They are two runners on a late-afternoon workout, and side-by-side they gobble up long stretches of leaf-covered sidewalks and tree-lined streets as they weave their way through a busy North Jersey community. As the miles pass and they settle into the run, they are lulled by a setting sun and rhythmic breathing patterns until …
“Tree on the left!”
When Ryan Blume trains with his Summit High School cross-country teammates, Leland Jones is usually right by his side -- letting him know what’s coming. They have been buddies since the fourth grade, and Jones -- favored to repeat as Union County champion on Friday -- looks out for his friend because Blume, 17, is legally blind.
On every run, he is one step from danger and serious injury.
Blume, a senior, was born with oculocutaneous albinism type 1. Like most forms of albinism, it results in lack of pigments in the hair and skin, causing them to appear lighter or white. The condition also affects Blume’s vision, which is 20/200 and 20/400 and uncorrectable.
He can’t see detail. He has no depth perception, limited peripheral vision and extreme sensitivity to light, which is why he always wears a hat and sunglasses outside.
Imagine running blindly. Obstacles come out of nowhere. Cars. Pedestrians. Tree roots. Broken sidewalks. Curbs. Rocks. Street signs. Slippery storm drains. Each step requires untold courage – and faith that, thousands of time each day, the ground will be there to meet your sneaker.
''Like a race-car driver, there’s always that thought in the back of your mind that I can fall or crash,” Blume said. “But that doesn’t stop me.'’
“Running is hard enough when you can see everything,” Jones said. “I can’t imagine doing it while being legally blind. I don’t think I could do it.”
Coaches and runners around Union County are amazed at what Blume has accomplished.
But Blume isn’t just doing it. He’s an elite runner.
“He does more than just participate,” Summit coach Neal Sharma said. “He competes at a very high level.”
Based on his times, Blume would be the No. 1 runner on a lot of the state’s cross-country teams. He finished in the top half at last fall’s Meet of Champions. But don’t be fooled. The kid isn’t simply gliding through life with Jones as his guide. Someone can’t be there all the time. That’s why, during his sophomore year, Blume took a bad fall in the final descent at the Shore Coaches Invitational at Holmdel Park.
"I thought it was flat, but really it was tilted and I didn’t realize that,” he said. “I wrenched my back. But I got right back up on the horse and finished.’’
That’s how Blume lives his life -- determined to overcome the odds, not letting his condition get him down or stop him from chasing his dreams. His attitude and passion for running have enabled him to become one of the best runners on a Summit team ranked No. 8 in the state.
''Ryan’s the toughest kid on the team and has never ever once complained or made an excuse,’’ said Sharma, who was Blume’s sixth-grade English teacher. “We wouldn’t be the team we are now without Ryan.’’
Blume embraces who he is, often cracking jokes about himself.
''My condition isn’t a stigma,” he said. “It’s part of me and just something I have to get around. I just do the best I can, run as fast as I can -- and try not to fall.”
He laughs. The sense of humor comes in handy, like a dry pair of socks in a gym bag. There are dozens of what-if stories. Blume almost took a spill on a slick Van Cortlandt Park course in the Bronx at the Manhattan Invitational this month.
''There were sharp turns, big hills, it was a bit wet and I had never run there before,” Blume said. “I stumbled a bit, like I do in lots of races.
While Sharma looks out for Blume, the cross-country community helps, too. Sharma scratched Summit from the Shore Coaches Meet at Holmdel on Oct. 4 partly because of how poor weather could have impacted Blume.
Last year, before the Meet of Champions, Sharma contacted Holmdel Park and asked if there was anything park officials could do to assist Blume on a course where he’d previously fallen. Holmdel Park staff spray-painted roots and other trouble spots, and Blume ran what he called his best race ever, a 16:56 at the Meet of Champions, making him the fifth-fastest Summit runner ever on that 3.1-mile course.
Meet director Jack Martin did the same thing at Warinanco Park for the Union County Conference Championships on Oct. 14. Blume placed fifth to help Summit win the Mountain Division title.
So does his mother, Beverley, who still finds the races nerve-wracking.
''It’s terrifying. It all looks flat to him,'' she said. ''It’s scary because he’s going fast down these hills. But he’s very confident, so I am very confident in him. Ryan has always been the kind of kid that puts his mind to something and does it. I don’t think anything could stop him from running.''
Blume has been racing practically since he could walk, with the support of family and friends. He has been embraced by the community and running fraternity, but that wasn’t the case when he lived abroad. Before seventh grade, Blume’s father, Chris, took a job in Hong Kong, and Blume’s whole world changed.
"Ryan never had a problem here, but over there they called him a ghost and they would be afraid to touch him,’’ his mother said. ''Some of the meaner kids would punch him and come up behind him and flick him.”
The experience in Hong Kong changed her son, she said.
“In his college essay, he wrote about how determined he was to be who he is and look the way he looks and never judge people by the way they look,” she said. “If he sees kids getting bullied, he stops it. He volunteers at a soup kitchen on the lower East Side. He feels it’s important to help other people.''
Blume, however, said he wouldn’t take back his time in Hong Kong.
''I had negative experiences and dealt with people who were less accepting than what I was used to, but those experiences influenced me to choose mutual aid over mutual aggression,'' he said.
Summit is a slight favorite to snap No. 13 Westfield’s five-year reign at the Union County Championships. Blume could add to his legacy in that race, but his place in Summit High School lore is already secure.
''We always talk about what legacy each senior will leave behind,’’ Sharma said. “We will always bring up Ryan’s name whenever kids say they can’t do something. We will remind them of what Ryan Blume overcame.''
Next fall, Blume will start on a college legacy when he runs cross-country and track at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
''When I was a little kid, I never thought I’d be an athlete and do a sport, and the idea that I reached this level in high school and the idea I can continue in college is just crazy to me,’’ he said. “I couldn’t imagine my life if I didn’t have running."
“Running has presented the same challenges I’ve always dealt with, just at a faster pace. I guess to a certain extent you can call it blind faith."
Great Video of Ryan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNEr3hKkbcA