Story of a Spirit Runner: Gina Ceylan
On her right wrist Gina Ceylan wears a tattoo of the chambered nautilus. This seashell begins its life as a small, single chamber, which the creature inhabits. As it grows, it takes in minerals from the surrounding seawater and processes them. These resources are then used to create additional new chambers in a spiral pattern. This process is repeated until the creature has created a breath-taking, multi-chambered shell. According to Gina, the chambered nautilus is “the perfect symbol for the development of the self: Because we take in our environment, process it and grow.” Positive growth, for her, requires acknowledging the limitless potential of the future, without forgetting the painful lessons learned from the past.
My first encounter with Gina took place three summers ago, on Columbia’s MKT trail. She sped towards me at the Twin Lakes junction, just west of the Forum Trail Head. Gina is what I and other running mortals refer to as a “gazelle”– Her stride looks effortless, and her gaze propels her forward with the confidence of a jet fighter pilot. A few days later I was imbibing at my favorite watering hole, Bengal’s, when a woman identical to the one I had just seen on the MKT entered the patio section of the bar. Uncanny in her exact likeness, including a very distinct tattoo on her left knee, but with one very significant difference—this person was aided by a cane. The sort ordinarily reserved for the blind.
It took several years and a steady diet of serendipity before I could confirm that these two people were indeed one in the same. My friend Misty became familiar with Gina’s story through a video she had seen about people living very productive lives despite serious physical or mental disabilities and was able to confirm her name. I learned that Gina kept an office at MU Disabilities Services and forwarded a carefully-worded email to their general delivery address. Serendipity struck again no fewer than four minutes later when my email was responded to by none other than a past Couch to 3.1 group member, Traci Ballew! Traci assured me that Gina would receive my request for an interview amicably and that she would forward my contact information on to her. By day’s end, Misty and I had secured a meeting with the very riddle of the running world that had managed to capture my imagination for so many years.
As suspected, there is nothing ordinary or unimpressive about Gina Ceylan, and our meeting with her buttressed this expectation. We were scheduled to meet at Ragtag after Misty and I ran a frosty four-miler near Flatbranch Park. While Misty carped about where to park her land yacht, I managed to lose both of my pinky fingers. Neither of us thought about bringing a tape recorder. We should have. Gina was waiting for us at a table with her husband, Suvesh and their friend. She began our discussion by detailing for us her academic background: She started college at the age of 16, graduated from the College of Charleston with an MS in marine geophysics (undersea volcanoes) and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, studying science education, working on improving inclusion in college science education for students with diverse students, especially those with diverse abilities. She hopes to one day teach earth sciences at the college level. Her travels and life experiences have taken her to all parts of the globe, oceans included—where she has probed the deepest and darkest of Earth’s waters observing aquatic life in a submersible vessel conducting research as a marine biologist. Given the nature of her disability, exploration of dark unknowns serves as the perfect metaphor for a blind person possessing such an adventurous spirit as Gina’s.
Our questions immediately took a turn to her retinal degeneration, and how she became an avid runner. At this point in our interview Misty and I huddled around our interviewee as if she were a campfire and our faces warmed themselves off of the flames of her words. We were captivated! It’s important to note that Gina isn’t just legally blind. Gina is as blind as bat. Born with a rare genetic retinal condition, which was accelerated by the presence of oxygen delivered to her during her neonatal care as a newborn, her vision loss began at the birth. She was pronounced legally blind at the age of 12 and rated 20/2800 (140 times worse than a person possessing 20/20) by the time she hit 20. Now 27, Gina’s vision has diminished so much over the past seven years that it can no longer be rated by any standardized visual acuity chart.
My burning eagerness to ask this question must have been obvious, as Misty would remark about it later. “What do you see when you run?” I asked. Prior to our meeting, I was trying to get in to Gina’s head during our frosty Flatbranch run. It was night, so it was very dark and I had not packed a headlamp. I wondered if this darkness was a fair representation of what her sight permits her to perceive while she is running. Not even close. Gina explained, “When my eyes are open I see a bright, flashing strobe light. It’s a constantly pulsing beam of light, with a blue tint to it.” It’s actually quite painful for her to run using her eyes. And, incredibly, she doesn’t need them anyway. The outdoor places that her running takes her have all been committed to memory: The MKT Trail, the MU Recreation Center, even downtown Columbia. And she runs a lot—five to seven miles each day, usually seven days a week. She’s quite the speedster too: Usually averaging an 8 to 8:30 minute/mile pace, depending upon the type of music she’s listening too. She runs fastest to punk rock.
Gina doesn’t run with her eyes. Gina runs with her spirit, and harbors no bitterness about losing her vision: “I actually quite enjoy it. I appreciate non-visual perception, thought and understanding, and I wouldn’t trade it for 20/20. Although I still have some light and motion detecting ability, if I attempt to ‘see’ anything it causes intense pain, so I avoid this as much as possible. My condition is degenerative, so I used to have better vision, and I’m aware of colors and other visual concepts that many people attach great importance to. Eventually, I’ll be totally blind, and I’m looking forward to it.” Gina loves running, and she uses it and her non-visual senses to transport her mind to the sort of gorgeous places that the physical body cannot go. Oftentimes I am too literal, usually to a fault. Being all-too-familiar with the perils of running on the MKT Trail, I still couldn’t understand how all of the traffic, potholes, tree limbs, dogs, people and numerous other dangers omnipresent in our community didn’t keep her running somewhere safer, like a treadmill. So I asked her, “How do you continue forward?” Her response was simplicity personified: “I fall a lot.” Running, for Gina, is the “art of staying vertical.” While the scrapes on her body were proof that her running was no masterpiece, the purity of what drives her onward could not be questioned: Gina is a spirit runner.
In addition to her own adventurous spirit, Gina also credits her community with helping her overcome the challenges presented by her disability. “Humans have amazing ways of compensating for weaknesses. Changing those you surround yourself with can expose you to creative new ways of thinking about what you are capable of.” For Gina this meant introducing herself to other disabled people who held shared passions, made her feel valued and provided her with support. Obviously, this concept of community applies marvelously well to our own running community—as long as we can continue to show up for one another, support each other’s progress and see everyone through to the finish line, that this rising tide of community spirit will lift all of our boats.
On her left wrist, Gina wears another tattoo. This one a quote, written in Greek: “Hope without fear without regret.” For as long as I can remember we have been preaching to our teams that the majority of our own limitations are entirely self-imposed. And I know that many of us, Misty and me included, go through the motions of buying in to this mantra, but in the back of our minds we still have questions lingering about what we are actually capable of accomplishing. This is why a person like Gina Ceylan is so crucial to our athletic endeavors, and why an accurate telling of her life is so critically important: Anything is possible when you permit your spiritual mind to triumph over your physical body. Training for distance isn’t so much about preparing your body for the taxing rigors of long miles, but, rather, preparing your mind to put your body in a place where it is tough enough to endure them. There are a number of smart ways to address this: Adhering to the principles of commitment and sacrifice, listening to your body and knowing when to give yourself a break when it needs one and supporting your fellow teammates with your kind words, deeds and actions.
It is very right and natural for you to envy Gina Ceylan, as her spirit has elevated her to heights that some of us may never achieve. She runs on a trail she cannot see, while smelling flowers surviving only in her memories and hearing the songs of birds that those of us possessing sight might have ignored. And she does this fearlessly. Gina’s life illustrates the vastness of your potential while reinforcing the fact that there is nothing that cannot be accomplished by the human spirit. If you think you can, you probably will. If you think your can’t your probably right. And always remember that our running is a gift. So let’s savor it.