-- Once a week, 23-year-old Abbey Lanier follows her guide dog to the east side of New York’s Central Park so she can do what a lot of people would usually dread -- run six miles.
She meets up with Tessa Wehrman, who hands Abbey one end of a nylon tether, and the two women run in lock-step, in quick strides along with the other runners. Abbey is blind, Tessa is her guide, and while this seems like a one-sided relationship, it becomes clear that this is a balanced exchange.
“There is something about running that really breaks down your barriers. You build relationships and they don’t just stop when you’re done running,” Tessa explained.
Abbey was born with a hereditary degenerative retina condition called retinitis pigmentosa. But for her, the condition has never been more than a diagnosis; she navigates the city like any other New Yorker, thanks to her guide dog, Alexa.
Getting exercise is not as easy.
That’s where Achilles International comes in.
Since 1983, the nonprofit group has been pairing disabled athletes with volunteers to run, walk, cycle or swim. Athletes from major cities in the U.S. and around the world have been crossing finish lines, conquering physical limitations and building friendships.
Tessa is quick to brush off any comments about her being overtly charitable, and is even quicker to explain why.
“I was diagnosed in 2011, on Friday the 13th, no less, with breast cancer," she said.
A double mastectomy at the age of 26, and exhaustive rounds of chemotherapy left Tessa with a slower pace on the pavement. But by opening up about her fears, sharing her story and her struggles while running with Achilles, Tessa strengthened the bond with the woman on the other end of the guide tether.
In 2013, Abbey herself, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I was really glad that I couldn’t see the scans because I wasn’t going to be able to handle that," Abbey said.
Like Tessa, Abbey was resolute throughout treatment, denying cancer the chance to break her spirit.
“I decided that as soon as I was done with chemo and radiation, I was signing up for a race and that was how I was going to celebrate," Abbey said.
Since their treatments, both women have been cancer-free, although it is never far from their minds. Still, thanks to the unexpected bond from their time with Achilles, Abbey said they refuse to let cancer define them.
“I’m not just the blind girl with cancer who runs. I’m more than that, and I would, I’d like to think that other people are more than their physical characteristics," she said.