by Simon Wheatcroft in Stories

Running Beyond Limitations – The Story of a Blind Ultramarathoner

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One year ago I stood at a crossroads in my life.  For the previous 6 months I had been training with a guide runner.  Being blind for over a decade I had become accustom to using assistance to achieve my physical goals.  All this was set to change; my guide runner was moving to another city.  I was now alone and wondering how I could continue to train.

I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so for a few weeks I had no idea what to do.  Finding guide runners is a difficult process, as one of us would have to adapt our goals and training style to appease the other.  I contemplated for a while until one day I decided to just go out on my own.

I decided to run blind

Close to my house there are a number of soccer pitches, I had the idea if I positioned myself between the goal posts I could run to the other side of the pitch and simply turn round.  Armed with an audio cue based running app on my phone I ran up and down the pitch.  This introduced a number of issues, the pitch was littered with holes as well as attracting a number of dog walkers.  It was time to find another solution.

When training with my guide runner we had always run the same route. I realized I knew this route incredibly well.  So maybe I could just run the streets on my own.  I mentally prepared myself and attempted to persuade my wife it was a good idea.  After a while she agreed and drove me to my old stomping ground.

Armed with RunKeeper to give me pacing and distance audio cues I could begin to learn to run the route solo.  Over a number of weeks I learned every bump and pole placement on a 2 mile route.  I paired these bumps and poles with distance markers through the audio cues, so I knew at .5 miles it was time to prepare for a dip in the pavement signaling a right turn.  I spent a number of weeks practicing and walking the sections that were difficult to remember.  Eventually I knew the route incredibly well, I was easily able to rack up 4 miles by running the set route then turning round and running it in reverse.

The pairing of audio cues with my memorized route allows me to “feel” where I am, for example by the camber of the curb underfoot I am able to recognize my relative position on the pavement.  Other cues such as a change in surface also indicate my location; a change to grass would mean I have veered slightly off course and the same for a change in the pavement surface.  I am able to detect the curb surface from the pavement so make slight adjustments to my footfall to stay in
position.

Training solo I have to assume the route will stay constant

This is obviously not the case.  In the past obstacles have been introduced onto the route forcing me to adapt.  For example traffic cones, dirt piles and random litter.  These all introduce a trip hazard.  There is no way I can avoid these obstacles causing me to trip and stumble on most runs.  However to stay focused I put this at the back of my mind and believe the route will be constant.  If I focused on tripping the anxiety and stress would severely hamper my ability to train alone.

The other obvious obstacle is other people.  To conquer this I adapted my location on the pavement.  I literally hug the curbs, this serves a dual purpose.  I am able to identify my location, as the camber of the pavement will always be different for one foot and most people walk in the middle of the path.  In one year of training I have never run into another person, poles, ditches, walls, signs definitely, but never another person.

Always makes me giggle when people stop me for directions while out running.  Don’t think they would trust me if they knew I was blind.

After conquering training alone I decided to set myself a true challenge

To train and compete in an ultra marathon.  This required a few changes to my training, the 2-mile route was no longer sufficient. I needed to introduce some hills.  This introduced one problem; I had to cross 2 roads.  This was a definite challenge and took a lot more persuasion to get my wife to agree to the change to my training.

I began by memorizing the route on the other side of the road, this went relatively quickly and I had the route down within 2 weeks.  Now I had to learn to cross the roads.  There was nothing I could realistically do to reduce the risk of crossing the roads by the sound of cars.  So one day I bit the bullet and just ran across, I still have trouble on certain days with the confidence to cross the roads so every now and then I will just use the 2-mile route.

But now I am on track for my first ultra.  On June the 24th I will stand at the start of my first ever ultra, it will also be my first ever race.  By June the 25th I hope to achieve my goal and begin training for the next challenge.




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