Seeing Trail Running Through New Eyes

I’ve just spent the past two weeks in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains where we covered the Hardrock 100. Having seen many a mountain range, I’ve not seen any in the lower 48 that can come close to the beauty and scale of these mountains. These are mountains that beg to be seen … preferably during a multi-hour run with a few thousand feet of climbing to an amazing ridge-top vista. Thankfully, I could take in the full splendor of these mountains without glasses thanks to LASIK.

The Problem
First a bit of background. I’ve not worn glasses for all that long. In fact, my first 10 years of trail running were glasses free. It wasn’t until sometime a short while into my law school days that the need for vision correct came into view. For the better part of two years, I either ran in my standard prescription glasses or in non-prescription sunglasses. It was only for my first 100, the 2004 Western States 100 the I indulged in pricey prescription sunglasses. For the next 6 years, every run included one of these pairs of glasses. This was not ideal.

Needing glasses to run was a drag and I had no desire to futz with contacts. Rain or snow would bead up on the lenses and make it hard to see. Likewise, steep climbs (i.e., powerhikes) led to the glasses fogging up. In either situation, I’d be left with the decision whether to run with the obscured glasses on or to take my glasses off and keep running. The latter option was fine when road running, but not cool when trail running on technical trail.

Plenty a long trail run started before sunrise or ended after sundown. A transition either way between day and night required a change of glasses. On training runs, it was only a slight inconvenience to carry a second pair. The need for a second pair was more than an inconvenience when a trail run would unexpectedly take me from daylight into twilight and beyond … when I wasn’t carrying my regular prescription glasses. In such situations I’d have to choose between trail running in low or no light with no vision correction or with sunglasses. Races with day/night transitions required preplanning and unwelcome compromises.

Needing two sets of prescription glasses could lead to big problems. Take, for instance, my run at the 2009 Marathon des Sables, a 7-day self-supported stage race in the Moroccan Sahara. Mid-race I began a 56-mile cross country stage at noon. As twilight approached, I hit the first walk-worthy climb of the day and decided to trade in my sunglasses for standard glasses. As I pulled the glasses from my pack’s hip-pocket my heart sank. My glasses were split in two! I had no tape or other way to repair them, so my choice was to go glasses-less, wear my sunglasses at night, or use half my broken glasses as a spotting monocle. With no glow sticks visible in the twilight, I relied on the spotting monocle and following footprints in the sand through the twilight before blindly traveling from glow stick to glow stick in the desert’s deep darkness. It was NOT a fun night. Fortunately, the remainder of the race had no more night running, but it was still a hassle to take in another week in Morocco with only sunglasses.

Powell MdS Duck Tape

Me sporting duck taped glasses following my long night in the desert. Photo by Michael Wardian

The Solution
I thought I was beholden to these problems for the remainder of my trail running days. Thankfully, Dr. Todd Nickel, one of my coaching students, shook things up last February. He suggested that I think about LASIK. He remarked that if I were interested and a good candidate, he’d love to perform LASIK on me at Heaton Eye Associates in Tyler, Texas.

Well, one thing led to another and I found myself in Dallas, Texas in early last June. As I’d had my screening and measurement examination done at a local California eye center, I visited Heaton Eye Associates for the first time the day before the surgery. I was blown away by their facilities. I took it as a great sign when I walked into the huge waiting room to see it full. I was further reassured by the fact that Heaton does enough LASIK work to own their LASIK equipment (many facilities rent the equipment a few times a month) and Heathon ophthalmologists such as Dr. Nickel specialize in LASIK and other laser surgeries.

Powell Nickel Heaton Eye Associates

Bryon Powell and Dr. Todd Nickel at Heaton Eye Associates

The Heaton staff were pleasant and familiar during my pre-op examination the day before surgery. I felt at peace with my decision to have LASIK done and looked forward to going under the laser the following afternoon.

