'Toes up': Alumna completes New York City Marathon with help of former classmate

Analisse Rios '08, left, and Eliza Cooper '08 prepare to run the 2015 New York City Marathon.
Analisse Rios '08, left, and Eliza Cooper '08 prepare to run the 2015 New York City Marathon.

When Eliza Cooper ’08 crossed the finish line at the 2015 New York City Marathon, Analisse Rios ’08 was by her side.

Cooper, an accomplished paratriathlete, is blind. Rios, a former soccer standout at Connecticut College, served as her guide.

Throughout the grueling 26.2-mile race, Rios and two other guides directed Cooper around turns and over potholes. “Team Eliza” finished in just over 4 hours and 39 minutes.

“It was four hours of pure smiles. Even though our legs and feet were tired, the cheering crowds and Team Eliza’s determination got all four of us through the finish line with tears in our eyes,” Rios said.

Added Cooper, “It was an awe-inspiring, unforgettable day. Every twinge of pain in my legs today is totally worth it.”

Cooper and Rios met as undergraduates at Connecticut College. As a volunteer with the Office of Accessibility Services, Rios would attend certain classes—like statistics—with Cooper, helping her take notes and decipher graphics. After graduation, the two stayed in touch through social media.

In April, Rios, a sixth-grade teacher at the Dual Language and Arts Magnet Middle School in Waterford, Connecticut, decided to run a local 10K. An avid runner, she completed the 2014 Cape Cod Marathon and had seen guides running with blind and visually impaired athletes.

“I like running and I like helping people, so it just seemed like something I would really enjoy doing,” Rios said.

She reached out to Cooper, who since graduating from the College had begun competing in triathlons through Achilles International, an organization that enables people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. Rios asked Cooper to run the race with her, and a new partnership was born.

“I stayed with her and we ran once together before the 10K to practice. I knew she’d be good at guiding—she was a natural when we walked around campus together,” Cooper said.     

During races, Cooper and Rios each hold one side of a stretchy nylon tether. Rios uses little yanks to signal turns and abrupt stops to Cooper, and voice commands, such as “toes up,” to alert Cooper to bumpy terrain or other obstacles.

“A lot of it is just being very aware. Any bumps, divots, potholes—I have to tell her before it happens. Timing is key,” Rios said.

After a successful 10K, Cooper told Rios she was planning to run the New York City Marathon—the world’s largest—and asked if Rios would serve as her third guide. (Three guides are needed because of the size of the crowd and the length of the race.) 

“I’ve been in New York since graduation, and I’ve always thought the marathon would be a great way to experience the city,” said Cooper, who’s earning a master’s degree in social-organizational psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I know so many of the train lines and the stops, but I don’t know what the neighborhoods look like. I thought it would be really cool to run through and experience the textures and smells and sounds of the neighborhoods.”

Rios quickly agreed. Running with Cooper has added new dimensions to a sport she already enjoyed.

“She is amazing with how she knows what is going on without seeing it. She’ll say, ‘Those are great flowers. Can you tell me what kind they are?’ It’s helped me appreciate my surroundings more,” Rios said.

While they don’t have another race planned yet, Rios and Cooper hope to run together again.

“She’s not just helping me out—there is a camaraderie that goes along with experiencing something together,” Cooper said. 

November 3, 2015