David from Eastleigh Running Club tells us about his journey to become a Running Guide for the visually impaired.
I have an elderly Mum who has suffered with poor eyesight for years. One eye is better than the other. She can see a plane thousands of feet up, but cannot see something a few inches away. When she looks at things up close, she looks sideways to get a better view. Why?
To get a better understanding, I attended a Sight Awareness Course in Southampton. The idea was to look at the possibility of becoming a guide runner. A dozen or so athletes turned up from local clubs and given various challenges. These challenges included climbing steps, estimating distance in paces and walking up and down kerbs. This would usually be easy but this time it was with our eyes shut. A guide would support us by providing verbal instructions and nudging us in the right direction to complete the task. The whole thing was scary, very disconcerting and disorientating. We then swapped roles. Talking about what you can see in detail to a third party was very difficult.
We were then provided with special wrap around glasses to try out. These gave us an idea of different eye conditions – fuzzy everywhere, fuzzy in the middle & clear round the edge, fuzzy round the edge & clear in the middle. Some glasses had a narrow vertical slit surrounded by black, or horizontal slit surrounded by black. Each one was unsettling and took time to get used to, working out what we could see…. and what we couldn’t.
Following the completion of the course, I have run as a guide with a couple of visually impaired athletes on a number of occasions. It is worth clarifying that because you can guide, doesn’t mean you can run with every visually impaired athlete. I am a 6 foot plus male, and run with a certain stride pattern and flow. I like the tether on my left wrist. It is no use me pairing with a much shorter person who prefers to use the same wrist as I do for the tether and runs at a different pace to me. There has to be a symmetry. There are issues pairing male and females together as personal space disappears by the very nature of what you are doing and there has to be 100% trust.
It has been a huge honour to run with both of my athletes. Both have been men, with no more than 20% visibility each, both are shorter than me, but had a similar stride length. One now runs in the low 1.20’s for a half (too quick for me) whilst the other is sub 20 min, at his best, for 5k. Both have a high knee lift to avoid scuffing kerbs, roots and uneven surfaces, but this extension, although for safety, does give a longer stride.
The 100% trust starts from the moment you meet. Getting used to each other, your respective rhythms and breathing is important as is having your wits about you all the time. You cannot afford to switch off or assume anything. Things sighted athletes take for granted, a raised section of tarmac because of a tree root or lamp post, need explaining at speed. Adjustments need to be made and counted down until the obstacle has passed. Being accurate with descriptions and distances is key. No use saying “left in 200 yards” when in fact it is 400 and is a 90 degree turn on a hill with an adverse camber because the athlete is prepared for the “turn, turn, turn, turn, straighten up” and it doesn’t come and when it does they are not prepared.
Both athletes have different signals they like beyond the verbal commentary. Nudges, tugs on the tether or key words for certain obstacles – they all requiring remembering. Training runs are more difficult than an event. Running on the pavement brings all sorts of obstacles, loose or raised paving, roads, bins, trees, benches, the list is endless. Over any distance focusing on everything you see, providing a commentary, giving approximate distance and counting down to them. It is all mentally tiring, physically tiring and makes you hoarse. Guide Running comes with responsibility and I am always relieved when the athlete is returned safe and sound.
Guide Running has also helped with my sighted sessions. The high knee carriage is useful to practice as a drill. Pairing athletes with one being the guide and one being visually impaired. This offers runners an incite to different techniques. When the visually impaired athlete walks or jogs, knees are raised, foot placement is different, stride length changes. It becomes more and more natural the more it is practiced and if this drill is followed by a sprint session the results can be surprising.
If you get the chance to become a Guide Runner, do. Visually impaired athletes, at whatever level, are superb. Sighted athletes can learn a huge amount from their commitment to their sport, courage and achievements.
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Bob Pitman – Ex-Smoker Bob, went back to running after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Someone once told me; “The first step out of the house is always the hardest; after that it’s just putting one foot in front of the other.”
I’d been trying to give up smoking since the 1990s but it wasn’t until 2010, when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, that I was finally kicked into action to give up completely. Up until that point I kept trying to give up, and I’d dabbled with running because it was an easy way to try and exercise – all I needed was shorts, a t-shirt and trainers.
My first attempt at a run ended after ¼ of a mile! I was shocked at how little I could achieve. At that point I had stopped smoking for 6 years – I kept improving and reached 1.3 miles but then gave into smoking again. This pattern continued for a long time – giving up smoking, running, giving up running and then going back to smoking.
When I found out I had cancer I’d actually given up smoking a few months before and had started to run again. After my operation and treatment, I’d gone 6 months without a run and had become a bit of a couch potato because of the sheer exhaustion of what I was going through. Once I had the all-clear from the doctors, I put my trainers back on and ventured out on the pavements again. I was really enjoying being able to run again, just short distances but it was great to be back out and doing something for myself.
