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Staff Spotlight: Erin Williams Guides Athlete in 2019 Boston Marathon

Erin Williams, collections manager at the JWU Culinary Arts Museum, ran in the 2019 Boston Marathon on April 15 as a volunteer with Achilles International. This Week at JWU interviewed Williams about her experience guiding a visually impaired athlete in the marathon.

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How did you first get involved with Achilles International?
I had been guiding for visually impaired athletes at destination races for two years and wanted to guide athletes here in Rhode Island. I submitted an application to volunteer with Achilles International after hearing a story about visually impaired athletes competing in the 2017 Boston Marathon. I was matched with a local athlete that evening, and we ran our first 5k together the following weekend.

What exactly do you do as a volunteer with Achilles International? 
Twice a week, I meet up with the athlete for training runs. We usually have a race we are working toward. He determines the training schedule, and we get in one shorter and one longer run each week.  Other guides train with him one or two additional days a week. This past year, we traveled to LA, Chicago, NYC, Orlando, and Boston for races.

What kind of training is involved?
We run side by side using a tether as a constant connection, and I use verbal instructions to guide around/over obstacles and other runners and bikers. Most of our training miles happen on Rhode Island’s great bike paths.

Do you guide for the same athlete for each marathon?
I have guided several different athletes at destination races, but with Achilles International, I guide for one local athlete. We have now completed six marathons together. He has also now officially completed three of the six world major marathons including Chicago, New York City, and Boston. He is hoping to get the opportunity to run the other three in London, Berlin, and Tokyo.

You mentioned that this was the first time running the Boston Marathon. Was there anything different about this one or something especially memorable?
Of course, Boston is different from the rest. It is the oldest continuously running marathon. It also has very tough qualifying times to gain entry to the race. The only other way to participate is as a charity runner.

We usually train for 16 or 18 weeks leading up to a marathon, building up our miles and speed as we go. Boston was different in that we found out we were going to be able to race it only five weeks before the race. My athlete won a raffle for a charity bib to the Boston Marathon at a local race in Malden, Mass. Although we knew we would be significantly undertrained, we committed to doing what we could and went for it on the day of the race. He had the backing of his Achilles Freedom Team of wounded veterans to support us through the weekend, and the athletes with disabilities (AWD) team at the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) did a wonderful job with the logistics on race day.

When crossing the finish line, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?
As a guide, I do not stop working at the finish line. My thoughts continued to be focused on the needs of the athlete. Of course, there is some celebrating with a new shiny medal and a team selfie. Then it is all about making sure he is stable and beginning to recover. The finish of the race can be quite overwhelming, given the effort just exerted and any sensory overload due to noise, crowds, and smells.

Do you and the athlete you work with have your sights on the next marathon yet?
If the plan holds, the next full marathon will be the Marine Corps Marathon in October with the Achilles Freedom Team.