned to do the race with my guide dog). After crazy negotiations, threat of suit and lots and lots of publicity, the Marathon backed down, and I completed my first marathon without training and without proper shoes and clothing, but without getting lost off the course or hurting mhy dog. Since then, the only other problems I've had were that the Race Walking Commission (so said a coach, anyway) would never allow me to enter a race using a guide dog, because they felt I would have an advantage by being "pulled" by the dog. I never went up against them because I started running instead of walking. And, once, on Catalina, although I had, fairly won my age division by well over two minutes in a 10K race, I was passed over, and the award given to the 2nd place finisher, the feeling again being that my guide had "helped me by pulling me". In road racing, the guide runs next to the blind person, not in front, and pulling on the tether only serves to keep both runners off balance. In trailrunning, even though the guide goes in front, there is no "drafting" or pulling involved, either, mainly because my pace is slow, but also because, again, pulling hard on the "tether" would only increase my chances of tripping.
    No trail run race director has ever refused me and, in fact, they, on the whole, seem delighted that I want to try their race and are as accommodating as they can be.

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  10. I bet you are great at night running! Can your dog run the whole marathon with you? If so, that's a pretty awesome dog.

  11. Sorry to have to remove a few posts - there seems to be a bug in that is reposting Charlie1's questions over and over.



  12. The dog is "pulling" you?!? You've got to be kidding. That's almost as rediculous as "marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug" from the last winter Olympics. Geez!

  13. Actually, Janet, you're right, and I like running at night, too. I have had one dog, not my present one, who did and could do full marathons with me and loved every minute of those races, too. She also recovered from them much faster than I did! Usually, though, I only take my dogs in 10Ks or maybe half marathons, because, unless they're willing to train on a track, there are just too few opportunities to get in long runs with them. They are, after all, guide dogs, and it goes against all their training to have them run in the street where cars are whizzing by just a few feet (and sometimes inches) away. Also, if I stay on the sidewalks, they will naturally stop for curbs, etc, so that slows us down and throws off rhythm. Anyway, thanks everyone for your comments and questions. I'm not sure how these blogs are meant to work, but if my comments are too long, or some other arrangement is expected here, let me know. Anyone interested in carrying on more discussion or who has more questions, feel free to email me directly at If it's okay to continue here, though, I'll do that, too.
    P.S. There are some amazingly silly people out there, I'm afraid, who simply don't use common sense when making arguments. Oh, well. That's life, eh?

  14. Sharlene, feel free to take as much space as you need for a comment. The more the conversation we can post, the more others can enjoy listening in. I appreciate you taking the time.


    - SD

  15. Scott, when are you going to post the "how to win the trip to Italy in the trophy series" entry?!? Do I need to race 15 races or 30?!? - ERICB

    I guess 30 wouldn't make sense...for that amount of money I could fly myself to Italy!

  16. Scott - Thanks for sharing this interview. Sharlene you truly are amazing. I run short trail races and couldn't imagine doing them without seeing. I do agree though that trail running despite its difficulties is my fav race to run. Dawn

  17. ERICB -

    Thanks for the request, and yes I will post some opinions on the 2005 Trophy Series soon. The RACE Across California (my peak race for the year) was canceled for 2005, so I'll be turning more of my attention to the TRM Trophy Series. Be sure to check out the article on Michael Robbert - he would have won the trip to Italy had it been a prize in 2004, thanks to over 20 races run.


  18. Here's a recent article about Sharlene doing the Hansen Dam Triathlon.


  19. Hi Scott. Nice job on this blog. I'm a writer (and ultra runner) and I happen to be writing an article featuring visually impaired and blind athletes. I would love to interview Sharlene for my article. can you send me her contact info or refer her to me. My somewhat neglected running blog is and I have a secure email form where you can contact me (rather than posting my email). Thanks!
    -Will Laughlin

  20. Amazing interview with Sharlene. It's hard enough for me to not trip over my own feet while I run on a flat road. It must be she has increased sensitivity of her other senses. Hope she will continue enjoying to run for a long time.


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