News Archive

News Archive

Running, my lifelong Dream!

Sharlene Wills was born blind and will be participating for the first time in


As I stood in the midst of thousands of other runners and walkers that March

morning in 1988, waiting for the starting gun for that years City of Los

Angeles Marathon to go off, many thoughts and feelings whirled around inside

me: what have I gotten myself into, trying to do a 26.2-mile race with almost

no training? Will I be able to complete the course? Will my guide dog, Sheba,

get us lost, as the race officials predicted? Am I more than just a little

crazy for trying this, just because people said a blind person, using a guide

dog, could not? I was scared! The pre-race music was deafening, and the noise

of the media helicopters overhead vibrated throughout my body. I could only say

a prayer, give Sheba a pat and -- BOOM! We were off.

Then began one of the most exciting and rewarding events of my life, and one

that changed my life forever. Not only did we stay on course, but we prevented

others from going astray. Not only were we able to finish, but even though we

walked most of the way, we were by no means last (which dispelled one of my

worst fears). The spectators cheers, the wonderful encouragement of so many

runners and walkers, and just the sheer exhilaration of accomplishing something

physically very difficult, made the 7.5 hours that we were out there absolutely

worth every second, and I knew, when we crossed the finish line, and the medal

was placed around my neck, that marathoning was in my blood to stay!

I have to say, though, that, from my earliest childhood, I loved sports and

physical activity. Yes, I was born blind, with only light perception and a

little color recognition in my right eye. But I think, first because I knew

nothing else, and, perhaps more importantly, because neither my parents nor my

teachers restricted me overmuch or often said, "You can . You e

blind", I rarely knew fear. If the neighbor kids went rollerskating, so

did I. I could run faster, climb higher and was stronger than all the girls,

both at school and in my neighborhood, and I could keep up with many of the

boys, too. I decided, if others could ride a bike, so could I, and I taught

myself to balance on my brothers two-wheeler in a parking lot where there was a

lot of free space. I knew in my head that I "couldn see", but it was

many, many years before I really understood that, in some ways, I was

"handicapped". I was simply me and did pretty much what any other kid

did, probably causing many adults a lot of worry, but never feeling that a

thing couldn be done, especially running.

Since I am small and have short legs, I learned early on to step out, walk

fast and run faster. That way, I could keep up with tall people and also show

the world that a blind person need not always move fearfully and haltingly. I

think this undercurrent of determination to overcome myths about blindness,

especially as I grew older, also played a major part in my life and what I

wanted to accomplish.

Physical education is required in American schools from the 1st through the

12th grade, and I alw looked forward to this hour of the day, when I could play

ball, jump rope and, of course, run. Sports for girls, however, were almost

nonexistent in those days (the late 50s and all of the 60s) so when I and a few

other girls wanted to form a track team, it was not easy to convince teachers

and administrators. But, in my last year of high school (12th grade) we were

successful, and I competed in my first running event, the 400-meter, in which I

was not last but was not the winner, either. I was allowed to use the inside

lane of the track so that I could follow the edge with one foot, and I had

people at the turns to "talk" me through them and my coach at the

finish line, calling me "home". What fun!

In college, I was unsuccessful in getting a womens track team going, and

thus began many years of little or no running, but always, always, fast, long

walks, with cane, sighted companion and, at the age of 32, my first guide dog.

I also bought a tandem bike and got plenty of use from it, including a trip

through part of Germany and Holland with my husband and 2-year-old son, who

described every cow and horse he could see.

I majored in German at university and wanted to put it to good use, so, upon

finishing my studies at a small university in California, I left to study Music

Therapy in Germany, first in the Stuttgart area and, later, in Berlin. I

completed a 3-year course while in Berlin, married and had my son at Gertrauden

Hospital. Further, I continued my active interest in sports and athletics by

joining the Berlin Sports Union for the Blind. As a member, I learned about

Goal Ball and participated in weekly swimming workouts.

When my son, Michael, was four, we moved back to the U.S. where, after a

years fruitless search for work as a Music Therapist, I accepted a secretarial

position with the County of Los Angeles. In 1987, I was offered a job with the

Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office, transcribing police interview

tapes, and it was then, that I first began to dream of participating in the Los

Angeles Marathon. The D.A.s Office had a team at that time, and I signed up. At

first, everyone was excited and supportive, until they found out that I wanted

to do this with my guide dog. (None of my sighted family or friends were

walkers, much less runners.) Few believed that a blind person could go that

distance with a dog (they hadn heard of the Ididarod, I guess) and I had to

fight to be accepted into the race. But the more the officials argued against

it, the more determined I became and, in the end, I won, we did it, and I was,

as I have said, hooked and have been running/walking marathons ever since. In

1992, I walked my 4th L.A. Marathon with Radio Newsbroadcaster, Sharon

Kaetchen. We did an ongoing report of the race as we went, with me describing

the scents and sounds I picked up, and Sharon interspersing her verbal guiding

directions with her own observations of what was around us. For this coverage,

we received the prestigious "Golden Mike" award from the Radio

Broadcasters Association. And I still have a copy of the tape we


In 1993, I ran my first San Francisco Marathon, there doing my best time

ever! In 98 and 99, I ran in Boston, and I have participated in the New York

and Marine Corps (Washington, DC) Marathons, among others. But Berlin, my 32nd,

will be my first international marathon, and how I look forward to running

through some of my favorite neighborhoods there!

People ask all runners, "Why do you do it?" I can speak for

others, but, for me, running means freedom, a sense, almost of flying,

especially on downhills. To feel my body flowing along (or even dragging,

sometimes) to experience through smell, hearing and touch all kinds of

surroundings, to hear the cheering of the crowds, even when you don know (as I

didn , for a long time) that they e cheering especially for you, to experience

the warmth, comradery and support of other runners, who pat your shoulder as

they go by, or shout words of encouragement -- these are things that make any

pain or tiredness worthwhile and show you what a truly great world this is.

Sometimes, I wish that I could run safely without using a tether, but then, I

might not meet the wonderful people I do, and I might not have some of my most

valued friends. People tell me, "You are an inspiration!" And I

reply, "Im glad," because I figure, if, by doing what I most love to

do, I can help someone else find the courage to try something challenging, what

better way to give back in some way that which so many people have given


Marathoning is, sometimes, hard work., and, sometimes, I can train the way

Id like. I have to use a treadmill instead of a track, trail or road because I

often don have someone to guide me and not every guide dog is able to work in

this way. Im getting older -- almost 54 on Berlin Marathon Day -- and that

means, perhaps, slower. I certainly won need someone on a bicycle to keep up

with me, and Ill be happy with a 5-hour race. No matter. As long as I can put

one foot in front of the other, and keep going, Ill be out there!

May all runners, as a dear friend of mine says, "keep the rubber side


Sharlene Wills