On the “See-Day,” I showed up ahead of my surgery time and was taken to a tranquil pre-op room. There, I waited in a comfy leather massaging chair in calm, dim lights. I once again had the risks and actual steps of the procedure explained with plenty of time for questions. I was also briefed in full on my follow up care. Then, there was a small dose of anti-anxiety meds. I should add that while I waited, (but before the anti-anxiety drugs) I filmed some material regarding my less than pleasant experiences with trail running and prescription eyewear noted above.

While the surgery was never scary and not painful, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, so the meds were appreciated. I’ll spare the squeamish the details, but “odd” and “uncomfortable” would be the worst descriptors I’d attach to any part of the procedure. Both would be associated with pressure and unfamiliarity with having one’s eyeball held steady. There was no blood or pain and the uncomfortable sensation dissipated as soon as each eye was released.

After the surgery, I got a lift back to Dr. Nickel’s house, where I was staying and went down for the advised couple hour nap. Upon waking, it was odd to have to take glasses off to go about my business. You see, for a few weeks after surgery you were protective goggles while you sleep so that you don’t run your eyes. By the next morning, my vision was drastically improved. That improvement continued in the following days and weeks. Recovery was quick and painless. The only downsides during the post-surgery phase was the need for eye drops (I never used contacts, so this was quite weird), dry (sometimes, irritatingly so) eyes, and some starbursts when looking at lights at night. Those negative symptoms resolved in that order.

The Present
Within a month or two, my improved vision and quick recovery left me with only reminder of my glassed-past, every once in awhile, I’d find myself pushing up my non-existent glasses. Actually, that lasted at least half a year, but I’m glad to say that I’ve now broken the habit.

Bryon Powell 2011 Western States 100

Me finishing the 2011 Western States 100 without glasses. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

I could list all the awesome places I’ve trail run in the past year without the need for glasses, but that’d seem an awful lot like bragging so I’m not going there. Suffice to say, I LOVE not having to wear glasses. Sure, I often wear sunglasses, but it’s nice to be able to throw them up on my hat if it’s rainy, foggy, or my evening run turns into a night run without the worry of not having my clear prescription glasses with me. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I needed to make the tough choice of uncorrected sight or prescription sunglasses in situations where it would be better not to have them on.

Only two days ago, I was out in Boulder Gulch in the San Juan Mountains when we heard a small rock fall. As the conditions weren’t right for a fall caused by freeze/thaw cycles, we suspected an animal. After just a few seconds of searching, I spotted a marmot 500′ above on a cliff top a quarter mile away. I couldn’t believe that I saw it so quickly. It’s moments like these (and there are many of them) that I’m truly grateful to Dr. Nickel and Heaton Eye Associates for giving me spectacular vision without spectacles.

There are 23 comments

  1. Jeff

    I've worn glasses for eight years and as my eyes get worse and worse, LASIK looks more an more appealing to me for exactly this reason.

    Thanks for this post Bryon!

  2. Trail Clown

    I had LASIK done in 1999 to correct severe nearsightedness and–not coincidentally–ran my first trail ultra in 2000 (I DNF'd, but I don't believe it was eye-related :)). Of course now that I'm an old geezer, I'm getting age-related presbyopia, but the last decade of glasses-free trail running has been awesome. Congrats on getting the procedure! Charlie M.

  3. Harold Neiper

    I hear ya! LASIK has been a life changer for me. I'd worn glasses for about 10 years due to nearsightedness. I had the procedure in Jan. of this year and only wish I had done it much sooner. Being able to see clearly beyond just a few feet is freaking awesome! Enjoy the new sights!

  4. Ash

    I fantasize about the day when I'll spend the cash to have LASIK done. I manage to run without my glasses, even though I wear them at all other hours of the day. But, I'd love to have clear vision when I'm out on the trails. It's encouraging to read that the LASIK procedure went so well for you.

