Running Together

There's more than meets the eye when two friends hit the trail.

From out of the dusk on a gorgeous autumn day, two men, both shirtless, run toward me. Bright leaves drift down from the trees, carpeting the ground beneath our feet as my friend and Duke colleague Priscilla Wald and I enjoy our weekly walk around the Al Buehler Trail, a three-mile forest path that encircles the Washington Duke Inn. The men are about the same height, maybe in their mid-thirties or early forties, and running faster than seems possible while navigating tree roots, casual walkers, and all-terrain baby carriages. Their vigorous grace makes me smile. They smile back. It’s only when we loop past them a second time that something else about their running captures my attention. Avoiding a puddle in the center of the path, the men don’t split, but rather they each veer to the right, their footfalls continuing in unison. They run so close they seem to be touching.

Once again, the men smile as they whizz past us. This time we notice: The front runner is blind.

Many blind people run, typically with the aid of a sighted guide. Some use a rope or a tether, while others, like these men, rely on interpersonal communication. At the speed they were going, this kind of successful collaboration is no small feat. With its roots, rocks, and uneven terrain, the forest path challenges even accomplished sighted runners, but the pair seemed to navigate it effortlessly. The ease of their partnership intrigued me. Much of my academic work focuses on new models of collaborative learning, and I wondered if these runners might help me understand something about working together across differences in skills and perspectives.

The community of Duke Forest runners is small enough that I soon learned the identity of the blind runner. His name is Curt Taylor, and he is a professor of economics at Duke. From his website, I find out that although he is 100 percent visually impaired, he is also a marathoner who has clocked a time of 3:17:20, fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. His running partner is Jeff Wilcox. Jeff’s wife, also an economist, teaches at the Fuqua School of Business. For the past few years, Jeff has been a stay-at-home father, caring for their three young children.

We arrange to meet at Curt’s office on the third floor of the Social Sciences Building. In Curt’s office hang photos of his three children, all of whom are sighted. There are bookshelves everywhere, overflowing with cassette tapes of books and articles recorded by assistants and interns over the years.

Curt greets me warmly. He looks me in the eyes when we meet, and I notice throughout our conversation that he turns his head toward me when I speak. When I remark about this, he says he learned early that facing the speaker is important in communicating with sighted people. He has also trained himself to hear gestures. He notices the different modulations in a voice when someone is nodding in agreement or shaking her head. He nods, too, at appropriate times, knowing his gestures facilitate communication.

Curt lost most of his sight in his right eye to disease when he was two and a half years old. “Late enough,” he says, to “have a visual language.” His remaining eyesight dwindled throughout his childhood, and by age eleven, he was completely blind. When he was twenty, surgeons placed a cornea implant in his left eye, briefly restoring his sight. After six months, however, the transplant failed, and he has seen nothing in the past twenty-three years.

When Jeff arrives, the tone of our interview becomes suddenly lively and warm. Jeff has a musical voice and a self-effacing affability that creates instant ease. The conversation turns to running, and I express my appreciation for how they can navigate the forest path so efficiently. Jeff immediately lauds Curt’s ability to run over the tops of the tree roots and boulders at top speed without falling. Most sighted people, Jeff insists, couldn’t pull that off.

Although Curt began running in high school, he stopped as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, then took it up again while in graduate school at Yale. During his nine years teaching at Texas A&M, he began to run competitively because, he jokes, there wasn’t much else to do there. He ran in the Houston Marathon twice. He’s since joined various track clubs, and he’s run with many different partners over the years.

The chemistry with Jeff was immediate. Curt suggested Jeff keep a hand on his elbow as they ran, and they quickly worked out ways to share information about turns and changes in terrain. Rather than bark out orders, Jeff directs Curt with subtle touches, pushing or pulling Curt gently with his hand to change his course. From the pressure of the touch, Curt senses how far to turn. They talk while they run, chatting about sports, beer, women, and favorite banana-bread recipes. Occasionally Jeff interrupts with a brief update, relayed in their unique shorthand. “Bridge up in two,” for example, means in two steps, be prepared to step up onto a bridge.

The interesting thing about this interplay is that they both get something out of it. Jeff’s instructions enable Curt to run safely in the forest, something he much prefers to an ordinary track. In turn, Curt’s strength and marathoner’s stamina push Jeff beyond his triathlete’s limits. Jeff also says there are things Curt notices about people that he misses. He can tell when a pretty runner crosses their path, for example, because he hears people’s voices change as they turn their heads to watch the runner head in the opposite direction. “Those patterns of attention are deep,” Curt says, “but sometimes I don’t think other people notice them as much as I do. For me, they are clues. Most people don’t know what clues they are giving away.”

While Curt sees the path through Jeff’s eyes, Jeff sees it anew by seeing it for Curt. The things Jeff does naturally while running—speeding up, ducking a branch, negotiating a ground obstacle—become less automatic because they require attention and communication. He has to anticipate and articulate the challenges, forcing him out of habit. In a sense, Jeff runs a different path with Curt than he would be if he were running alone.

It’s the same for me, too. I’ve walked that forest trail probably fifty times, maybe a hundred, but I am seeing only a portion of what there is to see. My perception is colored by my experience, as well as the experience of my companions. When I am walking with my friend Priscilla, a literary scholar with interdisciplinary expertise in genomics and immunology, our conversation often drifts toward her research on genes and germs, or mine on collaborative, interactive digital learning. This is wonderfully enriching for both of us, but I have to wonder what I am missing during our intense conversations.

What would I see differently if I ran the path with Curt? No doubt I would discover hundreds of things—a jagged stone or bended branch—that had eluded my vision before. More important, I would learn things about myself, about what I see and do not see, what my own habits of attention make invisible.

I still occasionally encounter Curt and Jeff on my walks in the forest. But these days I don’t see a sighted runner leading a blind man through the woods. Curt and Jeff helped me understand the ways we all change one another’s experience in the world. Only when we put our trust in someone else—as Curt has in Jeff, and as Jeff has in Curt—do we really begin to see.

—Cathy N. Davison

Davidson is a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies with Duke’s John Hope Franklin Institute. Her most recent book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, was reviewed in the September- October 2011 issue of Duke Magazine.

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