Vail Valley: Blind athlete to compete in Xterra race
Vail Valley, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – For Boulder triathlete Michael Stone, crossing the finish line of the Beaver Creek Xterra race on Saturday in Colorado’s Vail Valley will be more than an athletic accomplishment to mark off his list or the completion of a tough workout.
For Stone, 40, completing the off-road triathlon will be a conquering of his own fears as well as a way to inspire and encourage others, who like him, struggle with blindness.
Although he has competed in Ironman competitions and endurance races all over the world, Stone said that the Xterra will push his limits. He’ll compete the championship course of the race – a mile swim, 15-mile mountain bike ride and six-mile trail run – behind his guide and friend, Ivy Koger, who will yell out warnings and directions to Stone.
His goal is to qualify for the national Xterra race in Utah and the world competition in Maui later this year.
Stone was diagnosed five years ago with a degenerative eye disease called cone/rod dystrophy, which impairs the light receptors in his retina. Instead of living in darkness, like many people imagine blindness to be like, Stone’s world keeps getting painfully brighter. He often can’t see contrast, and his vision is dotted with blind spots.
At times, he can see well enough to bike or run on pavement, and at times, he said he might as well just close his eyes.
“It’s like you’re trying to read something, and someone is shining a couple of flashlights in your eyes,” he said. “I can’t necessarily see the terrain all the time. Shadows are the worst – if it’s shaded, it’s like wearing a blindfold.”
The biggest challenge of the race will be mountain biking, a sport Stone picked up a few months ago – he said he loves it, but it also “scares the hell” out of him.
And understandably so. He will be navigating tough climbs on rocky roads and making his way down narrow, sometimes technical singletrack, with only Koger’s wheel and directions to guide him.
Part of the race’s draw is that the off-road aspect is a new challenge for Stone. The race’s events are representative of the outdoor sports that Stone has shied away from as his vision has gotten worse.
He was inspired to compete while working on a book, which is set for release this fall. The book is a collection of vignettes gathered from people who, despite dealing with blindness, have gone on to live extraordinary lives, said Stone.
“I saw people who saw far worse than I did doing amazing things,” he said. “That’s when I realized I had become one of those people who was living in a significant amount of fear.”
Before Stone was diagnosed, he had stopped skiing, trail running and hiking out of frustration and fear. Last winter, he began skate skiing and rediscovered the joy of the outdoors.
“I was doing it and loving it,” he said. “I loved being in the trees and hearing the wind. Just because I don’t see the stuff that well doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”
He realized he was fearful of everyday tasks, too, such as navigating his way through an airport and having to ask a stranger for help.
“That’s what pushed me to do something different,” he said. “With Ironman races, the only thing I could do more would be to do them faster, and that wasn’t enough.”
Stone battled with his vision throughout his life as he struggled in school and with team sports. No doctor seemed to be able to tell him what was wrong. His vision got worse and Stone, a former resort and hotel developer, would take all day to read a spreadsheet or document. He remembers being crushed when he couldn’t pass the eye test for a driver’s license.
A specialist finally diagnosed his disease in 2004. The doctor’s reaction was to ask Stone, “How have you gone through life like this?”
Now, Stone races to raise money for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and the new goal has added purpose to his efforts. He is also a personal coach and trainer, especially for people struggling with some sort of physical or psychological problem.
“I like working with people with some sort of challenge, such a big weight loss or a disability – ‘can’t do’ kind of people,” he said. “I just want to help people make the most out of each and every day. You have to realize there will be challenges and you will fall down but its how you get up that matters.”
Learn more about Michael Stone and other vision-impaired athletes racing for the Foundation Fighting Blindness at http://www.fightingblindness.org/goto/xterra
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.