  5. Adam

    Hi Bryon,

    I had worn glasses and contacts since I was in the fourth grade, and finally got LASIK after 20 years. I went from 20/200 to 20/15 and it's been awesome. I got mine initially for mountaineering, since dealing with contacts in the mountains is a major pain, and I've actually lost glasses while several hundred feet up on a rock climb. I love, now, being able to wear shades. Funny, that after getting surgery to not wear glasses anymore, that I now own a half dozen pair of sunglasses.

    thanks for the great site,

    Adam

  6. Dan Moore

    I've been wearing glasses since I was eight years old. I currently have a pair of Rudy project Rydons with the prescription insert. This makes for a heavier pair of sunglasses, but I feel like a prescription insert with removable dark lenses is the best option. I can pull out the sun glass lenses and I just have a pair of really funny looking clear glasses. It's my preferred solution until I get Lasik.

  7. Reid Landes

    Thanks for the comment, Dan Moore. My ophthalmologist suggested that I'd likely not be a good candidate for Lasik, and I was wondering what I could do to improve my vision while on the trail.

  8. T

    Thanks for the article! I've been wearing glasses since the second grade. I've wanted to be glasses free for a long time; but have been chicken to have the surgery. I am now 53 and would probably need to carry around reading glasses anyway.

  9. DCraig Young

    The morning after my wife's lasik, I walked into the den to find her with tears streaming down her face. I thought something had gone terribly wrong, and then she said "I can see feathers." Now I sure the surgery had choked. But then I saw the binoculars at the window and recalled how frustrated she'd been with glasses, having worn them since a child. Like you and many others, she has been so happy with the results, the details of birds and everything else are so much clearer (Of course, she used to think I was better looking). Thanks for the, uh, insightful post!

    1. Myles Smythe

      I had LASIK performed about two years ago. Was one of the best decisions. I wore contacts for 15 years……that was way too long. Enjoying the outdoors with new eyes has been a wonderful experience and I try hard to protect my store bought eyes.

  10. paul b

    OK, I can see the practical application in doing Ultras. Plus, the look suits you better — not that the duck tape glasses and buzz-cut phase did not have its place.

    But, the big explanatory blog entry is going to come when you start shaving your legs like lots of the Euro Ultra guys are doing.

  11. david

    LASIK was the best thing I ever did for myself. Even now, four years out, I am continually amazed at cool it is to simply be able to see. All that said, if I had to do it again, I might choose PRK over LASIK, as a) eye dryness is supposedly less of an issue with PRK, and b) there are generally fewer post-op complications. A big downside to PRK is that recovery takes a couple weeks.

  12. Ryan Phillips

    Yep, I've definitely enjoyed my post-PRK vision. It's funny how much it changes your life when you can see the alarm clock without squinting. I recently saw an optometrist because I thought my vision was starting to get worse (I had surgery in the fall of '09). Turns out I had faded from 20/15 to 20/20…can't complain about that.

  13. Erika

    This is a timely article. I ran a very dusty trail race this weekend with contacts. I had to stop several times to put drops in my eyes so that my contacts would function. It didn't help that it was night and my night vision isn't that great anyway. After the race was over I said "If I am ever going to be really serious about this (trail running) I need to get Lasik/PRK."

    I've been wearing glasses and/or contacts since I was 7, more then 20 years now. I have wanted surgery for years, but was always afraid of how much worse my eyes could be if something went wrong. But maybe it is time to reconsider. It would also mean less stuff to carry (drops in my pack and spare contacts in my drop bag, etc) and worry about.

  14. Todd Pollock

    Thank you Bryon and all those that commented. For years I've been debating, but only recently have I started running ultra's and my contacts have grown into bigger issues on long runs. Thank you for the timely post. I finally can financially afford this, so I hope to have this proceed before the end of the year. Again, thank you for helping me to finally decide on this big decision.

