Friday, June 09, 2006

Visually impaired man intends to participate to the 5K run

LAYTON Distance runner Blaine Shelton has collided with trees, cars, bridges, other people, dogs and - worst of all - a soccer goal post in his competitive running career. But those obstacles are nothing compared to what the visually impaired athlete from Layton faces as he tries to regain his status as one of the top blind distance runners in the world.

The biggest roadblocks standing in Shelton's way are the lack of an adequate treadmill and the lack of willing guide runners who are capable of keeping up with the 26-year-old college student. "The desire and commitment are there, and my coach says the ability is there, too," Shelton said. "I just need a [$5,000] treadmill that can go 15 miles per hour and some guys to run with on a consistent basis."

Shelton will run in the 5K race that is part of Saturday's Salt Lake City Marathon events. Because a large field of runners is expected for the 5K, and because he ran the same course last year, Shelton will compete without a guide runner - unless he finds someone willing between now and then.

"I should be OK," he said. "I will probably carry a walkie-talkie and keep in close contact with my dad, just in case."

Shelton is not at his best, having pulled muscles in his chest a few weeks ago while running in the Race for the Cure. But he doesn't want to miss the opportunity to run in the 5K with some of the state's best sighted athletes.

"If you're a runner, you don't dream of missing these kind of races," he said.

Shelton has been running competitively since he was 7, when his mother began taking him to the "Braille Olympics" in Los Angeles. He ran track at Central Davis Junior High School and cross country at Layton High, where he nearly qualified for the 1,500 meters at state against sighted runners.

He ran briefly for Westminster College after an LDS Church mission to Birmingham, Ala., but an injury to his ribs when he ran into the aforementioned soccer post derailed those plans, and he is now studying at Utah Career College to become a massage therapist.

"It's been quite a journey," he said. "You name it, and I have run into it. I've even run into trees while I've had a guide with me."

The journey is far from finished, however.

Shelton's coach, former U.S. Paralympic Track and Field coach John Kernan, of Pleasant Grove, says Shelton is an "emerging elite runner" who has the ability to compete at the Pan-Am Paralympic Games in Brazil and has an outside chance to make it to the Paralympic Games in 2008 in China.

"We're sort of riding the roller-coaster now with Blaine," Kernan said. "He's not as fit as he has been in the past, due to injuries and other factors. . . . But he is a national-class athlete trying to take the next step up to the elite class."

Shelton is what the United States Association of Blind Athletes classifies as a B-2 runner. He can distinguish his hand in front of his face, and some shapes, but his vision is worse than 20/600. He's been visually impaired for most of his life.

When Shelton was 22 months old, doctors misdiagnosed him with an ear infection. Turns out, it was spinal meningitis, and it damaged the brain cells that receive messages from the eyes. So, his eyes are healthy, but the part of the brain that helps him distinguish shapes "is fried," Shelton said. "I had two of the four types of spinal meningitis, and the second [disease] did some real damage."

Just after high school, in 1998, Shelton set a pair of world records at a USABA indoor meet in Colorado Springs, Colo., running the 3,000 meters in 11 minutes, 19.74 seconds and the 1,500 in 5:05.35. He also owns the national indoor record in the mile for B-2 runners, having posted a 5:12.26 in 2003.

"When I have the ability to properly train, I can accomplish some things," he said. "But lately, that hasn't been possible."

Because Shelton can't drive, it takes him 2-3 hours on a bus one way just to make the trip from Layton to Pleasant Grove to see his coach. He can train by himself around Layton, but that is getting increasingly more difficult, partly because the Layton High track he runs on is in disrepair.

That's why he so desperately needs a sponsor, an individual or organization that will step in with some funding for a treadmill and perhaps cover some other expenses, such as travel.

"For a blind person, a treadmill is really fantastic," said Kernan. "One of Blaine's biggest stumbling blocks is transportation."

Then there's the guide problem.

In high school, two-time Olympian Ed Eyestone frequently ran with him in races. But Eyestone is now a member of BYU's coaching staff, and Shelton has struggled to find a qualified replacement. Kernan, who also coaches Pleasant Grove High's track team, says his guiding days are over as well.Not just anybody can be a guide runner, Shelton said. He was running in the Salt Lake City Classic a few years ago with a reporter from a northern Utah newspaper who had volunteered to guide for him.

"He said he worked out three times a week and was in good shape," Shelton said. "We went through the mile marker at 8 minutes and he was dying. He stayed with me a little while longer, then I just asked him which way I should go. He told me to take a left and then go straight. That's the last thing I heard."

The last thing Shelton wants to do is give up on his dream of making it to the Paralympics. He hopes to compete in the USABA National Championships in Colorado in early August, where the pressure will be intense.

"There's some politics involved [when the U.S. Paralympic team is chosen], so I have to win every blind race I get into," he said. "I have to go undefeated, so there's no doubt."


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