Amy McDonaugh says she hardly ever runs with a guide. She stays on familiar roads while training near her South Carolina home and, during races, sometimes "shadows" other runners whose feet she can make out ahead.
The 34-year-old mother of three is legally blind. She is also fast over long distances. In May, McDonaugh, of Irmo, S.C., won the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, beating the rest of the women's field with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes and 14 seconds.
It was just the fourth marathon for McDonaugh, one of 18 visually impaired runners scheduled to compete Sunday in the 29th annual California International Marathon, which is serving as the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Marathon National Championships for the third year. The field includes six marathoners and 12 relay runners.
McDonaugh, who is completely blind in her right eye and has 23/100 vision in her left with no peripheral sight, said in a phone interview this week that her blindness developed after she was diagnosed at age 11 with an arteriovenous malformation, or abnormal clustering of veins, in her cheek.
During a procedure in which doctors attempted to slow blood flow to those veins, she said, she suffered damage to her retina and optic nerves.
McDonaugh said she had tagged along with her mother in a few 5-kilometer races as a youth and started running again in her 20s.
She took up distance running a few years ago, heading out in the morning or evenings after her husband got home from work.
From her home to the nearby dam and back is 12 miles and all bike trail, she said, and along her neighborhood route, she knows "who doesn't trim their trees and stuff like that."
"I just love it," McDonaugh said. "It just makes me feel like I'm out doing something on my own. It feels like I'm getting somewhere, making progress and setting goals.
"I need to get rides everywhere I go," she said. "I have to be so dependent on other people, and it's something that you can do and feel independent."
McDonaugh said she will have guides at the CIM who will run behind and yell out cues when she needs to make a turn. The method of guidance for visually impaired runners, according to the CIM website, is up to the athlete others may choose a tether that links the arms of athlete and guide.
McDonaugh hopes to replicate her sub-three-hour finish in Cincinnati. "I don't want it to be some fluke thing," she said with a laugh.
On the men's side, Aaron Scheidies, a decorated triathlete who was named a finalist for a 2011 ESPY award in the category of "Best Male Athlete With a Disability," will race in his first marathon at the CIM.
"I've wanted to run a fast marathon," said Scheidies, 29. "I kind of told myself I'll do one marathon fast, and that's it."
The Seattle resident aims to finish in under 2:50, which likely would put him 30 to 40 minutes behind the top male finishers.
Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration that causes progressive loss of vision, has reduced his vision to about 20 percent of normal, allowing him to see "blurred blobs," he said.
An aspiring soccer player before he began to lose his vision in elementary school, Scheidies said he got into endurance sports as "a coping mechanism initially, an outlet for stress release." In 2007, he became the first blind triathlete to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40K cycling leg and 10K run in under two hours.
"It just became this freeing thing," Scheidies said. "When I started doing them, it was freeing myself from the pressure and stress of society. And that's still there. I've overcome my vision problem, but it is just kind of this relief and adrenaline rush. After a certain amount of time, you just kind of get addicted to it."
Among the relay competitors will be Michael Kinoshita, 16, a junior at Folsom High School who was born with a genetic condition that left him with uncorrectable vision between 20/200 and 20/250, sensitivity to light and wobbling of the eyes.
Kinoshita started running in middle school, following the lead of his father, Steve, and older sister, Alyse. Earlier this year, he was named a U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School All-American in three events.
"When you think about it, running is the toughest sport anyone will probably ever do," Kinoshita said. "I think what really drew me to it is I knew it was the biggest challenge. I was thinking, if I can overcome this, who knows what else I can overcome?"
In his third CIM, he'll make up a two-man relay team with Kurt Fiene, an accomplished distance runner who won the first visually impaired championship at the 2009 CIM in 2:58:36. Their goal is an average of 5 minutes, 45 seconds per mile.
Folsom's Richard Hunter, 44, a triathlete and marathoner who helped bring the visually impaired championships to the CIM, said its reach and popularity have grown in its short existence.
"I believe that bringing together a bunch of visually impaired people doing marathons in the same place, at the same time, has the opportunity to inspire a larger group of people to set ambitious goals," said Hunter, who has lost much of his vision to retinitis pigmentosa. "I think it makes a strong statement about the abilities of people with disabilities."