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Running Blind

Reston resident Gene Skonicki is not letting his blindness stop him from becoming a long-distance runner.

Running along the paths near Armstrong Elementary School on a Saturday morning last month, Gene Skonicki took it on faith that his running partner would not allow him to trip over the curb or run into a tree branch or a parked car.

Skonicki, a legally-blind Reston resident, is one of the newest members of the Reston Runners, a running and walking club that meets every Saturday morning for a five-mile run. To complete the trail last month, he had to rely on his other four senses and on the warnings from veteran runner Will Fraize about upcoming turns and obstacles.

"Sure, we ran into a couple tree branches," said Skonicki, who intends to keep running with the group. "What can you do? You get a couple leaves in your hair, you shrug it off and you keep going."

The two runners tripped once while navigating a particularly treacherous curve, causing Skonicki to apologize profusely to his partner.

"But he told me, you know what? I don't mind. I love to run and I'm happy to be out here helping you," Skonicki recalled.

MANY BLIND PEOPLE, afraid of the countless dangers they cannot see, live somewhat sedentary lives.

Skonicki, a software developer, decided a while back that he did not want to lead an inactive lifestyle like many of his fellow sightless peers. So he joined the gym near his office at Plaza America, using the stationary bicycle and running on the treadmill. But the indoor workouts simply didn't capture the thrill of running outdoors, among nature and other athletes.

"I said to myself, I'm going to get off my butt and get out there and go run," he said.

He e-mailed the Reston Runners and they welcomed him into the group, offering to help him in any way they could. Several volunteers have already come forward to be his running partner on future runs.

"I thought it was pretty remarkable," said Fraize, his first running partner. "He had the courage and determination to keep running despite his disability."

APART WITH SKONICKI, there are several serious athletes who are blind in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region.

A blind man living in Fairfax has competed in national swimming races. Another blind person who lives in Potomac, Md. has run in middle distance events at the Paralympics. There is also a blind bowling league that meets weekly throughout Northern Virginia, said Charlie Brown, president of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

"Certainly I encourage blind people to get active," he said. "Their life is not done when they lose their vision."

Blind runners will typically tether themselves to a running partner. Seeing-eye dogs cannot be used because they wouldn't provide enough reaction time to avoid obstacles.

Skonicki does not plan to become an overly competitive runner. For him, running is simply a chance to get exercise outdoors and to experience the freedom and the danger of not knowing what might get in his way. And he's not going to let a little thing like his blindness get in the way.

"It's an act of trust to run five miles in a place I've never been with a person I hardly know," he said. "That's a hard thing to do. Believe me, it's an act of faith."

LAURIE EAKES, Skonicki's wife, is also blind. They met 15 years ago when they took a class to learn how to use their seeing-eye dogs, Namath and Bobbin. She said she is proud of her husband because he is getting in shape and because he is willing to take the risks inherent in long-distance running.

"It takes a risk," she said. "Sometimes it takes a risk just to go out and catch the bus in the morning. But I just think it's wonderful he's doing this."

Skonicki said he was inspired to lead a more active life by their blind friend who lives in Alexandria and occasionally runs with a partner and rows regularly on the Potomac.

Now, Eakes said, she is in turn being inspired by her husband.

"If he's going to get out there and exercise, then I should too," she said. "I'm thinking of joining the walkers with the Reston Runners. I need to get out there too."