Annie Donnell runs with her heart and conquers the NYC Marathon

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At mile 20 of the TCS New York City Marathon, former SDI intern and DREAM BIG participant Annie Donnell hit the proverbial wall that long-distance runners so often talk about.

Taylor, Annie’s guide runner, read aloud one of the multitude of signs held aloft by spectators along the route. “If your legs are tired, run with your heart,” it urged. After a hug and a few words of encouragement, that’s exactly what Annie and Taylor did.

“Running is such a mental game,” Annie professes. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘this is as far as I’ve ever gone in my life, so can I really go another step?’” she recalls. “We both knew how much we loved running, and we just focused on that. Adrenaline kicked in and we pushed through it.”

Annie is a running enthusiast who is blind and heads up the St. Louis chapter of Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that pairs disabled athletes with running guides so they can participate in mainstream running events like the New York City Marathon.

One of the largest, most prestigious events of its kind in the world, the NYC Marathon is a cultural experience as much as it’s a race. More than 50,000 competitors take off from Staten Island and follow a course that winds through all five boroughs of New York, with exhausted runners eventually crossing the finish line in Central Park. Spectators line the marathon route on both sides, jangling cowbells, waving signs and shouting words of motivation.

Annie and Taylor tried to soak up as much of the atmosphere as they possibly could. “It didn’t matter what our time was,” Annie explains. “We ended up keeping a pretty good pace, but we didn’t want that to be the focus of the race. We just focused on the sights and sounds of New York, hearing the people, feeling the subway rumble underneath and running over the bridges as we passed from one borough to the next.”

Being a guide runner does carry a certain amount of responsibility, so Taylor made an effort not to become overly distracted by the scenery. “I’m trying to read all the signs and describe what I’m seeing,” Taylor remembers. “I’m also trying to navigate us around changes in the terrain, drains, manhole covers and other runners who would bump us, not realizing that we’re linked. Parts of it were a little overwhelming, but it was an incredible experience.”

Annie and Taylor are similar in stature and stride, factors that are important for a running team. Many visually impaired runners use a tether to maintain contact with their guide, but Annie and Taylor prefer to link arms as they run.

When they did finally cross the finish line, they shared one more congratulatory hug, taking a moment to relish their accomplishment together.

Taylor, who had completed one marathon on her own before tackling NYC, found that conquering 26.2 miles was even more satisfying when she could share the experience with her friend. “When you’re running by yourself you can speed up when you feel good, and you can take it easy when you’re feeling tired. When you’re guiding someone, you really have to communicate and try to match her pace. It’s a team effort,” she explains.

“But having someone there to commiserate with and draw strength from along the way is awesome,” Taylor acknowledges, “and being able to share that moment when you cross the finish line with one of your best friends is so much better.”

The pair met as college students in Nashville, Annie attending Belmont and Taylor at Vanderbilt. Annie joined the Nashville chapter of Achilles International during her sophomore year and quickly fell in love with the organization’s mission. Not wanting to give up on running after graduation, she decided to bring Achilles home with her.

“I made it one of my goals to start an Achilles chapter in St. Louis when I moved back,” Annie says. “I knew there was a need for it. I wanted to bring the same experience I had in Nashville to help athletes achieve their goals here.”

Achilles St. Louis launched in May of this year, with a steady crew of disabled athletes and guides gathering at Forest Park on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings for practice. Annie is pleased with how rapidly the chapter has grown.

“We’ve relied a lot on word of mouth — getting the word out to running stores like Fleet Feet and the local running community overall,” Annie explains. “We’re spreading the word on college and university campuses as well. We now have a great group of volunteers from SLU, and that’s really exciting.”

While nothing’s officially scheduled yet, Annie and Taylor are far from finished. There will be more races to come in 2020.

“After 26.2 miles, most people need at least a couple of weeks to recover before they can even think about running,” Taylor remarks. “Annie was making plans the very next day, so I definitely think there’s another marathon or two in our future.”

For more information about how you can get involved with Achilles International St. Louis, email Annie Donnell at achillesstl@gmail.com.

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