Between my junior year and senior year in college, I shaved an ugly 70s-version beard, cropped my hair from shoulder length to something more human than Sasquatch and got contact lenses to replace a pair of Coke-bottle glasses that weighed about 13 pounds.
That change in appearances was in large part responsible for an advance from 7th man on the cross country team to a consistent 2nd man for much of the season. Other circumstances including injuries to some valued teammates also had something to do with that. Yet the ability to step up when needed was the product of an enhanced self confidence.
It’s a fact. Athletes need to feel good about themselves to compete well. For me, emerging from behind that beard and a hood of hair so thick no hats were needed on winter days was good for my ego. Getting contact lenses put the capper on the makeover. Getting rid of those thick glasses provided both an emotional and physical boost. I was no longer pushing those large specs up my nose, for one thing. Who knows what sort of facial tension might have led to shoulder tightness, poor arm carriage and inefficiency.
Could big glasses really have that much impact on the human body? For certain. In my case it led to keeping my head up more. Even peripheral vision helps when racing, especially on the track, and most notably in my chosen event, the steeplechase. In close quarters going over hurdles with four or five competitors the last thing you need to worry about is a set of thick glasses clonking up and down on your face.
We all wore glasses bands back then. Those tended to pull your frames so tight on your face that your entire forehead would crease up. Not a good physical or mental scenario either.
So the freedom of running with contact lenses was liberating. It also helped that a pretty girl also was attracted to my newfound persona. We fell in love and that might not have happened if I was still doing my Napoleon Dynamite imitation.
The interesting thing about that change was returning to college in August and attending a fraternity party in the dorm. No one recognized me. That’s how profound the change really was.
There’s no doubt that the summer I got those contacts was an epiphany. Running for the first time since freshman year in high school without glasses stuck on my face was a sense of freedom too long missed. Of course there were lessons to learn about wearing hard contact lenses. The very first day I ran in them I wiped sweat from my left eye and did not notice for about 10 more strides that a contact lens had popped out. Tracing my steps back to where I thought I’d wiped my eye, I looked down at the ground and there it was. Just gleaming in the sun. Talk about luck.
First timer’s luck. There would be lost contacts in the future, of course. We all suffer that fate. My best friend lost his contact during a college cross country training trip in Wyoming. His eyes were really terrible. How he ran all those miles on mountain trails with just one eye is amazing.
I’m still wearing gas permeable hard contact lenses. They’re better than the plain hard contacts because they let the eye breathe a little. Not as slick and supple as soft lenses, of course. A long line of optometrists and opthalmology specialists have recommended that I stick (so to speak) with gas perm hard lenses because they supposedly keep the shape of my eye in place. With astigmatism the eye sort of goes oblong on you. So hard contacts are like orthotics for the eyeball.
Or so they tell me. One summer I lost a contact lens and all the eye doctor had in stock for temporary lenses was a set of soft contact lenses. That meant I had to learn how to put them in and take them out. It wasn’t that hard (ba dommm teeessssh) compared to hard lenses.
And what a difference in feel! Where my hard lenses consistently feel dry or contact-y, the soft lenses were like having a naked eye that could see. There was just one problem. While cycling a slight downhill at 30 miles an hour one of the lenses started to lift up from my eye due to the backdraft around my sunglasses. I could see that lens flapping and trying to pull free. So I slowed the bike and stopped to flip the floppy lens back in place.
Yes, there are ways to avoid all this hassle with lenses of any sort. Lasik surgery works and my friends have gotten it. Some love it. Some are a bit disappointed. They all still require reading glasses.
As I flirt with events such as swimming in the triathlon the whole Lasik thing starts to make a ton more sense. After all, the contact lens that I lost that led to getting the soft lenses that summer was the result of a swim lesson. I don’t recall if I had not worn goggles or what. But no one is about to find a blue contact lens on the bottom of a pool. Much less the bottom of a lake, or an ocean.
So I reside in a world in which my contact lenses have indeed made my vision and training and racing so much better. But contacts do have their limits. They are one of the tarsnakes of modern human existence. A blessing and a curse.
It’s a strange thing to consider that this thin layer of glass or plastic is what enables me to see better and do the sports I love. Oh that my parents would have agreed to get me contact lenses for basketball in high school. So many pairs of bent and shattered glasses. And how those glasses confined my peripheral vision.
But times were different then. Only after I got out of college did I learn the glories of playing hoops without glasses. And my game continued to improve.
About two weeks ago I went to sleep without removing my contacts before bed. That was the first time I’d ever done that in 40 years of wearing contact lenses. I woke to a fuzzy world because my eyes were caking over with proteins. Yet I could still see. It dawned on me what I’d done. Fortunately there was no pain resulting from the mistake.
Before that the only other incident resulted from a long day spent with my college girlfriend that did not wind up until 1:00. I was at her house and could not stay the night, but my contact lenses were painfully dry and sore. Driving home like that was almost unthinkable, so I plucked the contacts out to try seeing without them. My eyes could see perfectly even without the contacts. The lenses had constricted my eyes so long they were sort of “stuck in place” and there was no need for glasses or contacts.
That’s sort of the principle of Lasik. They go in there and pinch up your eye a bit and you can see better. I got home safely that night. But by the time I’d slept through the night my vision had returned to normal. Which was bad.
It goes to prove that all of life is something of an illusion. Seeing or not seeing well is not just a need. It’s also a choice. I admired my blind friend that could run with his dog years ago. His blindness did not keep him home. It did not define who he was.
We tend to take our visual abilities for granted, those of us who run and ride and swim. But perhaps today you should open your eyes to the fact that seeing is also believing. We love to run and ride and swim because, in the end, we all love to see things. To experience things. To move and to see and feel that movement is to be alive.
And I hope you can see that.