This week on Inside Appalachia, a high school football game, a street festival, and a kids' classroom are all settings in a new film about how coal mining shapes Appalachian culture. We also learn about the results of a new survey showing alarming mental health trends in Appalachia’s LGBTQ community. And we meet a taxidermist in Yadkin County, North Carolina who was just a teenager when she found her calling.
Jefferson County resident Keryl Rustin is an avid 5K runner, recently winning a gold medal at the West Virginia Senior Sports Classic and also qualifying for the National Senior Games after competing in the Maryland Senior Olympics. What makes her stand out, though, is that she’s successful despite having lost her ability to see. Reporter Shepherd Snyder spoke to Rustin about her unique experiences as a blind athlete.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Snyder: Starting off, I was wondering if you could introduce yourself.
Rustin: My name is Keryl Rustin. I began running during the month of November 2020. And during that time, I wasn’t participating in any marathons, I was just actually running. And I enjoyed it so much that I decided that I would like to participate in 5K runs. With me beginning this entire path of running, it started with my granddaughter, who was seven years old at the time, and her name is Gabbi. And she would actually run with me. And she would tell me if there was gravel in the road, or if cars were coming, and also, when to actually not run so fast, whereby there were obstacles in the road. And the reason for this is because I am blind.
Snyder: What organization did you get involved with as far as going out for competitive running?
Rustin: Well, I actually did not get involved with any organizations. I began running, as I said, with my granddaughter. And then when I decided that I wanted to run marathons, I knew I needed a trainer. And I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a trainer. I made many, many calls. The calls weren’t returned. And I don’t know whether or not it’s because of my age, because with me being blind, I’m also 73 years of age. And I would call various running organizations and explain to them that I am trainable, and this is something that I really wanted to do. Just the courtesy of a return call would have been appreciated. But I didn’t get any return calls. And being the determined person that I am, I decided that I’m gonna go ahead and try running competitively, regardless. And that’s how I ended up being where I am now.
Snyder: And what competitions did you end up running for?
Rustin: The competitions I began becoming involved with were actually fundraisers. So I ran for veterans, I did runs for (the) homeless, I also did runs for abused women. So in other words, from November of 2020, until now, I have actually participated in over 10, maybe 12 runs, which I have medals for. But one of the ones that I want to point out, which is of great significance, is that I did my first official, documented run for the Maryland Senior Olympics. I did that run last year, and I am the first blind person, 73 years of age, who has ever done a 5K run (in the Maryland Senior Olympics).
Snyder: That’s incredible. I was also curious, what was the training process for that like? Can you take me through the process of training for running for a 5k?
Rustin: Since it was just my granddaughter and I, there really was no process for me. What I did is that I went on my intuition the majority of the time. So I would begin my mornings, usually around 6:30 in the Morning. And that’s all contingent upon whether or not she was in school. Six thirty in the morning would be during the summer months. Of course, with her being in school, I would start at a later time. And then with me starting at a later time, she wasn’t there to run with me.
So my runs, my training, for me, consisted of – the first thing I always do is say a prayer. I always say a prayer before I get out there to run. And from that point on, I’ll do some stretching. So for an example, I’ll do some lunges, I will go ahead and I will do some squats, then what I would do is various arm exercises. I included some yoga with those stretches in the mornings as well. And then when I usually get out there to run, I usually run for about 90 minutes. I actually am doing over a 5K run in the morning when I’m doing the 90 minutes. And there is no particular course or anything. I just get out and I run.
Snyder: Did you set out to win anything when you first started? Or was this just a way to take care of your health and stay in shape?
Rustin: I did not have any goals in mind other than I enjoyed it. What was important to me is the enjoyment of running. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard people talk about the runner’s high you actually get, that’s what would happen to me. So with me actually getting out there in the mornings and doing my runs, it actually rejuvenated me for the remainder of the day.
Snyder: I was also wondering if there were any kind of unique challenges in preparing for the 5K. I’m sure a lot of people assume that it must be harder for you to prepare for an athletic event like this because A, you’re a senior, and B, you’re blind. So how did you overcome these challenges in preparing, if there were any at all?
Rustin: Well, I still haven’t overcome them, to be perfectly honest with you. Every time I get out there and run – every, every time I get out there and run, and I’m emphasizing that, I still have challenges. So for example, before I get out there and run, as I said, I always do a prayer. But even with me doing the prayer, I still feel intimidated. I start thinking negative thoughts. For example: “Okay, Keryl. Can you really do this? Is it really worthwhile? Why have you decided to do something like this? Why are you putting so much stress on yourself?” So I still have my challenges every single day before I do a run. I have never, and I don’t think there ever will be a time that I can honestly say that I have overcome the challenges. And not because I am blind. And not because I’m 73 years of age. I think with any athlete, when you’re out there and you’re beginning to participate in whatever your choice of athletics is, you’re always gonna have that feeling of intimidation and trepidation. That feeling of, you know, questioning whether or not you can actually achieve it.
Snyder: What emotions were going through your head when you ended up completing that 5K?
Rustin: I cried. I cried because, for me, it was surreal. After all that I had gone through as far as training myself, as far as my granddaughter being so attentive and encouraging me, because when I would be out there running, she would run with me at seven years old. She would be saying things to me like, “Grandma, you can do this. You got it. I know you can,” things like that. And that was my cheerleader. I didn’t have anyone else. It was just surreal because I couldn’t believe that I actually did it. Particularly since I did not have a trainer.
Snyder: Completing this qualified you for the National Senior Games. Is that correct?
Snyder: What was that experience like?
Rustin: That experience was just a very positive experience for me. Because what it did, it gave me the confidence in knowing that, ‘Hey, you know what, Keryl, you did the Maryland Senior Olympics, you qualified for the Maryland Senior Olympics, you can go even further if you choose to. So it gave me that enormous push, as far as that confidence that I needed, in order for me to participate in the National Senior Games.
Snyder: Did you have any other closing remarks before we go ahead and finish?
Rustin: In order to win, you have to begin. And I want to thank everyone as far as my granddaughter and also thank (my guide) Kriya. She was the one who actually did that run with me, in order for me to receive this gold medal from the West Virginia Senior Sports Classic. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I could have achieved it. That was the most difficult run that I had ever done. That one was done at Kanawha State Forest. And to do a run in a forest was very, very challenging for me. So this medal is not all about me, Keryl Rustin. This medal is about all of those many, many people who are visually impaired, who are physically challenged, who are seniors. This medal represents them. These are the people who definitely need to know that, no matter what, you can still get out there, find something that you enjoy doing, become active in it, and just go for it.
The congregation of the Christ Reformed United Church of Christ donated the historic building to the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), which produces and develops new plays for worldwide audiences.
Chestnut trees used to be abundant in the Appalachian region until a blight wiped them out at the turn of the 20th century. Now, determined growers are attempting to return the trees using hybrid saplings.