What He Now Sees
WORDS BY SHERIDAN WILBUR
ILLUSTRATIONS BY BENJAMIN THROSBY
Our senses define what we call real,
so we each have only one version of reality.
But if you alter the senses,
the world becomes a very different place.
There’s something terrifying about running alone at night. Shadows move with antagonistic potential. Banal noises, trash barrels being rolled out into the street, inspire panic. This is the closest I can relate to what Chaz Davis might have felt when he first started to lose his vision. Running in the dark, there's nothing to contrive, no visual cues to steady your mind. But after a few miles, you surrender to the surroundings.
Davis, the 2021 Boston Marathon Para Athlete champion has fine-tuned his four remaining senses to define what he now sees. Davis won last year’s Boston’s vision impairment division with a marathon time of 2:46:52, tethered to Jeff Seelaus, an Olympic Trials qualifying marathon runner and the Retail Manager at Tracksmith.
Davis understands the importance of a guide. After he twisted an ankle around mile 10, Seelaus supported him from the 12fth mile to the finish line. The American record holder in the marathon for the blindness classification shares a special bond with Seelaus, who was running his first marathon as an official guide. But Davis shows the way to others too. He’s a clinical social worker at Mass Association for Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI) and captain of “Team with a Vision” (their official charity of the Boston Marathon). We spoke to Davis and Seelaus, who met a few months before finishing the marathon in record-breaking history to learn about what it takes to run Boston and guide those beside them.
How did you get into running?
Chaz: I ran the gym class mile in seventh grade. I ran 5:05 or something. By eighth grade, I broke five minutes. I was playing other sports at the time - soccer, basketball, baseball - but the middle school cross country and track coach told me, “You should focus on running. This is where you'll find a lot of success.” It was tough to make that decision going into high school, it’s not a glamorous sport. But it kinda became glamorous. Grafton is a smaller town, and my school recognized I was the runner who won the races. I liked seeing my measured success. I was improving and getting better. That's what I loved about the sport of running. It’s an individual sport but there’s a team camaraderie.
That’s true. Running is such an individual sport. How did you transition to guide running, with someone always by your side?
Chaz: It was a tough transition, but we all run with people everyday, right? I was sighted until my first year of college. I had perfect vision and didn’t have to think about the prospect of having to rely on someone else to run outside even though I was running with my teammates day in and day out. Then in 2013, I woke up one day and couldn’t see out of one of my eyes. Within two and a half to three months, the same thing happened to my left eye. I thought, “Forget running, even school, I didn’t know if that was possible.” There was more gradual vision loss though the summer, and I became legally blind in both eyes by the start of 2014. I was a freshman in college but thought everything was over. That was an extremely tough time. I had a lot of substance abuse issues, trying to deal with the loss of my vision.
What was that like, to lose your vision? Can you talk a little about how you coped?
Chaz: That grief is like any loss. I stopped running completely and gained all sorts of weight, doing terrible things to my body. But I got tired thinking everything was all bad. I wanted to find purpose in life again. I needed to have another outlet that was healthier, where I could manage the feelings I had about losing my vision. I was told about the Paralympic movement, that blind people could actually run.
I set a goal of running this five mile local road race, the same race I ran in middle school when I first started running and won it a couple times in high school. I hoped to run with my teammates from college who were coming off an injury or not running in conference, but I hadn’t been running at all. I was technically on the team at the University of Hartford but my accountability was completely on myself.
I had two months to train before that race. When I first started training, I tripped over nothing. Having no depth perception at all was extremely difficult. It was hard to make it around the track and feel like my old self. I simply didn’t feel like it because physically, I gained so much weight and mentally, for the new way I looked at life. But I discovered I have enough vision to discern the lines on the track so I’d go to the track when there’d be no one there. I’d run one lap and slowly built up enough fitness where I could get through five miles. I think I ran 32 minutes for that race. Two months before, I wasn’t able to run one lap around the track, without being totally keeled over. Competing in front of my hometown; the people who knew me growing up, was the impetus to get me running again and stay motivated. Four months later, I started training with the team again.
Did it feel like you had to find a new self or were you chasing the athlete you were before, when you were sighted?
Chaz: I knew I wasn’t the athlete I was before. I focused on becoming a new runner completely. Working my way up to running 40 miles a week and being able to run with my teammates again was huge. They served as unofficial guide runners (I didn’t know what guiding was until 2015) by running alongside me and giving me verbal cues if there was a curb coming up, or rocks or sticks. I had enough peripheral vision to see them next to me. I’d stay right in line with them. I started putting a lot of trust in someone else and that’s continued ever since.
