‘Selfless’ guide helped blind sprinter become a champion

Snohomish’s Humoody Smith won three state titles last month — with his friend, Zeb Kumley, by his side.

Imagine running full speed with your wrist tethered to someone else. Imagine trying to keep your strides and arm swings in sync as you sprint around a high school track.

Now add in the fact that one of you can’t see and you’re competing against other runners.

Sound difficult?

That’s the challenge Snohomish High School sophomore Humoody Smith and his guide runner, senior Zeb Kumley, took on when Smith competed in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races for the Panthers track-and-field team this spring.

Smith — who lost his vision when he was shot by insurgents in Iraq when he was 2 years old — went through several guide runners before settling on Kumley, who found the experience gratifying.

“I remember the first time they ran at practice and then the first time they ran at a Thursday Wesco meet,” Snohomish head coach Dave Weller said. “(Zeb) just came back and said, ‘Man, that was fun. That was super rewarding.’ He just thought it was a super-neat experience for him.”

From there Kumley and Smith began working together to find the right strategy for Smith’s races.

At first, they used a short, thin rope to stay together. It simply wasn’t getting the job done.

Smith said the rope would come apart in practices and didn’t allow for Kumley to smoothly give Smith cues as they sprinted down the track.

That’s when they switched to an elastic band that linked them at the wrist. They found the band far more effective.

“If your arms got out of sync with the rope, you’d actually hold the person back,” Kumley said. “Whereas with the elastic band, there would be some leniency if you got out (of sync). And just for me trying to keep him in the lane, I think it gave him a little bit more reaction time. Whereas with the string, if I pulled, it would just jerk him and it was a lot harder to keep our running together smooth. He’d be all over his lane.

“With the elastic band, it’d be more of a gradual process. So it just fine-tuned me helping keep him in the lane.”

Smith said the band allowed Kumley to give him more subtle cues.

“All Zeb had to do is flex his wrist in either direction to let me know I need to move out a little bit or … need to pull it in a little bit towards him” Smith said. “With the rope, it’s a lot more vague in terms of the guiding and (cues) need to be a lot more animated — I guess you could say a little over the top, comparatively — because you move your entire arm basically to show the athlete this is the direction you need to go.”

Both Smith and Kumley said the key to success was developing timing and rhythm with one another. Finding an equal stride length and arm swing are paramount to running a successful tandem race. That process is made easier with athletes of similar size.

“On a physical basis, Zeb and I are similar in height and our stride lengths are similar,” Smith said. “That’s one of the biggest factors when you’re trying to find a guide runner because if the blind athlete and the guide runner had extreme variances in their stride length, that’s going to throw off the rhythm. Rhythm is basically the most important aspect of running with a guide because your arms have to be in sync and your legs have to be in sync, otherwise it’s not going to work very well.”

Smith said one of the most difficult challenges for a visually impaired runner is negotiating the turns involved in the 200 and 400. The sharpness of the turns vary depending on which lane an athlete is in.

“(It) can be kind of tricky because of how high-speed you have to run that and still maintain a good, even stride and from Zeb’s point of view, maintain us going in the right direction and not letting me stray much at all going around the curve,” Smith said. “When you’re blind, it’s really hard to tell how much that curve is going to pull. So you have to really trust your guide and follow in close with them. Communication is really one of the big aspects of having a guide.”

Kumley ran with Smith as he competed in Wesco meets throughout the regular season. Eventually, it was Kumley who was side-by-side with Smith as Smith ran away with state titles in the ambulatory 100, 200 and 400 at the state track in field championships last month at Mount Tahoma High School.

“I was so happy for him,” Kumley said. “He really deserved it. He works so hard.”

But perhaps more important than any state title is the friendship the two formed over the season.

“I really enjoyed it more for just getting to know Humoody than actually competing,” Kumley said “The sprints aren’t really my thing, and that’s all Humoody does. Just getting to know him was probably the best part of my season.”

They were able to connect instantly over shared interests in music and faith, and their friendship blossomed from there.

“As we started practicing with each other more and more, it became much more of a friendship than just a common interest,” Smith said. “Our relationship has strengthened considerably and I feel like even though Zeb is going off to college next year, that it’s a relationship that is going to be hard to be broken and has the opportunity to be very long-lasting. I would love for that to be the case, and I’m sure that Zeb reciprocates that.”

Kumley said he finds Smith’s positive disposition and light-hearted outlook on his blindness refreshing.

“Honestly, he’s been an inspiration to me just for how … positive his attitude is” Kumley said. “I can’t even think how I would deal with not having my vision, and he makes light of it.”

And Smith appreciates all that Kumley has done for him this season.

“I guess I could say something my dad has said: To be a guide runner is a very selfless act because in track and field, when you’re competing, all the focus is on you,” Smith said. “But if you’re a guide runner, the focus is on the athlete that you’re guiding and you have to be OK with knowing that you aren’t gonna get any medals if they win. The focus isn’t on you even though you’re out there trying to win and help your athlete as much as you can.

“It takes a certain breed of people to be that selfless and put themselves out there.”

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