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Weeks After Losing Her Home, Camp Fire Survivor To Guide Low-Vision Runner At California International Marathon

Photo courtesy of Shawna Brayley

Deb Yoder, Paradise resident, runs with visually impaired athlete Phillip Ashley in the 2017 California International Marathon.

Photo courtesy of Shawna Brayley

When California’s deadliest wildfire blazed through the small Butte County town of Paradise, resident Deb Yoder was in Micronesia with just a few belongings. Fortunately, she’d packed her running shoes.

The marathoner worked part-time as a nurse at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, which suffered extensive damage in the fire, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record. She was serving as a medical volunteer on the island of Pohnpei when she learned that her Paradise home was destroyed in the blaze.

She returned to California in mid-November, both to reunite with family and to prepare for the California International Marathon in Sacramento, one of the state’s biggest running events. Before tragedy struck her small town, Yoder had signed up to guide Deborah Groeber, a vision and hearing-impaired athlete, through the race.

She said she’s sticking to the plan despite the recent turmoil.

It has ultimately helped me keep moving forward,” she said. “The last three weeks have been difficult, to put one foot in front of the other and get out there and run. And knowing that her success is dependent on my showing up, helped me do that.”

This will be Yoder’s third time guiding a visually impaired runner at the CIM. It’s a guide’s job to make sure marathoners with vision or hearing problems can run the route safely. They might use a tether, voice commands, or other means of communication to help their partner dodge hazards in the environment, or other runners. There were 48 visually impaired runners signed up for the race this Sunday.

Yoder previously helped guide a team of cyclers in finishing a major distance bike race event called the Race Across America. She said the guide-runner relationship depends heavily on trust, and she didn’t want her CIM athlete to have to find a new partner at the last minute.

She said being around athletes who’ve faced their own challenges is healing, and inspiring.

“It’s become a community that has been a solid place to land,” she said.

Like many in Paradise, Yoder, 42, said she’s leaning on the spirit of the tight-knit community to recover emotionally from the loss of people and places. When it comes to rebuilding financially, she said it’s hard for her, and many of her neighbors, to accept help.

“We need everything and nothing at the same time,” she said. “It’s three weeks later, but this is going to last a really long time. And ultimately, I feel like the spirit of our community will increase as we move to find peace with what happened. Because there was a lot of trauma.”

Though Yoder  travels often, Paradise is her birthplace and her home. She said she’s holding onto memories of sitting on her porch, where she often looked out at the canyon below.

“I feel hopeful,” she said. “I believe in the resilience of our community, and that there is beauty beyond the destruction.”

With the hospital’s fate in flux, she’s working as a flight nurse for an emergency air transport service. Her loved ones created a crowdfunding page to help her rebuild.

The CIM and race sponsor Sierra Nevada Brewing Company are encouraging runners, spectators and partners to donate to the Sierra Nevada Camp Fire Relief Fund via the Golden Valley Bank Community Foundation. The Sacramento Running Association has vowed to donate a portion of the proceeds from this year’s race to the Camp Fire Relief Fund.

More information about guiding a visually impaired runner can be found here.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the Race Across America. The event is a bike race.

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