If you met Annette Williams you might not realize that she is practically blind.
"I do not see anything to my right or left or down. Basically, I can see just enough to get me in trouble," says the 50-year-old Chattanooga runner.
Williams has had bad vision since her childhood. In high school, it prevented her from playing team sports. And it was always getting worse.
" I thought 'I could sit around and be depressed about it, or I could do something.' So I started running," Williams says.
Her first race was 14 years ago: the Chickamauga Chase 5k. Since then, Williams has continued to compete in 5ks and, more recently, half-marathons and triathlons. Often training alone on the Tennessee Riverwalk, Williams says, "I survived [training] by the grace of God. There were many times I thought 'I should not be doing this.'"
All the while, her vision was worsening. Last year, while training for Chattanooga's Waterfront Triathlon, she tripped and sprained her ankle.
Still, Williams refused to give up.
"[Running] helped me feel normalcy. It was something I could do and be like everyone else," she says. "My friends kept telling me I needed to get a guide dog. I finally decided that would be a good idea."
But finding a dog trained as a running guide proved to be a challenge. Many guide dog service companies discouraged her from running with a guide dog because the act was too much like "play," causing the dog to become distracted from its job, says Williams.
Moreover, guide dogs must stay vigilant of their surroundings in order to make quick decisions — and running complicates that process.
Then, Williams discovered Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based nonprofit organization that connects visually impaired people with trained dogs, including dogs specially trained as running guides. It's it one of the only programs in the world to offer the service, she says.
One way that Guiding Eyes teaches these dogs the difference between work and play is by training them using two different harnesses: an everyday harness and a running harness. Depending on the harness used, the dog understands the required task, Williams explains.In December 2018, after spending three weeks in New York for individualized training with a guide dog, Williams was paired with Ginny, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador.
"They say it takes six months to a year to become a good team," Williams says. But, she adds, Ginny has already led her to new opportunities.
Because the relationship between the two is still new, Guiding Eyes asked Williams, for the time being, to not run alone with Ginny. "So now I have to ask for help," says Williams. "Last year, I only ran by myself. I never asked when I needed help. It was that cute puppy dog face that finally got me what I needed.
"I wouldn't say that she changed my sense of adventure, but she has definitely enhanced it. I feel much safer doing things now."