A Runner’s Vision

That’s the obstacle that freshman Ashley Chruscicki faces everyday.

Chruscicki has been visually impaired her whole life. She has no central peripheral vision, and she has 20/ 800 vision in her right eye; she can see faint outlines up close out of the corner of that eye, and cannot see at all out of her left eye.

Chruscicki said she has never been the type of person to let her disability stop her from doing anything, especially running.

"I love running," Chrruscicki said. "It’s like my high. It’s like my coffee. I wear my iPod, so I’m like blind and deaf."

Chruscicki tries to run every day, whether it is in the gym or around campus. On campus, it is difficult to run outside because she isn’t always sure where she is going. She said running outside requires a lot of memorization: she has to be comfortable with an area or have a partner to go with.

"[You have to] be mindful of where your feet are, and I’ve had my share of falls," Chruscicki said. "It’s something I keep improving on."

There are restrictions to Chruscicki’s running, though. At certain times of the day, she cannot go running because the sun leaves her completely blind. Her eyes cannot control themselves, so when she’s running she has to look up.

In high school, Chruscicki ran both track and cross-country. She didn’t run track her senior year because she didn’t always get along with the girls. There was a lot of drama, she said.

Despite the drama with peers, her coaches were very supportive of her. Karen Randall, the girl’s varsity cross country at New Hartford High School, said she was initially uncertain about Chruscicki joining the team.

"When she first decided she wanted to run cross-country, I was hesitant," Randall said. "I didn’t know what her expectations were. Once I got to know Ashley, she could do anything."

Chruscicki was the only visually impaired runner in Section III High School, according to Randall. Before each meet, the athletes would walk the course through once. This helped Chruscicki map out the course. Off the track, Chruscicki would run around her New Hartford neighborhood on paths she had memorized. She needs to be very close to a person or thing to see it. To remember people, she associates their voice with their name, much like we associate faces with names.

"When I’m running, people will be getting their mail, and I literally won’t know until I’m on top of them," Chruscicki said.

It was Chruscicki’s passion for running that led her to partake in the Boilmaker, a 15k race. Chruscicki said she used to go when her aunt ran the event to cheer her on. She has competed in the event herself on five occasions and has a best personal time of one hour and fifty-one minutes.

"I believe it’s a lifetime activity, and if you’ve run your whole life like [Ashley], it sticks with you," Randall said.

Chruscicki recently began running with her new best friend, Ella. Ella is more than just a running buddy; she is a chocolate lab guide dog. Ella has been trained to help Chruscicki navigate where she is going. Chruscicki said Ella seems to have a sense for direction.

"If I go the wrong way, I feel like she knows where I want to," Chruscicki said.

Despite the dog’s intuition, she is only two years old. Most guide dogs are usually around three or four years old, Chruscicki said. As a result, when Ella’s harness is not on, she likes to explore and play like a puppy. At Funnelle Hall, where Chruscicki lives, Ella even greets people at the door when she hears them scan their IDs.

"She’s kind of like the floor mascot," Chruscicki said.

Shelley Marshall, hall director of Funnelle Hall, said she had to send a letter to residents with guidelines on a how to act toward Ella. While the harness is on, Ella is on duty and cannot be talked to or pet. Residents have a natural gravitation to pet animals, but Ella is a guide dog, Marshall said.

"[This] provides an educational opportunity for residents in the building," Marshall said. "By-and-large, people don’t know what it means to be visually impaired."

Sometimes it is difficult to keep in mind that Ella is a guide dog, Chruscicki said. Ella can easily get distracted when people try to pet her and there is the consideration that she is still a dog and needs to be cared for. Before she goes to bed, Ashley has to make sure Ella has "gone potty." When Ella is not listening, she needs to be reminded how to act, Chruscicki said.

"It’s not a cakewalk, it’s like a child," Chruscicki said. She added, however, that she could not imagine life without Ella.

Outside of running and playing with Ella, Chruscicki said she is learning time-management; homework assignments can sometimes take twice as long for her to do because she has to scan her books into the computer to use a special program. Likewise, Chruscicki’s e-mails and text messages are on special settings so that they are read aloud to her. Recently, she has even gotten a Braille printing machine.

"My mom raised me being really independent," she said. "I don’t really think about [my disability]. It is what it is, and you got to live with it."