Tips for women on the trails: Introducing Jessica Beecham

Trail running tips for women is series of articles supported by ATRA corporate member inov-8. In this installment our Outreach and Partnership Specialist, Peter Maksimow, spoke with Jessica Beecham, entrepreneur, trail runner, visually impaired athlete. If you have questions for a future installment in this series please email them to Peter (petermaksimow@trailrunner.com).

Jessica is the executive director of WE Fit Wellness, a Colorado Springs-based company that works to bring accessible, affordable and achievable exercise and nutrition solutions to individuals with disabilities. Jessica has been a runner since high school. She has completed five road marathons including California International Marathon and Boston Marathon. She began her trail running journey in 2016 when she decided to train for the Pikes Peak Marathon. “As a blind runner, I had always been a little nervous about trail running. There are so many visual considerations such as rocks, roots drop-offs and skree patches. Even though I have full belief in the capacity of blind people, I was not entirely sure I would be able to develop the alternative techniques to trail run safely and effectively.” After a bit of encouragement from other blind and low vision trail runners including blind runner Jason Romero, who has completed some tough and technical ultras and most recently ran across the United States in 61 days, Jessica decided to give trail running a shot. Since the Pikes Peak Marathon, Jessica has spent many long days training on trails and has completed Behind the Rocks 50K and Pikes Peak Ultra 50 Mile.

[Peter] Hello Jessica! Let me start by saying you are a women, business owner, trail runner and a visually impaired athlete. I am sure there is much more. Tell us more about yourself!

[Jessica] I grew up in Pegram, Tennessee, a small town right outside of Nashville. I attended Middle Tennessee State University where I received my bachelors degree in Therapeutic Recreation and my masters degree in Exercise Science. After college, I worked as a recreational therapist for both medically fragile children and adolescence and adults with alcohol and drug dependency. I moved to Colorado in 2012 to work for the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. Although I now have a different job, I still spend quite  a bit of time volunteering with the National Federation of the Blind and am fortunate to serve as the president of the National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division. I love working as a civil rights advocate and also showing people that blindness is not the end of the world and that with the proper tools and techniques, blind people can do anything dream to do. If a blind person comes up to me and says they really want to be a truck driver, I might tell them to look into other careers but other than that, there are blind people in pretty much every field. I know blind scientists, medical professionals, teachers, accountants, lawyers, business owners, engineers, mathematicians and athletes. When I am not working or volunteering as an advocate, I love to spend time with my boyfriend and my guide dog, Prada. I love being outdoors. My favorite place in the world is the ocean, although I am becoming quite fond of the mountains. Besides running, I love to do yoga, read, listen to music and spend time with friends and family.

[Peter] Trail running is difficult enough with technical rocky, uneven and root-filled terrain. I have been known to fall and catch my toes on rocks and roots, especially when I am fatigued, and I have full vision! You are legally blind, what is that like?

[Jessica] Trail running as a blind person is challenging, frustrating and wonderfully freeing all at the same time. When I first decided I wanted to pursue trail running I had to develop alternative techniques to deal with all of the tricky scenarios you mentioned. A great guide is a huge part of a successful trail run. A guide on the trail has to be in constant chatter mode calling out root, rock, step up, step down, don’t go left or you will die and other such verbal cues. In addition to verbal cues, I usually have a trekking pole. I extend my trekking pole so that it is about chin to nose high. I use it much like a cane to check out what is coming ahead. I also use it to check out the sides if I know we are on a thin trail so that I make sure I am not coming too close to the edge. It allows me to determine how high a step up or down will be so that I can move through it quicker and it also gives a little extra assistance with balance. Since I do have a bit of usable vision, I also try to follow the footpath of my guide. Even with the trekking pole and a solid guide, I have to know that any run could mean a fall but I can get back up and dust it off just like anyone else. Sometimes going through an unfamiliar area can be scary but once I have done it a time or two it becomes much easier. Technical terrain is slower for me because I cannot anticipate what is coming ahead as quickly as someone who is sighted so I have to slow down quite a bit. This can be frustrating when I know I have trained hard and that I have a fitness level that would allow me to move much more quickly. Having the opportunity to experience so many beautiful sights, sounds, and smells is an unbelievable gift. Some moments are not so difficult. When I am able to race down a smooth hill and push my physical ability, I feel more free and alive than almost any other time in life. I love trail running.

[Peter] You operate a non-profit, WE Fit Wellness. Tell us about it.

