Ok, so this might be an all to obvious subject to talk about to some of my friends but I thought I’d briefly describe how, as a totally blind person I go running without ending myself or others.
I wonder, is guiding a blind runner the thrill seekers answer to sighted guiding? A sort of Formula 1 or premier league in sighted guiding if you will.
Your reactions have to be faster, your decision making time is shorter and if you get it wrong, the consequences are usually worse with one or other of you on the ground with, at the very least, skinned hands, torn clothes and, at least, a very bruised ego.
The other day I was pondering my refound love of running and why, after my most recent spell of doing absolutely no exercise, I’ve now got back to it. I think this latest hankering to run is all about trying to recapture my youth ahead of my 40th birthday in November.
Maybe I’m running away from middle age? Well I’m not getting any younger and that to stave off the onward march of weight gain, achy joints and couch potatoism, I have to do something, I suppose. When you think about it, it’s free. You can burn a lot of fat, achieve a lot of heavy breathing and lose a lot of sweat very quickly. Afterwards, you are usually left in no doubt that, yep, you have indeed been engaged in some sort of physical exercise and that your legs will remind you of this tomorrow when you try going up some stairs.
It’s good for the mind too. It’s as if my body runs on auto-pilot and my brain is free to sort through some boxes that have been cluttering up the place.
There’s also the battle you wage with yourself as you sweat your way through mile after mile and week after week but gradually, despite all your negative head traffic, it pays off. One day you suddenly realise that your fitness level has now surpassed your attention span and you’re making progress because you can now successfully bore yourself running.
In short, I can run in the gym on a tread mill by myself. Presuming I can get the thing going without sighted assistance. A lot of gyms now-a-days are waking up to being accessible to people with a disability. Good work, it’s only 2017.
This is a game changer for me as I’m used to frantically feeling around for buttons on a completely featureless touch screen for Eleventy minutes before hunting a member of staff to make the thing move. But as most runners will testify, running on the tread, or dread mill, just doesn’t cut it – it’s always better out in the open air.
For this, I need the expert piloting skills of my guide runner Dervla.
It’s Dervla’s job to run beside me, either side will do and basically steer, keep track of our mileage with her fancy phone app and talk to me – or sometimes herself, if I’m too out of breath to speak.
It’s my job to respond to her directions, make this as difficult as possible and ask plenty of annoying questions about where we are and how far is that now?
Unlike in normal walking guiding, I don’t hold Dervla’s elbow. We use a guide rope which can be made of anything really as long as it isn’t elastic or stretchy. The idea being that Dervla holds one end, I hold the other and that both our arms are free to move independently for, as Kate Bush put it, “running up that hill.”
As a basic rule of thumb, I’d suggest the guide runner stays about half a stride in front. Let’s face it, there would be little point of me being in front now would there?
By keeping a minimum tension through the rope, I can feel and respond to any direction changes from Dervla. Of course, nothing beats just giving verbal instructions as we go. Yep you guessed it, “left a bit” “right a bit” “right a bit more” “I said go right!” and my personal favourite “STOP!”
My top five things that drive me mad when running
Dogs off the lead (we know chasing things is absolutely why you were put here, it’s great, we know but go away)
Kids on bikes that steer randomly in to your path (careful there’s a 6ft 2 blind man attached to a smaller person hurtling towards you and we aren’t great at stopping)
Walkers who won’t move aside even though we tried to say, “excuse me!” (we’re faster than you and we’ll be out of your airspace in a second)
Cyclists (you kings and queens of the road/path/any surface known to man really, use your bell, it won’t hurt)
Cars parked on pavements (Really, all four wheels? Don’t do it people, you’ll realise one day).
I’ve been asked how or where do you train to be a guide runner and there are organisations who offer this training but, in truth, I’ve never ran with anyone who received any actual formal training at all. You can ask Dervla but when we first went out running, I just said grab the rope, keep going and just let me know what’s coming up. It really is all about getting to know one another as runners. It obviously will work better if you’re compatible in terms of speed and running gate.
It’s a partnership and if you run enough together, you’ll both react as a team and hopefully no one need limp home whilst thinking up a much more heroic sounding tale than “I tripped over my own self whilst out running, now have a bleeding face and look like I was street fighting with an angry stapler.”