Achilles International: Where Everyone Can Run

by Amy Saffell

As we enter into a time when people are making resolutions for 2013, many of them health related, I wanted to share my experiences with an international running group for people with disabilities, Achilles International.  It has become one of my favorite weekly activities, and it’s challenged both my body and my mind. I hope that you, too, will get involved in the new year.

Growing up in Atlanta around a lot of other people in chairs, I was involved in a variety of organized sports from an early age. Being born with spina bifida, I have good arm strength, so a lot of options were available to me. When I went to college in Greenville, South Carolina, I knew that there would be far less people in chairs around, but I wanted the challenge of creating my own opportunities when it came to needs relating to my disability, including fitness. Just because my team sports days might have been behind me, or at least on hold, didn't mean that I wanted to let my fitness level fall by the wayside. It was at that point that I turned to running and never looked back.

I always assumed that running was something that I couldn't do with other people, especially able bodied people, because my pace is erratic depending on if I'm going uphill, downhill, or flat. Like most things with my disability, I took the situation for what it was and figured out a way to adapt. I love music, so through college and my first 8 years of living in Nashville, I used running as my way to listen to music to unwind while getting in some great cardio work outdoors. Even though those solo runs on familiar asphalt became something that I really enjoyed, I always knew that running for most people was a social kind of thing, and that was something that I was missing out on, especially since I’m generally a really social person. I participated in Race For The Cure twice in just the walk portion and saw how much camaraderie being part of my team brought, and it stayed in the back of my mind for several years that I would love that kind of experience on a more regular basis.

The past two years, I got the opportunity to watch parts of the Country Music Marathon in Nashville as part of a fundraising initiative for our local youth wheelchair sports and independence program, and especially this past year, it really brought me back to my previous race experiences. Race day logistics can be tough on your own in a chair, so I hadn’t entered any more races, but watching the other runners, I knew I had to do something to get that experience again. I started talking about it with someone else in our group, and he asked if I knew about Achilles International because a new chapter had just been started in Nashville. I wasn't familiar with Achilles, but after learning more about it, it sounded like the perfect group for me.

On Thanksgiving, Amy ran in one of Nashville's more popular races, The Boulevard Bolt.
Amy and her guides brought some holiday cheer!
Achilles International was founded in 1983 New York by Dick Traum, an amputee who had found running to be a powerful way to raise self-esteem while keeping in shape, and he wanted to provide that same opportunity to other people with disabilities.  As part of Achilles, each athlete with a disability is paired with another athlete without a disability, referred to as a guide, to run together.  To Achilles, as it always had been to me, running is defined as any kind of forward locomotion, and athletes represent a wide range of disability groups, from chair users to walker, crutch, or brace users to amputees to those who are blind and a variety of others.  Some Achilles athletes use a power chair for their daily mobility but switch to a manual chair for their Achilles workout. Some people use a racing chair or a handcycle, but I use my manual everyday chair for my runs, which I like because I don’t have to have any extra equipment, other than the pair of gloves from a local bike shop that I started using within the past few months to cut down on the blisters on my hands, to participate.   Many people come to Achilles with no running experience, some only able to go a very short distance on their own at first.  For people in chairs, the guides can even help push if needed.  Achilles athletes have participated in numerous events, and chapters exist across the US and in dozens of countries around the world. 

A few weeks after the Country Music Marathon, I went to my first Wednesday night run, and I was immediately hooked.  Sometimes fitness groups for people with disabilities feel so modified that it can be a setback to reaching a higher level of success, but not with Achilles.  Each pairing of athlete and guide is free to run independent of others in the group so that everyone can have his or her own goals.  It’s the goals of the athlete that rule the pairing, but there’s plenty of advice to go around from the guides.  Something that I love about Achilles is that most of our guides have done at least one marathon or half marathon.  As someone who has been at least a casual athlete my whole life, that brings a credibility to the group to know that I’ll always have advice from an experienced runner and that the guides are capable of pushing me to do more than I thought I could. 
Amy's first race this past Spring
From a fitness standpoint, I started with Achilles without really having goals.  I wasn’t a new runner, and I was just there to be able to run with other people and to run somewhere different from my normal route.  However, I’m way too competitive to maintain that attitude.  Now, I get disappointed when I don’t beat a previous time and constantly work to get faster, especially when it comes to hill climbing.  I also have realized a goal that I didn’t even know I had when I first started with Achilles, running throughout the year.  My favorite running spot for years had been a park near my house, but there aren’t lights along the path, so I didn’t run much from November to March since it gets dark early.  Now, I have a lit place to run on Wednesdays and have scoped out a few more lit pathways that I didn’t before know existed.  I also have the people to run with to make running at night safe.  Even though I didn’t think that I’d like running in the cold, I’m actually really enjoying it now that I’ve been at it a few months. (You can ask me if I changed my mind when it gets frigid in January and February!) I’ve lost weight and gained muscle, something that isn’t always easy from a chair, and I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish from a fitness perspective since joining Achilles.