[Jessica] My boss and friend, Kevan Worley, and I started WE Fit Wellness together in 2014. Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities are twice as likely to be obese as the general population and are significantly more likely to live sedentary lifestyles. Many students with disabilities are pulled away from Physical Education class in school to work on other skills that might be specific to their disability. As an example, when I was in school it was not uncommon for students to be pulled out of PE class to have cane travel or Braille lessons. Much of the equipment in gyms is inaccessible. Often times gyms are not set up so that they can easily be accessed by someone in a wheelchair. If you can get through the maze of equipment, most of it is not set up with movable benches and other features that would make it possible for a wheelchair user to access the equipment. Virtually no cardio equipment has audio output so if a blind person wants to use a treadmill or an elliptical we are LUCKY if we can turn it on and adjust the speed by feel. In worst case scenarios, the equipment is touch screen and set up like a television so there is no way to mark it with tactile markers that would allow us to use it.

Nearly 70% of disabled individuals are unemployed, which makes the costs of eating healthy and purchasing gym memberships or exercise equipment challenging. Through WE Fit Wellness we try to educate people about the options that are out there that can work. We educate people about their rights at as patrons of gyms, provide information about easy at-home exercise options, provide information about eating healthy on a budget and much more. Often times we provide our content through workshops. Our workshops can range from educational workshops, where we discuss how to structure a workout, meal prep and self-advocacy, to experiential workshops, where people have the opportunity to try out a variety of exercises in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. In addition to our workshops we also have a podcast called Find Your Fit where we provide information and motivation to promote a healthy lifestyle. We also introduce people to resources in their communities that can be helpful. WE believe that everyone deserves to live a healthy lifestyle and we work very hard to provide the tools and motivations to help people with disabilities pursue their personal fitness journeys.

[Peter] You have run the Boston Marathon, the Colfax Marathon and the Pikes Peak Marathon (26.2 miles, 7,815 feet of vertical gain and loss, no small undertaking) which is not particularly technical but if you miss a step you can end up 1,500 feet down a mountain. KUDOS! I guess I should ask a question: How do you do it!? What would you suggest to get other visually impaired athletes out on the trail?

[Jessica] Accomplishing any goal is about setting an intention and then putting in the work to make it happen. Whether you are interested in doing your first 5k or an ultra-marathon, the process is the same. As a blind athlete, the extra step is convincing other people to join in on my crazy shenanigans so that I can have guides to train with. Thanks to Achilles Pikes Peak, our local chapter of Achilles International, I have a built in network of people who have expressed an interest in guiding. I then have to find people among our team or others in the running community who are interested in spending hours and hours of quality time with me! When I chose to do the Pikes Peak Ultra this year, one of the driving forces was that I knew so many other people who planned to do the race. This made it much easier to find training partners. I would encourage other blind and low-vision people who are interested in running to seek out a local chapter of Achilles International or a local running club to find others with similar running goals who might be interested in guiding. There is also an awesome website www.unitedinstride.com where blind runners can register and people interested in being guides can register. You can discover if there are guides/blind runners in your area. It is a great way to connect! If you are a blind runner or a person interested in being a running guide, I would definitely recommend signing up.

[Peter] You are involved with a local Colorado Springs organization called Achilles Pikes Peak. What is Achilles and what do they do?

[Jessica] Achilles Pikes Peak a Colorado Springs chapter of Achilles International. The goal of Achilles is to partner athletes of different abilities so that EVERYONE can enjoy the sport of running, biking, rolling, or strolling. Whether you are a person who needs some extra motivation or you are an athlete with a disability, Achilles Pikes Peak provides a great environment to support  your running goals. This is my go to stop for guides, motivation, and friends! There are chapters of Achilles International across the United States and in several countries across the world. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a solid running family.

[Peter] I would assume with steep and rocky terrain you would want a trail-specific shoe. Is tread important for you on the trails?

[Jessica] When I first started trail running I did not realize how important the “right” trail shoes were. I bought my first pair of trail shoes for the tread but once I was introduced to the inov-8 RocLite 290 I learned what a good trail shoe was all about. I really appreciate the tread but that is just the beginning. I also love the responsiveness of this shoe. I get so much information about the ground as I step. I know these shoes have saved me from several ankle-twisting catastrophes. I would recommend this shoe to anyone who wants to really be able to feel the ground while still having the support needed to go for miles. Don’t forget to transition into this shoe if you are not used to a low-drop shoe. You can do some damage if you jump straight in.

[Peter] You have a guide dog, does she run with you on the trails?

