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Woman who lost sight completes 60-mile walk

Nov. 21, 2012 @ 12:40 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Ask those who know Heather McComas to describe her, and you'll hear words like "determined," "dedicated" and "independent." You'll hear about a woman who makes things happen.

She was born with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eyes. It wasn't until the age of 12 that the disease completely took her vision, and as a young child, she did what most kids do.

"I rode bicycles, I skated, I did all kinds of stuff," she said. "I could watch TV and stuff, but I would sit really close to the TV. I went skiing. I haven't been skiing in years. All kinds of stuff I used to do, I don't do anymore."

She won't lie -- she misses it. But this 35-year-old from Huntington isn't one to mope. Instead, she sets goals and accomplishes them, despite the challenges involved. And one of her most recent accomplishments was training for several months and finishing the Susan G. Komen "3-Day," a 60-mile walk that took place Nov. 9-11 in Phoenix. Each walker raises $2,300 to participate, which goes toward breast cancer programs, such as community education and outreach programs.

"For me, I was walking for all cancers, since I am a survivor," said McComas, who began training for the walk in March and suffered some injuries along the way.

It was a journey that started some years ago, when she started seeing commercials for the Susan G. Komen walk.

"I watched the commercials and thought, 'Ooh, I want to do that," she said. "That was several years ago. Then a friend of mine, who was the same age as me, passed away three years ago from breast cancer. ... I figured there was a difference between saying I wanted to do it and actually doing it.' "

She followed a 24-week training program and did much of it on her own, using a cane and also with the help of two friends, Cheryl Asbury and Lisa Roach, who guided her using a tether. Before she started doing long-distance walks, she could walk with her guide dog, Daisy.

"Training in the beginning was very light," McComas said. "You start out with three miles four days a week, and you did two days of 15- to 30-minute cross training for two days."

Eventually, you increase to 4-6 miles two days a week and 14-18 miles the other two days. Cross training increases from 15 minutes to 45 minutes.

Asbury described McComas as a "very self sufficient, determined young woman who did a fantastic job.

"...She would walk the suggested mileage with her cane or her dog every day, rain or shine," Asbury said. "She encountered many obstacles while training. Heather started having trouble with Plantar Fasciitis -- causing her to almost cry sometimes because her feet hurt her so badly. She never quit. Day after day, she would walk, sometimes being so tired after walking 16-20 miles that she would fall asleep on her couch and sleep the entire night in the clothes she walked in that day."

Then it came time for the actual event, which brought some new challenges. McComas wasn't used to walking in such a large crowd. Both Asbury and Roach traveled with her, and Roach did the walk with McComas because Asbury had recently been through a surgery.

Having a guide with her was desperately needed, McComas said.

"If (Lisa) wasn't with me, I probably would have fallen apart," McComas said. "You don't realize the emotional toll it takes on you, especially if you can't see. You have to worry about other people. I try not to put too much pressure on the person leading me and not to step on the person in front of me.

"It's a lot, when everybody is all clustered together. There are over 800 people. My stride is pretty long, and I'd step on the back of somebody's foot. That was a lot of stress on me."

Roach said people were extremely "considerate and amazed that she was doing it. She carried her cane but didn't use it, except a couple of times. When it got so congested on the sidewalks, we didn't need to use it because ... it was hitting people.

"I tethered her the whole way. She holds onto my arm. It was always on my right side the whole way. She can really feel any movement I make. She knows exactly what I'm doing."

McComas still had some injuries to deal with, Asbury said.

"After walking the first 20 miles, the blisters on Heather's feet would have stopped the normal 'sighted person' from continuing to walk," she said. "The entire heels of both feet were blistered, as well as the small toes on top and in between. She grimaced while having the blisters opened, mole skin attached, and bandages and tape applied over the area, but she never once complained. She was ready to go again the second day."

Asbury said that by the end of 40 miles after the second day, her feet and body were aching so much that she was ready to go to bed by 7 p.m., "but looking forward with great delight to the upcoming 60-mile finish line.

"I truthfully was not sure that her body would let her finish the entire 60 miles," Asbury said. "I knew her feet hurt from the plantar fasciitis plus the blisters and I knew she was tired. Not to be underestimated, she finished the event in a record time with a smile on her face."

Roach said she did great.

"The only thing I worried about was her foot that had given her problems prior, but I knew because she had really worked on it and was determined that she could do it," she said. "We made a joke the whole way that limping was still walking, but she made it and she did quite well. We were far from being the last coming in, that's for sure. ... She doesn't let being blind stop her. She's very independent.

"I'm very proud of her and I appreciate the opportunity to get to do this with her. It was very emotional. My mother was a breast cancer survivor. She's passed, but not from breast cancer. It made me think about how my life would have changed if she hadn't survived."

McComas said the best thing for her was meeting new people and going to a place she'd never been.

"I wish more people would do it," she said. "Yeah, it's difficult, but it gets you up. I believe in exercise and I believe in getting up and doing something for other people. That's what makes me happy -- to do things for other people, and in the process, it got me physically fit."

McComas' mother, Mary, couldn't be more proud.

"She gives 110 percent to any and all things that she chooses to do," Mary McComas said. "She weaves beautiful baskets, she knits, she bakes, she makes pottery and she quilts -- yes, with a sewing machine. She makes me smile because how can you say, 'Heather, no, you can't have a sewing machine. You will sew your fingers together'?

"(Her father) Carl and I have never told her that she can't do anything. It has always been more of an, 'It will be hard, but you can do it,' kind of a conversation.

"Heather 'sees' more than any sighted person that I know," Mary McComas continued. "As her mother, I catch myself wishing that life wouldn't be so hard for her. You know how mommies can be. She's is a brave, determined and dedicated young lady, and we are so proud of her."

Heather McComas

Age: 35

Family: Parents Mary and Carl McComas, sister Haley Robinson and half-brother Craig Elkins.

Hometown: Huntington.

Education: 1995 graduate of the Romney West Virginia School for the Blind.

Hobbies: Basket-making, pottery, sewing and reading.

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