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Visually impaired athletes to run in Charlotte half marathon thanks to local non-profit

"I think it's important to be inclusive and that all people have the opportunity to participate in these types of events."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For visually impaired athletes, running a road race alone is near impossible. 

That's why friends Shannon Houlihan and Paul Harrold decided to start a local nonprofit called Para Guide.

Para Guide helps visually impaired runners, cyclers, and swimmers compete in various races around town. The nonprofit organization supports 40 athletes locally and then 20 other athletes that live in other markets.  

Houlihan said her non-profit organization is all about inclusivity. 

"It's important to incorporate other people into the sport," Houlihan said. "And we’re always trying to get other people involved. I think it's important to be inclusive and that all people have the opportunity to participate in these types of events." 

Visually impaired runners are capable of running alone, but only on the treadmill where there aren't any outside obstacles. Houlihan knows that not enough for an athlete. 

"I think any runner would also tell you running on a treadmill every single day for every single run can feel very limited," Houlihan said. "And getting outside and being able to feel the wind on your face, there's nothing quite like that."

Houlihan's running partner, Alexandra Brown, said the organization has given her a chance to really grow as an athlete. 

"Really without them, I wouldn't be able to do half the stuff I did," Brown said. "Running on a treadmill can get very dull after a while and you can't progress. Shannon has been great in being able to meet and run with her." 

Here's how the process works. 

A visually impaired athlete is paired with either one or two guides. The guide is physically tethered to that athlete. 

"Alex and I use a waist tether, so it's tied around the waist," Houlihan said. "You can use one that’s hooked to your finger and you can use one where it kind of goes around your bicep." 

Once on the course, the Para Guide acts as the eyes for the visually-impaired athlete, calling out obstacles and turns along the way. 

"We’re communicating constantly and calling out obstacles keeping each other safe," Houlihan said. 

For most runners, it's the friends that you meet along the way that really makes the sport special.

"Most runners find a community of runners and that’s what they love about running. If you ask any runner they’ll tell you it's about the relationships that they’ve built," Houlihan said. 

Since being out in the community, Houlihan said she has noticed how the Charlotte community has really embraced them. 

"We’ve gotten nothing but positive reactions so far when we’re out there," Houlihan recalled. "People shout words of encouragement or ask questions and I think that’s a great thing." 

Houlihan and Brown will be competing in the Charlotte half marathon this weekend. In total 12 visually impaired runners will compete in the 5k, half marathon and marathon.  

Click here to learn more about Para Guide and how you can participate. 

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