Marathoner Cheryl Austin logs miles and dollars for the visually impaired.
By Gretchen M. Sanders, Photo by Chrissy Cowan
In 2017, the Austin Marathon introduced a division for visually impaired runners. A year later, Cheryl Austin entered the race as a low-vision athlete. Five hours and 35 minutes later, she finished first in her class among visually impaired female runners. She was also the top fundraiser for an Austin Marathon charity that year.
Austin, who works at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a condition that affects pigmentation of the skin, hair and eyes. She suffers decreased visual acuity, a diminished ability to see detail clearly, and she doesn’t see well at a distance. She can read a newspaper if she holds it close to her face, but she cannot drive. She can run without a guide, but she must fiercely protect her sensitive eyes and skin from the sun.
Though Austin had run marathons before, including the Boston Marathon in 2010, she felt especially elated heading into the 2018 Austin race. With no fundraising experience, she’d led a team that raised $33,500 for All Blind Children of Texas, a charity that funds learning projects for visually impaired kids.
“Most projects are not big asks, maybe teachers needing a couple hundred dollars,” she says. “It’s amazing what they can do with the money.”
Today, Austin, 47, stays fit mostly by power walking, but she remains an advocate for blind and low-vision students and athletes. When the Austin Marathon kicks off at 7 a.m. Feb. 16, she will be wholeheartedly cheering the visually impaired runners braving the hilly course.
Here’s how this visionary goes the distance.
“I wake up at 7-ish most mornings. I like to quickly dress in my workout clothes and get out there for a walk or run before I do anything else.”
“I don’t make many training adjustments because of my vision. I probably watch the ground more than the average runner, and I follow the Jeff Galloway method of running, which alternates running and walking. The pattern I typically follow is a 1-minute run followed by a 30-second walk. I repeat those intervals for the entire marathon. The idea behind this method is that if athletes maintain general fitness and do a weekly long run-walk, then it should be enough to get them through a marathon. I trained with Run Austin Galloway for the 2018 Austin Marathon. We did long workouts on Sundays and then at least two 30- to 45-minute run- walks on our own each week. On other days, I’d go to LA Fitness to ride the exercise bike, row or swim. Now that I’m not training for a marathon, I’m trying to walk or run for 45 minutes, or 3 miles, every day of the week. If I miss my chance to exercise in the morning, I’ll walk the 3 miles home from work.”
“I’m a registered dietician. I believe in an all-inclusive diet. I find that restricting, if successful, is only successful for a limited time. I take a well-rounded approach to eating—whole grains, lean meats, fresh fruits and veggies—regardless of whether I’m training for a marathon. I like my occasional treats. I love wine and beer and trying new restaurants. I believe in fueling my body throughout the day with little snacks versus having three big meals. The major difference in my diet when I’m training for a race is that I eat more because I’m burning so many calories.”
“I have to cover myself in sunscreen when I run. I use Coppertone Sport with SPF 50, which stays on even when I sweat. If I have the opportunity,
I will reapply my sunscreen during a race by asking a spectator I know to carry a bottle and meet me on the course. I need sunglasses when it’s sunny, but oddly, I don’t wear a hat. My trademark is to wear a bandana around my head. I wear Brooks Launch Running Shoes and a Garmin Forerunner, which beeps at preset intervals to tell me when to walk or run.”
“Running the Austin Marathon was about helping visually impaired kids. It was about having an experience beyond myself. I continue to exercise today for my overall emotional health. It’s a natural antidepressant.”
“I’ll feel better when I’m finished.”
“I work until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and take the bus home if I don’t walk. My husband will have dinner ready when I arrive. We eat together and watch television, usually with my best friend, Lola, a Lhasa apso, sitting on my lap.”