TIJ Blog Post – James Gilliard: Athlete on the Move


My name is James Gilliard, and I’ve been dealing with severe vision loss since my Sophomore or Junior year of High Schoo. There are a few contributing factors, but the main one that I’m dealing with is Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). Growing up, while it limited my ability to play sports, it didn’t really get bad until High School. To that point, I played Little League baseball (although a challenge), soccer, football/basketball with friends and tried to play Pop Warner football. The hurdles to the last were just too much, so I gave up on that – one of my true regrets.

My name is James Gilliard, and due to an illness at 5, I started losing my sight. There are a few contributing factors, but the main one that I’m dealing with is Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). Growing up, while it limited my ability to play sports, it didn’t really get bad until High School. To that point, I played Little League baseball (although a challenge), soccer, football/basketball with friends and tried to play Pop Warner football. The hurdles to the last were just too much, so I gave up on that – one of my true regrets.

At one of the routine eye exams during my Junior year of High School, I remember the doctor saying that we needed to talk about something serious, and us going back out to where my mom was. It was at that point that the doctor dropped the bombshell of ‘you will be blind by 30’. Not ‘if [x] happens and [y] doesn’t happen, then it’s a definite’. While I won’t ever compare it to the conversation that doctors have with terminal patients, I’m sure it comes in a close second. It was definitely a ‘your life is going to radically change, so get your affairs in order before the coming tornado hits’ type of conversation. Definitely not what I wanted to hear, and it took me about 6 years to get through all the stages of accepting it. And during most of that time, being a hermit would be too kind of a description of my life. The simple truth is that I was terrified that I’d lose my sight before I finished college and so therefore took heavy course loads so I could try and finish as soon as possible.

While there weren’t many diversions during college, one of them was the beginnings of my IT consulting company (Meow Productions – http://www.meowproductions.com). Founded in 2001, it provides IT consulting services of all types, and its largest project to date has been building an online payment system from scratch for a nationwide child care provider. I graduated from Rutgers in 2004 with my BS in Management Science and Information Systems, and after a brief internship in Philadelphia, returned to the Chicago suburbs where I had grown up.

While my vision didn’t start to evaporate as the fear at 17 – 23 had been, I have seen slight drops and then about 5 year plateaus before another slight drop. As an example of what I mean, I was still able to read normal print books at 21, but by 25 I couldn’t read much of any type print without some sort of magnification device (Pebble, CCTV machine, etc.). I’ve seen a couple of slight drops since 25, but nothing I haven’t been able to adjust to. And at 35, I still have about 70% of my sight during the day; it gets worse at night or in dark places.

After having moved back to Chicago, I decided to pursue a football dream (http://www.jamesgilliard.com/the-dream.php), and attempt to at least partially fix the regret from childhood. Since that point, I’ve played flag football almost every fall and have been at football camps in West Virginia, Mississippi and South Carolina. And in addition to the consulting business, I also work full-time for an agent office of Ignite Payments.

The running part didn’t come into play until last year when Rutgers joined the Big 10 (um, I mean Big 14… :P). After having received the BTN Big 10K race e-mail in late March or early April, I decided to run the 5K race. I found friends to run with me as guides, one of whom ended up being my first running coach. Even though we had to run under the McCormick convention center tunnel twice and be in the dark for about a half mile total, it was still a blast. I did the Naperville Noon Lions Club Turkey Trot Thanksgiving Day with my mom as one guide and Terri as my 2nd.

As I started to talk with Terri early this year about 2015 events, things just snowballed. From 2 races in 2014, it’s already at 5 definite with at least that many probable ones. And the distances this year will be longer, including my first Triathlon.

That Triathlon decision was the start of another chapter in all this. When I first looked at it and saw the USAT rules, I reached out about getting a waiver for a female guide (current coach). I was told no, but then later found out that for smaller events the race director has discretion. But not knowing that at the time, I went on a search for a male Tri guide that started in Facebook groups and eventually led me to Team RWB. In the end, it wasn’t necessary; but I’m glad I was made to go on that chase because I would have missed out on a lot of good stuff without it.

So my first events for 2015 are the Run As One (5K) and Shamrock Shuffle (8K) on March 28th and 29th. I had new Team RWB vests made, and really wasn’t that anxious about the Shuffle until I saw the e-mail from the AWD director, which showed that the AWD group was myself and one other person and our guides. I’ve run with crowds, I’ve been around cameras, and neither of them were going to be an issue. But knowing that there’s going to be a very definitive, small group that starts and is clearly visible has made me nervous since seeing that e-mail.

The weekend started off with a gathering of members, families and supporters of Team Red, White & Blue (RWB), Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. One of the main reasons for the run was to raise awareness of the challenges, and proposal solutions to the issue of veteran suicide. Sadly, 22 service members that fought so proudly lose their own fight. It was a great run (5K), and a great show of support from and across all three organizations. After the run and break for lunch, I went to Spin class with other RWB members.

The weekend continued on Sunday with the Shamrock Shuffle. After getting through all the preliminaries and waiting in the Elite tent for a few minutes, all of us in the AWD group went out onto the starting grid. While I was nervous about being very visible at the front, I would look at the Eagle on one of my guides’ vests and re-center.

We started 2 minutes ahead of the Elite group, and made our way onto the course. The large dark underpass about a ¼ mile into the course was a challenge, but I made it through there with help from the guides. As first the Elites and then the general field joined / passed us, everyone was really supportive. There were lots of encouraging comments as we all ran. And it was great to see the Eagle flag bearers run past at about 2 ½ miles, along with other members of the team. We finished the course at about 69 minutes and headed back home.

These races are just the first of my season, and you can see my entire confirmed schedule on my AthletePath page (http://www.athletepath.com/jamesgilliard). That will continue to grow as the journey continues.

And while it’s nowhere near over, I still want to thank all of those who have helped me to get to this point. In addition to friends and family, I want to thank the following groups and people for their help and support.

Marshall University Football Coaches and Staff (2007 – 2008, Coach Snyder)
The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) Football Coaches and Staff (2007 – 2012, 2014; 2007 – Coach Orgeron, 2008-2011 – Coach Nutt, 2012 and 2014 – Coach Freeze)
Clemson University Football Coaches and Staff (2011 – 2012, Coach Swinney)
Lacey Love (1st running coach)
Terri Hayes (Current running coach)
Patricia Walsh (who’s providing a wealth of Tri-related help to me through Terri).
Caroline Gaynor (who directed me to Team RWB)
Keri Serota & Lisa (for help in making my 1stShuffle a great one)
A long and ever growing list of Eagles
A growing list of race organizers / races that are receptive to AWD/ADA needs.

Finally, while all this vision stuff isn’t fun or something I like to discuss, I was happy to put this blog post together for two reasons. The first is to hopefully get more AWD participants out there after they’ve read through this. There’s a wealth of good people who are willing to help you participate, and the few I mentioned above are just the start. The resources mentioned on this sites’ resource page are another great place to look at. The other is so that if people who are dealing with similar issues that have questions or want advice can reach out to me. I unfortunately probably made every mistake you can make early on after 17. But I learned from them, and am willing to share that knowledge with others. Feel free to message me on Facebook – just search for Kobeerashi and you’ll find the correct profile.

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