My Day With the Achilles Track Club - Jan 29th 2004

My Day With The Achilles Track ClubThursday, 29th January
Hey friends. As many of you know, in addition to showbiz, one of my ultimate goals in life is to leave the world a better place.

Last summer I worked with the Achilles Track Club. In general, it’s a program for disabled runners with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, arthritis, amputation etc… The New York City Achilles Track Club specifically deals with runners with visual impairment. Basically, if you can run, you show up and guide someone who needs help.

Blind people live dangerously in New York. The city is filled with endless landmines -- moving cars, subway terminals, stairwells. One small lapse in judgment could result in a serious fall or injury. I was determined that whoever ran with me would experience complete liberation from their disability and run with complete freedom.

Saturday, 8:40 in the morning, 86th street and Fifth Ave in Central Park. It’s 85 degrees, which is unusually hot for a July morning. A small group of people have gathered. The volunteer runners stand on one side, and the visually impaired are directly across.

In my conversations, I realize that all the volunteers have good genes and fit some strange ‘over-achiever’ mold: athletic, good-looking, great day jobs. I make friends with a volunteer who works as an investment banker during the day and has been an Achilles Track Club member for the past five years.

“It’s my first day, but I plan on coming back.” I respond.

Andy, the group director, writes our names in his clipboard and pairs us with disabled runners based on how much you want to run. (I say ‘two miles’ unlike my usual ‘seventeen’ because I want to go easy on my jogger.)

My partner is Eric. He’s a guy my age, but needs a stick to get around. My first impulse is to extend my hand. Instead I opt to say “hello” really loud. Andy offers us a short, tethered rope with giant knots, a running tool used to connect volunteer with the disabled, but Eric prefers to lightly hold onto my arm as we run. Our adventure begins.

I think the complete jogging track in Central Park is eleven miles. However, if you take an appropriate turn you can run a two-mile loop. We run slowly. Eric is quiet, and a good guy. Harvard undergrad, wannabee screenwriter, he tells me that he’s spent most of his life trying to lose weight.

Meanwhile, I can’t stop talking. I have this incredible need to be more than an empty void. In addition to sharing every life experience, I ask millions of questions and add miscellaneous conversation tidbits like “That’s great!” “Really!” In actuality, I feel self-conscious that I am running with a grown man holding onto my arm, and remember that I haven’t had an intimate relationship in six months.

Eric gets tired after a mile and a half. I can hear it in his winded-breath. “Are we almost there?” He asks.

“About another half mile.” I respond. “We’re right there.”

I look at the passing park maps. Something is off. I’ve ran this route twice before, and I clearly remember passing a water fountain. I am lost.

“Can we stop for some water?” Eric asks.

“Yeah, coming up.” Don’t get me wrong. I’ve lied many times in my life. I’ve lied to my mom, I’ve lied to college roommates, I’ve lied to potential employers, but lying to the blind was clearly a first.

Ten minutes pass. The sun is disgustingly brighter. Eric is really sweating, and I’m getting tired. I wonder how far we are from 86th street. I wonder how far we are from the nearest subway station, and if Eric carries a metro card on him.

“I need to stop.” Eric proclaims.
“In a minute.” I reply.

I pick up the pace. Something about Eric is bugging me. Maybe I sensed an underlying snideness in his tone of voice. Or maybe it is his blissful ignorance that life is great. Life is not great. You’re blind.

Eric stops running.

“I’m walking the rest of the way.”
“But we’re right –“
“My legs hurt.”

Like two adventures crossing the Sahara, we amble down the dusty Central Park horsetrack arm in arm. I am not a bad guy. I really want Eric to have a good experience, and I simply forgot a turn. I fear that Eric will tattle-tale on me to Andy, the club director, but my immediate concern is I let Eric down.

“Tarun!” I turn around. It is an odd sight. The investment banker guy races towards me. His flush-red face is a sharp contrast to the fluorescent green rope wrapped around his wrist, which drags his visually-impaired partner.

“How much further?” I yell.
“Just a little ahead!”

Eric and I both run to the finish and practically bowl over Andy and his stupid clipboard to get to the water fountain.

“How was it guys?”

“Fine.” Eric responds.
“I got lost” I blurt, but no one seems to hear me.

I walk Eric back to the Achilles Track Club Center, and help him locate his walking stick.

It was cool that Eric didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was a reminder that it's ok to ask for help once in a while. I still want to save the world, but for now I think I’ll just stick with writing jokes.

Tarun ShettyComment