Walk, Run, Guide.
My little story on my first experiences as a Guide Runner, but first a little background I think.
I have grown up with sight loss very much part of my life. My Dad, the man who has pretty much inspired the running gene in both my Brother and I, was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosis in his late teens and has since lived his life with progressive degeneration of his eyesight. That’s not to say it ever slowed him down, running marathons in his younger years, running a successful business, running a family. Even now in relative retirement, any doctor would describe him as being blind, yet he tweets and blogs with the help of an iPad on a daily basis. Always defying the odds.
Imagine my reaction then, when only a week or so after passing my Run Leaders (LiRF) course an email landed in my inbox from England Athletics inviting me to attend a Sight Loss Awareness and Guide Running Workshop. There was never any doubt, I instantly signed up.
The day of the course came and it was an enlightening evening, even for someone who has lived his life with visual impairment at the forefront of everyday family life. The workshop was well presented, with some experienced attendees to pass on tips, pointers and advice which was well received by all. The best advice for me was to practice, practice and practice some more. You cannot expect to go out there and know what you’re doing on your first attempt, a point that is applicable to both the Visually Impaired and the Guide Runners. The highlight of the evening though was the practical element, running blindfolded with a fellow guide, guiding me around a simple and unobstructed athletics track, it was a real eye opener if you will excuse the pun!
I had already decided I wanted to use my skills to run with my Dad. We quickly agreed on the Leeds 10k and set about formulating our training plan. Plenty of treadmill miles in the garage lay ahead for my Dad but that wouldn’t be enough, I had already learnt we had to practice together – let’s face it there would be thousands of other runners around us on race day, we needed to be prepared. We duly placed our order for some fresh new Farsley Flyers running vests!
Next on the training plan was Bramley parkrun as our initial training route. Now I am personally a huge fan of the parkrun initiative, I mean who isn’t? But we were nervous nonetheless, this was pretty new for us and with their renowned “Uphill Flat” section it wasn’t going to be easy. But the Bramley team and fellow parkrun enthusiasts could not have made our first run any better. A mention in the pre-race brief, which served as both Health & Safety and encouragement, along with near constant encouragement and support made those first 36 minutes and 5 kilometres fly by. That was it, we had the bug and every preceding attempt at Bramley not only saw a PB in the bag for this Blind/Guide running combo but also attracted further unexpected support along the way.
We were getting the practice we needed, in fact we were getting quite confident but the difficulty with Bramley was as mentioned – “that” hill. It was very hard to prepare our race day pacing, as the Leeds 10k is considerably flat. So we opted to switch some of our training to Yeadon Tarn, at the edge of Leeds Bradford Airport, which is a large lake with a good tarmac path around it. A popular dog walkers spot, this meant some early starts to get the miles in before the dog walkers woke up, but it was worth it as we knew from this that we could be targeting around the 60-65 minute mark. Brilliant!
With every run our confidence and technique improved. Every run felt more natural. My instructions became clearer, more consistent and more accurate. Yet we chatted and put the world to rights at times as well. At times I think we ourselves underestimated the accomplishment which the training itself achieved.
Race day approached very quickly in the end! I wished I’d had time for one last training run together. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have organised the race and moving house in such close succession. We had our Farsley Flyers attire washed and ready to proudly wear, printed on the rear with BLIND RUNNER & GUIDE RUNNER respectively. We had our numbers. We had support, WOW did we have support. Family, Friends, Farsley Flyers & Bramley parkrunners all had given so much support to two balding blokes out for a run! This cannot be understated in the slightest.
We met in Leeds before the race with some of the Flyers for our obligatory pre-race photo then headed to the starting pens. It was rather crowded and an eager looking steward was trying to hurry us along unnecessarily which I found frustrating. But he wasn’t to know we were a Blind/Guide combination as he couldn’t see the backs of our shirts so I took it as a compliment that we looked the part!
After an overzealous warm-up routine on a PA system loud enough that I think they may have heard it from Rio at the Olympic stadium, we started the walk, then the jog to the start line. I was up, not only do I need to anticipate the unpredictable movements of everyone around us, I need to be relaying loud, clear instructions and information of where we are, what we’re approaching and the general surroundings. Luckily, the training paid off and before we knew it so were we.
The start was busy, lots of people of mixed abilities, many to my frustrations plugged into their headphones oblivious of their surroundings or my verbal warnings advising them to keep left or right as a blind runner is coming past. I can safely say that the use of headphones in races has now become a true pet hate of mine as a guide runner, but maybe more on this point another day. We worked our way around these people, frustratingly costing us seconds on each occasion, but we didn’t have time to let it bother us.
Pacing was key. In our training runs we found our first mile was generally too quick, today was no different but as we slipped into our stride we just put it down to miles in the bank and refocused on what’s ahead. Simple, clear, precise communications. But we also had to enjoy ourselves too, otherwise why would we be doing this!?
We cracked on down Kirkstall Road to the return and back. We navigated people, cones, and a 180 degree turn around at the halfway point. All relatively seamlessly. We had one near miss when a runner ran from behind us then immediately cut us up, very nearly causing an incident but we powered through it (well, through her more to the point but she was at fault so I shan’t feel bad). It felt a world apart from the first couple of training runs. I’d like to thank the support team taking the workshop for the practice tip. It really was paying off.
One point we learnt in the workshop was different methods of guiding. Some use a tether, some use touch (generally to the elbow of the guide runner), some with maybe a better level of sight literally follow the guide almost immediately behind them. We had found what worked for us and used touch as described above, but in the final 200m we had agreed toward the line we would change, my Dad would break into a sprint finish, he would take a leading role tethering to my wrist and he would finish the race ahead of his guide – that’s how it’s done by the professionals and right now that’s how we felt!
We crossed the line in an amazing 62 minutes 20 seconds with pats on the backs and passing comments of “well done”, “amazing effort” and “wow, I just couldn’t keep up with the two of you at the end” from total strangers.
Afterwards we navigated the crowds back to our support team (the wives and my daughter oh and not forgetting Spencer the guide dog!). Strangely guiding that part seemed harder than guiding whilst running all of a sudden!
The sense of achievement is something else. It also restored my faith in fellow runners too as 95% of the field were friendly and supportive.
A quick check of my emails this week and I am thrilled to see the new national Guide Runner Database is live. Aiming to link Blind & Visually Impaired Runners to Guides in the same areas. Further details on this can be found here: http://runleeds.co.uk/running-news/new-national-guide-runner-database-goes-live/
If you’d like to follow either me or my father we both tweet our ramblings and these can be read at @ckbeesting & @Sting4r