Imagine trying to run through a dark tunnel.
Now imagine trying to do it in a crowd of hundreds of people.
That’s what East York resident and marathon runner Kim Umbach has experienced for much of her athletic life.
The 40-year-old suffers from a hereditary disease known as Leber’s congenital amaurosis, which gradually results in tunnel vision. Having had the ailment since birth, Umbach has had to find ways to handle the challenges and adversity.
“In school I experienced a lot of bullying,” said the Ottawa native. “People would make fun of me so I developed a sarcastic sense of humour to fight back.
“But as time went on [the disease] was just part of me. It didn’t really stop me from doing any of the things I wanted to do. I had a little bit more vision when I was younger than I do now, but I still did all the things that active kids do.”
Searching for a sense of belonging, she reached out to athletics. While participating on a competitive level in several sports including cross-country skiing and running, she discovered something important about herself.
“Running was very beneficial to me,” she said. “It gave me an identity so I didn’t necessarily miss out on the other things that sighted kids were doing because I found a place for myself where I was actually good at something.”
Umbach had found her niche. She won a bronze medal at the 1984 Paralympic Games in the 3,000-metre event and followed with another bronze at the 1986 world championships in cross-country skiing.
Sports even led her to pursue a physical education degree at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
Although she took a hiatus from competitive running for part of her adult life, the allure of the adrenaline rush eventually got her in contact with Achilles Canada, a social running club that caters to visually impaired athletes and provides them with guide runners.
“That’s a challenge, to find a guide runner because I can’t run by myself,” said Umbach. “I don’t have enough vision. It’s a challenge to find a guide that can go at the same time with you. It’s also a motivator when you connect with a social group like Achilles Canada.”
Claudia Frisch has known Umbach for more than 20 years. She worked with Umbach in Fredericton and knows how to motivate her friend. They even roomed together at one point. Hence, it’s a perfect partnership between guide and runner.
“My biggest role is to be there as a friend,” said the 42-year-old Frisch, who trains with Umbach twice a week. “But also to encourage anybody who has the ability to run to become the best they can be. Also, to have a passion for running and Kim has that. She’s a really good athlete.”
The responsibility of tethering herself to her friend while they run and being an extra set of eyes didn’t come naturally to Frisch, however.
“At the beginning it was a little hard because it’s not just walking,” she said. “You constantly have to be aware of your surroundings, but also what’s in front of you. I feel really comfortable doing this now though and Kim and I can share our passion for running together.”
While Umbach, who has lived with her husband Ron for 14 years, may need the support of her friend she also relies on other senses to keep her on track.
“I find that I’m paying attention to my hearing a bit more,” she said. “It’s kind of a myth that people who are vision impaired have super acute hearing. We actually teach ourselves so it’s like a compensation.
“We have to learn to rely on the other senses more, so I rely on my hearing and feeling. For example, if I run on the same path I can feel where the dips in the road are and I’ll know the landmarks.”
The tandem will be competing next in the Angus Glen half marathon and 10-kilometre run on Nov. 7.