[Jessica] Yes, my guide dog Prada runs with me. Sometimes she actually guides while we are running and sometimes we just run together for fun. She can run up to 16 miles pretty easily. I have not tested her much beyond that. She is great fun to have with me on the trails. In saying that, I do have to mention that a lot of people like to run with their dogs off leash. There are places where it is LEGAL to run with an off leash dog and I am fine with that. I do not choose to go running in those places, especially if I have Prada with me. Prada’s training is valued at approximately $60,000. When an off leash dog runs up to us aggressively, there is a lot at stake. Obviously, there is the fact that I love Prada and she is invaluable to me, but there is also the fact that she would cost quite a bit of money to replace. Even if an off leash dog is not aggressive, I or any other runner regardless of level of vision could easily trip and become injured. I would ask that people please consider keeping their dogs leashed in areas where leashing is the law.

[Peter] You use the aid of guides while on the trails, what feedback do you ask from them?

[Jessica] When running with a guide, they provide me feedback on the environment such as steps, rocks, roots, branches and other obstacles. They let me know about terrain changes like switching from concrete to dirt. My guides also assist by providing pace information which is very important because I cannot just glance down at a watch. During crowded races, I will sometimes ask my guides to grab water from a water station that is crowded so that I do not have to hassle with getting caught up in the water station traffic. In addition, I love it when I have guides who like to talk! I am not a talker when I run but I love to listen. I have a few guides who can talk and talk and require very little response from me! I feel like I am getting the best of both worlds. I get the distraction of a conversation without really having to participate (SMILE).

[Peter] What would you want the average person to know that comes in contact with you on the trails? Or even in everyday life, what they might consider doing or not doing?

[Jessica] One of the biggest things that I want people to know is that I am not any more awesome, amazing, or inspirational than any other runner. I hear that so many times. Sometimes I will be next to someone in a race and they will say “oh you are inspiring.” It kind of sucks that people have so little belief in the capacity of people with disabilities that the mere fact that I might be out participating in a 5k is something to go jump up and down about. All of us put our running socks on the same way. We all have to go out and train to do our races. We all have to put in the miles on the long runs. We are really more alike than different. I may have a few additional challenges when it comes to finding guides to run with or figuring out alternative techniques for the trail, but someone else may be a mom of three young kids or have a demanding job that makes it difficult to get out and run. Someone else might have severe depression that makes it feel almost impossible to get out and run. We all have unique challenges that we overcome so please remember that mine are no more arduous than many others who line up with us at the starting line of countless races.

If you run into me or another blind person on the trail or in life it is always awesome if you say your name. I may have met you several times, but it is sometimes mentally taxing to try to figure out who you are by the sound of your voice, especially if we do not speak every day. Saying a simple “Hi, it’s John” gives me so much more context to begin our conversation. It is embarrassing to have to ask whom someone is if they obviously know who you are and it is equally as embarrassing to go through a conversation only pretending to know who someone is so you don’t have to ask. I love chatting with people on the trail so please do say hi!

[Peter] What would your advice be for tackling technical terrain?

[Jessica] One of the biggest pieces of advice that I give myself on a regular basis is to do things that scare you and that push your limits. You will never know if something is possible if you do not give it a try. One of the techniques that really helps me is to keep doing those scary things over and over until they are not so scary any more. That is something that has really helped me grow as a person as well. Learning to deal with scary situations or personal challenges on the trail prepares one to face those tougher times in life. Also, bring a friend along. One great thing about running with a guide is that I am never facing those scary situations by myself.

[Peter] What do you see as the largest obstacle for women involved in trail running? What about visually impaired runners in trail running? What would you recommend for both of these groups?

[Jessica] Just like many other sports, women trail runners do not get the same level of attention, media coverage, and in some circumstances, prize money as men. I would love to hear more than just a passing mention of female runners in race coverage. It would also be great to see more companies really sponsoring and promoting female trail runners in a big way. As a woman, it is important for me to have heroes in my sport. I want to know how the ladies are doing. I think that all around increased recognition of women in the sport of trail running would do a lot to boost the numbers of women who participate. My best piece of advice is to support each other. Give a shootout to the leading ladies in the races you participate in. We can do our part to let the world know which women are crushing it on the trails.

My advice for blind and low vision runners who are interested in trail running is to find a good network of guides. It is even more important than with road running. It is easier to train for road races on the treadmill but for trail races, you really need to train on the terrain. Again, check out Achilles, United In Stride, and your local running clubs. There are always people out there who are willing to share a few miles with a friend!

Jessica with Pikes Peak race director Ron Ilgen.

Read more about Jessica’s Pikes Peak race experience on pikespeaksports.us.