I decided to join the Holly Hill runners in April 2012. I wanted to stretch myself a bit more as I knew I couldn’t do it on my own – I needed proper training to help me go further. My run leader, Katharine, changed my runs and my life. She helped me to go longer distances and faster; and because I was with a group of runners I got so much support and encouragement from everyone. It went further than I ever could have imagined – before I knew it I was getting tips on how to look after my legs and what kit I could buy that would help me (a technical shirt and proper running shoes).
Like anything, I’ve had ups and downs with it – but the important part is that I’m still with it. The group runs are great for company and exploring places; it’s also brilliant for pushing myself a bit harder and always learning something – people are always able to offer advice on my running style and letting me know when I get it just right!
I’ve had asthma and breathing problems since I was a child (the smoking, oddly, helped by coating the receptors that would react to other pollutants and cause an attack) so I’m never going to be a fast runner but I enjoy the distance running with the group and the techniques to improve my stamina and endurance.
On my own, I can now do 5 miles and more, lamp post counting, but I’m out there doing it and every run brings its own reward of having done something I wouldn’t have even attempted back in 2011.
If an asthmatic, ex-smoker (5 years and counting), and couch potato like me can do it, then anyone can!
Gemma Merritt – Too scared to run outside, Gemma spent years running on a treadmill in case anyone saw her.
As I stood in the field waiting for the running class to start my mind was racing through a list of all the embarrassing things that could (and seemed highly likely to) happen to me during the next hour. Could I really run outside? Do I look really ridiculous when I run? Would I collapse in an exhausted, gasping heap, as everyone else breezed by glowing happily?
As it turns out, I was probably less nervous than some of the others (at least a couple have since told me they were so terrified they felt sick that morning and almost didn’t turn up).
I’d been running for a while on the treadmill at home, and could do a (slow) five miles non-stop but that didn’t stop me feeling anxious. Before I knew it, there was a fair bit of chatting and introducing going on and discovered that, while we were all there for different reasons, we’d all come together to reach our goals.
None of the events I had foreseen happening to me actually happened, in fact it was quite the opposite. It changed my life. I had fun and we all realised that however much or little we were currently capable of, we could improve on that and even enjoy the journey.
At the end of the ten week course, most of us were still there and a few others had joined along the way – we’d well and truly caught the running bug.
Since then we’ve done a variety of events between us. Personally I’ve done around eight events including a 5k muddy obstacle course and a 24 hour team endurance race, in addition to trying to attend parkrun as often as possible. I was delighted a few weeks ago when I got a new parkrun PB which meant I had knocked five minutes off since my first one almost a year ago.
I initially went for two reasons; running on the treadmill was getting boring, I needed a new challenge to keep me interested, but I had a real fear of running outside where people could see me.
The result is that I’m fitter, happier and more confident and I’ve made loads of new friends through running. The Muddy Runner leaders have been fantastic and they and the other ladies from the course continue to inspire me.
I can’t imagine my life without running now. I’m currently writing my running plan for a half marathon in February next year and I feel so incredibly grateful that I stood in that dewy sports field in September a year ago.
Julia Angell – Taking strength from being part of a supportive and positive group.
A day after I completed my second 5K Parkrun, my life changed. I found a lump in my breast and by December 2014 I had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer and on one walk, I even found myself planning everything from my funeral to must-do holiday destinations.
Before my diagnosis, I had actually taken up exercise because of a yearly fitness test at work but the more I did the more I enjoyed it which surprised me as I had always been something of a reluctant runner. What started as small jogs on walks with my dog Stan turned into a 2 mile run to work. When some of my colleagues suggested doing the 5k Parkun, I was nervous but decided to just go for it. I came over the line at 30 minutes, with my workmates cheering me on and from then I couldn’t wait to go back.
Cancer came at me when I was at my healthiest and even though the prognosis was good, I felt terrified. I desperately wanted to continue with exercise during treatment but nothing prepared me for how gruelling chemotherapy was – both on your mind and body.
By July 2014, I was cancer-free and with my treatment (nearly) completed I was determined to get some normality back and that included exercise. I started off really well, turning long walks into jogs but I felt I just needed that little bit of extra motivation. I had heard of the ‘Love Running Tuesday Nighters’ group and once I had been for my first session all of my worries and fears I had about not keeping up disappeared. Jo, who organises the group was so friendly and reassuring and I completed the 2 mile beginner’s course that night.
Within weeks, I was up to 3.4 miles and there are lots of new routes to keep it running. This year has taught me that we’re all stronger than we think we are and it’s just brilliant to be part of group that really encourage and support each other. The group has brought so much positivity to my life and for me it’s not about how far or fast I can go; it’s the fact that I’m alive, able to run and that the exhilaration I feel when I’ve been out can’t be beaten.