What makes a good guide?
Chaz: Someone who isn't afraid to fail. There will be times when the athlete could trip, all sorts of things could come up. Being really attentive to your environment and people, cars and bikes; being aware of surroundings, makes a good guide. I met most of the guides I’ve raced (at a competitive level) with, within a couple days of the event. Even when I set the American Record in the marathon for my blindness classification, I met my two guides on the morning of the race. They have to put as much trust in me as I put in them. I’m going to listen to what they say and as long as I do that, we’ll have no issues at all. A lot of people think you need all these trainings and certifications to become a guide, but that’s not the case.
How’d you and Jeff find each other?
Chaz: I came for a run at Tracksmith, just prior to the pandemic, and Jeff was a guy who took an immediate interest in wanting to run with me. He made sure I didn’t get caught up in all the chaos. We went on a nice run together and he had a crash course in guiding right there.
When you’re running, how much calling out is going on? Are there moments of silence?
Chaz: Depends where I’m running with a guide. If I’m running along the river, there’s probably more dialogue going on like what to look out for in order to keep me safe. If we’re running around somewhere more clear, like the Chestnut Hill reservoir, or even during the Boston Marathon, there was not much calling out because I run with a tether in races. The tether allows us to be connected so I don't really have to hear anything to know we’re right where I should be. We become in sync and just run together. If anything major comes up, then of course, there will be conversation, but for the most part, it’s this unspoken guiding that happens.
Have you ever gotten in a fight with a guide?
Chaz: Never have, no. Well, one time, I was upset with a guide. During the 2017 California International Marathon, the second guide took over and we immediately went into a 5:18 pace. We we’re going high 5:30s before. (That’s the thing too, you want more than one guide if you're competing at a high level because something could go wrong. You never know what could happen over 26.2 miles). So we started hammering - this was his first time guiding. He started running ahead of me and we weren’t tethered - I needed to be where he was. We did two or three miles at that faster pace. That’s what did me in for the rest of the marathon. I was on pace to have a really good race that day and it didn’t happen because of the miscommunication with a guide. Happens. It’s all part of it. Without a guide, I wouldn’t be able to run at all. I’m grateful to get out there and do what I love.
Coming back to running is what saved me from doing a lot of terrible things to my body. I love it for the competitive nature but also for the feeling I have when I get out there and I’m able to run outside. Even though I’m tethered, I still feel liberated. I’m just another runner out there. I don’t feel like I’m confined to my disability or anything like that. Everyone has their own reasons to do it. That’s my reason to do it now. At one point in time, I didn’t think I could. And found out I could. Faster. I ran under four minutes for the 1500, and sub-15 in the 5k. I never thought I could do that when I was on the track that day, keeled over after running one lap. Seeing that continued progress keeps me motivated every day.
I had this hard-ass coach in college who understood what I needed for motivation. He didn’t let me do anything less than what everyone else was doing. He threw me right in the same cross country workouts the team was doing. Senior year, he threw me into the conference race. One of my teammates was my unofficial guide, even though the NCAA rules don’t allow that. But we ran together, no tether. Wasn’t a fast time by any means, just under 27 minutes for 8k but for me; that was a huge moment. I thought my days of running cross country were over, but I went on to run faster as a blind athlete, than when I could see fully.
It can be easy to get caught up in what the person on the side of you is doing. Would you say you have a deeper understanding of how you’re feeling internally, more in tune with your body?
Chaz: I think so. I’ve always been aware of my body during a run or race. It’s one of the only times I’m hyper-focused on the task at hand, otherwise my attention is all over the place. When I'm in a race, my goal is: get to the finish line the fastest. You have to stay within yourself, in order to get there and not blow up. It’s been an adjustment running with someone else. They want the same for me as I want, but they might see the way we get there a little differently. Sometimes, when I’m running with a guide, they try to take over as a pacer but it’s really keying off one another, and for them to watch what I’m doing and match my pace. Sometimes I get sucked into taking their lead when competing and run out of my comfort zone like in CIM 2017, where it’s just like, “I’m in over my head, this is not where I want to be right now.” I’m still working on it. I think running with someone else, basically running as one, takes more coordination than if you were to just run by yourself.