My favorite part of Achilles, though, has to be the people who I've met.  Like I mentioned before, I never really considered running with someone else because of my pace, and now I'm loving it.  I’ve made some awesome friends through running.  It’s amazing the conversations that can happen away from the busyness of life on an open road, and the friendships that I’ve built out of conversations from running are ones that I cherish.  My guides have been fun to be around, they help me if something comes up, and they let me do my own thing the rest of the time, never making me feel awkward that my pace might be much different than their own.  All races and training routes are different, and sometimes there’s an unexpected curb that I need help over, a crowd of people that I need help alerting that I’m coming, or something as simple as race packet pick-up being in an awkward area, but for me, having a guide is probably 90% social, which is exactly what I need to keep me motivated.  What's most important to me is that all of the guides that I've had, especially the ones that I've had several times, want to run with me because I'm Amy and I'm fun to run with, not because I'm the girl in the wheelchair that might need help.  People with disabilities want to be seen for who they are and not for limitations that their disability gives them, and that’s just the kind of thinking that Achilles guides exemplify.  

My guides have also encouraged me to think of running in new ways and to push myself to do things that I didn’t before consider.  Besides running on Wednesday nights with the rest of Achilles, one of my guides who became a close friend and I started running with another running group on Monday nights.  For this friend and others who have run with me outside of Wednesday nights, it’s still a little humbling that they would ask to run with me on other nights knowing that they are going to have to go my pace and not their own, but the extra work has certainly strengthened me as a runner.  Maybe the third time that my friend and I ran together, towards the end of our run, she said that she was thinking of doing the Country Music Half Marathon next spring.  She said that she didn't want to do it for time and that she would run it with me if I wanted.  I was definitely caught off guard because I had never before considered doing a half marathon.  I had really only thought about 5Ks up to that point, simply because I couldn’t think that far ahead in training.  I started to say that I wasn’t sure about it, but apparently my friend knew just how to persuade me.  Right before she mentioned the half marathon, she asked me how I felt, and I said that I felt good.  When I hesitated about the half marathon, she said that we had just ran 4 miles, and I had said that I felt good; a half marathon, she reminded me, was almost just 2 more times of what we just did.  I don’t know why that clicked with me, but I can say that someone asking me to do it and being really encouraging about it made the difference.  So, now I'm registered and about to really get after training.  I’m still not even sure it’s hit me what I’ve gotten myself into, but I know that my supportive guides will get me through it!
It’s clear to me how my guides have helped me, but every once in a while, I get a unique compliment from one of them.  A few of them have said that the interval training, running slowly with me while I go up a hill and then much faster while I go down a hill, has made them a better runner.  It’s really unique that an able bodied person would comment that a person with a disability has helped them reach a higher level of fitness, and it’s something that I’m proud to be part of making happen.   
Achilles always works to keep everyone safe
with guides and reflective gear.
I have now completed six races as part of Achilles, and each has been a uniquely awesome experience.  The crowds on race day always energize me to be ready to do my best.  I will never be the fastest person there, but that doesn’t matter; I’m doing something I love and getting better at it in my own way, and that’s enough for me.  With each race, I realize something.  Ultimately, I'm a part of Achilles because I love running and being part of a group of awesome people, but part of me knows that I'm doing something much bigger than myself.  Nashville isn't yet used to wheelchair racers, and society in general still hasn’t fully caught on to the capabilities of people with disabilities.  I know that every time I enter a race, regardless of how long it takes me to cross the finish line, I'm letting other people see what a person with a disability can do.  I’m hopefully helping Nashville to become a place where wheelchair divisions of races are common and society at large to be a place where the capabilities of people with disabilities are assumed rather than questioned.  And I’m already seeing progress.  Our Achilles chapter has received amazing support from the Nashville Striders, Middle Tennessee’s largest running club.  At any race that they manage where we’ve had wheelchair athletes compete, they always ask if we would prefer a separate wheelchair start, and they always recognize the top wheelchair finishers alongside the able bodied top finishers.  I’ve gotten great feedback from other racers at each race.  I’ve been embraced by other traditionally able bodied running groups, and someone is always excited to run with me there if I don’t bring an Achilles friend.  There may be a lot of progress to come, but I have loved being part of what’s happened so far.

Being part of Achilles has helped to make 2012 an awesome year full of experiences that I wouldn’t have imagined having this time last year.  I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings, and I hope that you will join me in exploring what Achilles has to offer this year. 

Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.  


  1. Interesting site! It's just very inspiring to see a website which empowers women and PWDs ability to jive in and do what a normal person could do. Keep it up, I'll sure be following you all through out your activities.


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