Maricar Marquez never goes for a run without her dog Cliff. Not because he whines if she leaves the house without him, but because Marquez is deaf and blind, and Cliff is her guide dog.
Marquez has a condition known as Usher syndrome. As a result, she was born deaf and with a progressive visual condition called retinitis pigmentosa. “It started off as night blindness. Eventually I started having tunnel vision, which means that my peripheral vision was diminishing. I used to be a visual signer but as I started losing my peripheral vision, I started relying on tactile sign language,” says Marquez, who is a supervisor of the independent living department at the Helen Keller National Center.
Not all guide dogs are trained to guide while running. In fact, Marquez and Cliff were connected through New York-based non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the only guide dog school with a Running Guides program. The ability to run with a guide dog, rather than relying on a human guide, has made a huge impact on Marquez’s ability to exercise — and, in her words, to feel free.
We asked Marquez about her relationship with Cliff and her love of running.
Refinery29: Did you always love running?
Maricar Marquez: "Not always. I have always been very active, though. I was on the volleyball team, but I have to admit I was a lousy player. I started experiencing peripheral vision loss and night blindness during high school, and it’s hard to find the ball when you have restricted visual fields.
"Back then, though, I wasn’t as active as I am today. I didn’t start running until I went to Gallaudet [University, a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing]. That’s where I developed my love for running and sports in general. Now I run, but I’m also an avid bike rider. I use a tandem bike… obviously I can’t ride on my own.
"I consider myself an all-around athlete. I enjoy trying new things like caving, swimming, rock climbing — I’m usually up for anything. I even tried sky diving."
Had you ever run with a dog before Cliff?
"No. Guiding Eyes for the Blind is the only program in the country that has this type of running guide program. And while I have been involved in many races — including the New York City Marathon and the Oyster Bay Triathlon — before Cliff, I ran with a human guide.
"As I lost more and more of my vision, I had started to lose my motivation for running. I missed being active, so when I heard about this running program I got excited. But the thought of running with a dog also made me nervous. I worried that he would just take off and I would be left in the dust.
"To make sure this didn’t happen I decided to get back to the gym and start working out again. I wanted to make sure I was able to keep up with him, so I started running on the treadmill at my workplace's gym to improve my endurance and speed."
What was the training like with Cliff?
"The first thing you need to do is develop a relationship with your dog. I remember meeting Cliff and falling in love right away. He is such a sweet, good-natured dog. We bonded immediately so there was no issue there. The bonding came very easily. Then we were able to start training.
"The running portion of our training also worked out perfectly from the start. Cliff followed my pace, and it was a very comfortable fit. I was excited and of course a little nervous too. I had waited two and a half years for Cliff. But he was well worth the wait."
What’s it like running with Cliff compared to running with another person?
"When I’m running with Cliff I feel more independent. I guess the word I would use is “free”. I’m not depending on another person. I depend on people for so much — it’s nice to be on my own.
"Don’t get me wrong, I still depend on people to provide me with visual information and facilitate communication with others when I’m in a race or a run. I’m thankful to all the people in my life for that. Cliff isn’t able to sign to me.
"But holding onto a human guide can be tricky when running. I have problems with my balance and using a human guide throws my balance off even more. Cliff has a special running harness. It’s very comfortable. I give the directions but Cliff guides me around any obstacles in our way. For example, I’ve been running on a boardwalk recently and he guides me around the people, benches, and any construction sites."
What’s the biggest impact that Cliff has made on your life?
"I guess running would be the biggest impact. If I had gotten another dog who didn’t have this specialised training I may not have gotten back into running and all the other activities that I love to do. He has given me the motivation to run, and to do other activities as well, because now I'm feeling good, I feel strong and in shape. We graduated in December 2018 from the GB and since then I've joined two races, a 5k, and a triathlon.
"I’ve completed many triathlons in the past, but it had been a few years since I had competed. I kept talking about it but never followed through. Then when I got Cliff I told myself I have no more excuses. It’s time to get back out there. So I started training. If I didn’t have Cliff I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to get back to my active life. I’m thankful to him for that."