During the Boston Marathon, at around 10 miles into the race, I sprained my ankle. I rolled it hard on just nothing. My initial reaction was, “Yeah, I gotta stop this is stupid.” But then I realized, it’s the Boston Marathon, and [two], these guys committed to run with me, so, I’m committing to run with them. Jeff was great the entire second half of the race, keeping me engaged because it was so painful running on that foot. Every step was painful. The words he was saying, letting me know where we were on the course, checking in to see how I was doing; those are things that are above and beyond what a guide does, but are so crucial to getting out of that tough place. If I was sighted, and running on my own, I wouldn’t have that. I’d be in a tough place by myself. To have someone to share that with and help you pull out of that is something invaluable, when it comes to a relationship you have with your guide.
How was that for you, Jeff? Finding out Chaz sprained his ankle and having all that responsibility to cross the line?
Jeff: Terrifying and inspiring. Just a lot. I jumped in at mile 12 and checked in with Chaz to hear where he was at. My mind, initially, went to picturing myself running on a sprained ankle (which is painful and terrifying enough), then I thought about racing on a sprained ankle, and then being not even halfway into a marathon on a sprained ankle. I’d check in at various challenging moments when we’d hit a bad step and stop for a second to adjust his ankle and he’d say how much pain he was in, but he had this will to keep going because it was such an important moment in the history of the marathon. Wildly special to be a small part of that. I had to make sure I did my part to make sure he was on course to meet his goals. I was like, “Let me know if I'm not talking enough, or talking too much or just annoying you.”
Chaz: It was all welcomed, what I needed at that point. Sometimes I don’t like communication during the race, but that’s what I needed to stay engaged. I always want to finish! Jeff mentioned the historical part of this, being the first year we have a Parathletic division with prize money, that was a huge reason why I needed to make it to the finish line. When we turned down to Bolyston, I almost didn’t feel the pain at all. It felt emotional for me after two years of not racing and to do that with a great dude who helped me get there made crossing that line a special moment.
Chaz, what was it like training during the pandemic?
Chaz: Extremely difficult. I have a compromised immune system and I got COVID actually [in March of 2020]. After I recovered, I didn’t feel comfortable running with anyone so I had to get creative and did a lot of indoor cycling. It wasn’t until August  when I started running again - on the treadmill. I ran the virtual Boston Marathon - a good goal to work towards in the pandemic. But I had only been running for a month. Just really difficult. I was trying to make my second Paralympic team until a month before the Paralympic Trials, I got another ankle injury that sidelined me much longer. I wasn’t able to compete in the Paralympics or Trials; I certainly wasn’t going to Tokyo. That really set me back. It was a tough hurdle to get over, mentally, and hard to find motivation again.
Jeff, you’ve been to the Trials yourself and experienced what it’s like to have your own success. What was it like running Boston and putting your own goals aside, and fully being there for someone else?
Jeff: Honestly, equally as special. Being in Boston and being a part of the atmosphere and emotion of the Boston Marathon, gave me chills every step of the way, especially being on Boylston with Chaz. I love running for my own reasons but equally so, for the community. I get so fired up hearing other people’s stories, and how they set and reached goals. So when Chaz reached out saying what he’s trying to do here, I was so excited to get the honor to be a part of that and helping him along the way. Similar feeling of crossing that finish line, after knowing what he’d been through over the past couple years. Every step of 26 miles, it was super cool to be in that race. One of the toughest races I’ve ever seen.
Chaz is the person who has craziness for himself before a race and he’s the person his 28 athletes are coming to, looking to reassure themselves they are prepared for this. I just can’t imagine facilitating all of that stuff before this monumental race.
Chaz: I’ve never dropped out of a race. I always want to finish that race and cross that finish line because I know there are others out there who don’t see it as being a possibility. Barring absolute, unless it was a ridiculous injury, that's how I like to keep my mentality. Just really being able to dig deep and look back on everything I faced; that’s what helped me get through those really rough parts of races. I draw from those years of difficulties I faced after losing my vision and other adversities prior to that to find some strength. You can look back, and that can always be a driving force.
Jeff: Oh man, it was so special even after the race hanging out, getting to meet your family. Walking back to the hotel, you got stopped every 50 meters! Someone was telling Chaz how inspired they were. We met a few volunteers along the way; seeing this whole community grow, and seeing what you’re doing to inspire this community and make it more accessible is one thing I'll never forget.
Chaz: Finding a passion for running and sharing that passion with other people is what I love. That’s the reason that I do it.
Jeff: All runners, we use it to shape our lives and ground us. To give us discipline and structure in life. Allowing people in dark places, to retake that life and move on.