  15. white trash

    I've had glasses for over 30 years, and my prescription was about +6.5 in each eye, which is pretty bad. I'd sort of gotten used to wearing sport glasses (Zeals with transitional corrective lenses), but never liked wiping the fog, rain, and grit away constantly, especially at night. I'd hesitated getting LASIK, probably unnecessarily, because after all they're my eyes. I got LASIK earlier this year and went 20/20 in a couple of days, and think that I should have done it years ago.

  16. Todd Nickel

    Dan,

    I have performed LASIK on hundreds of athletes and I have seen it become life-changing for many. One great reason is exactly what you mention, being able to wear only a lightweight pair of running sunglasses or wear no glasses at all. There are multiple other reasons including gaining the crisp clear vision that LASIK can provide vs contacts or glasses.

    If you can't have LASIK, one of the ways you can get a pretty tricked-out pair of lightweight running sunglasses with the very best quality optics is to get a pair of adidas Adivista (http://www.adidas.com/Eyewear/content/us/products/10203/adivista-L) sunglasses and then have your optician make a pair of your Rx with Crizal lenses (http://www.crizalusa.com/Pages/default.aspx) to put in those frames. These are some of the very few running-type sunglasses that you can put a custom lens in the frames, instead of the insert type.

    The Crizal lens is pretty awesome, too, because it is more hydrophobic than most which makes it smudge and blur resistant for the long haul. I had my optician make me a pair of these and I think they are awesome!

    I don't find the adidas frames quite as cool as some other brands like Ryders or Julbo, but the fit is good and the optical clarity is awesome!

    LASIK is a fantastic way to go.

    Dr Todd Nickel
    https://www.heatoneye.com/

  17. Todd Nickel

    Hey Reid, check out my previous post on improving vision and a way to get good quality running sunglasses.

    As far as LASIK goes, if one ophthalmologist said "no" to LASIK, I would suggest a second opinion with another reputable LASIK surgeon. I am sure your ophthalmologist has made a wise decision but there are so many procedures out there that you could be a candidate for.

    Every patient I screen for LASIK is thoroughly checked for external disease, health of the cornea and candidacy based on the corneal measurements. I rarely find patients who are not a candidate for any of the refractive procedures such as LASIK, Sub-Bowmans's Keratomileusis or PRK/ASA, Visian ICL or a Refractive (clear lens) lens exchange. But I do find them, i.e. non candidates. I always refer them to another corneal surgeon for a second opinion.

    Some surgeons will exclude you from a procedure because their laser technology or their experience doesn't give them the confidence needed to recommend the surgery.

    There are a bunch of great procedures out there.

    nick

  18. Todd Nickel

    T,

    I do LASIK every week on folks who "carry around reading glasses" who are still blown away by how good it is to be out of glasses or contact lenses for distance tasks, like running.

    I performed refractive surgery (LASIK) on my running partner (and thousands of other patients) who still need "readers" for close vision, he still thinks the surgery is one of the best things he has ever done.

    There are other ways to do it do such as "blended vision" where one eye is mildly myopic (nearsighted) and the dominant eye is corrected to be superb in the distance. For many it works fabulously, but not everybody does well with that. However, of the many patients I have done "blended vision" LASIK on in the last 10 years, only two of them have wanted to have it changed where both eyes are set for distance, and after doing so, they have been mighty happy.

    nick

  19. Hugh Wilson

    I came across this article while looking for clear lenses for night running – Dr. Nickel mentioned Crizal lenses – which I will look into for the time being. Maybe next year I will be bold enough to try the LASIK/PRK type of correction and if I do I will still continue to wear glasses while trail running – especially after this past weekend. I was on familiar trail which was leaf covered (most of you know where this is going….) and a rock or root snagged my shoe and I did a fast hard face plant into a rock. Lucky for me I was wearing my Habervision sunglasses which are near impossible to break – the lenses took some gouges and just outside the frames I took 10 stiches. Without nonbreakable lenses I would be missing an eye! A lucky thing for me all around – keeping the eye in tact, reading this page and finding other runners have had good luck with LASIK and finding the Crizal lenses. Thanks everyone!

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