Seeing Trail Running Through New Eyes

Bryon Powell talks about his trail running adventures before and after LASIK vision correction.

By on July 15, 2011 | 21 comments

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.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.