The guide for visually impaired runners

How an ordinary runner can be an extraordinary volunteer.

Before a run I fret a little over the usual things. Panic of a stitch, dehydration, running out of steam. It doesn’t cross my mind that I might trip over a change in terrain, run into a low hanging branch, stumble over a tree root, veer towards a riverbank or collide with another runner.

I check I have my watch, iPod, shades, headphones. I don’t need to pre-arrange any assistance or remember a lifeline like a guide rope.

You get the picture. These obstacles are a reality for visually impaired runners, but there is a solution that perhaps you didn’t know about, or didn’t realise you could play a part in.

I didn’t either, and when I watched a blind runner compete at the 2012 Paralympics I was ignorantly unaware that someone with a visual impairment could participate safely in speedy athletics such as running where reaction time needs to be quick and you literally throw yourself into what lies ahead.  In darkness or even semi-darkness I have my arms outstretched, moving very cautiously. I was pretty amazed that evening at the Olympic Stadium.

Paul and his guide Leigh at Bedfont Lakes parkrun
Paul and his guide Leigh at Bedfont Lakes parkrun

I was also amazed more recently, to meet Paul a registered blind runner, at my local parkrun. Paul has been blind since birth and can only detect light and dark. Over the last few years he has been running sporadically with a guide, but wanted to make running a more regular activity so joined a cohort of Couch to 5k (C25K) based at Runnymede Runners in Surrey. The group marked the end of their training programme by completing their nearest 5km parkrun at Bedfont Lakes. Paul was paired up with Leigh from Runnymede Runners (being a guide was an inaugural role for him) and achieved sub-35 minutes. Fantastic teamwork and result at grassroots level.

Speaking with Paul, he runs for the same reasons as many – to get fit and to get out the house. All his workouts are recorded on his Apple watch (Apple kit is fully accessible for all users) which allows him post-run to analyse his performance. Whilst he was happy completing his first 5km parkrun, he wants to continue training and smash those PBs. In order to get out and run however he does rely on a guide each time, ‘to be his eyes’. The trust, courage and confidence required – for both runner and guide – is awe-inspiring. There are regulations when it comes to competitions but for general running and jogging a person of any gender, age or ability has the potential to become a guide and in doing so offer independence to a visually impaired runner.

So how does guide running work?

It’s actually not too complex and just takes some practice.

A simple rope or fabric tether links the two runners, and clear verbal communication replaces the visual function. The main duties of the guide are quite obvious – to give directions, warn of changes underfoot and safeguard the runner. Clearly, the guide needs to be fit enough to run around the same speed but is led by the runner in that respect – it’s not about being a pacer. Timing is essential, because giving instructions too early or too late leads to confusion and possibly danger. Wearing hi vis clothing with appropriate wording alerts oncoming traffic that you are tethered and therefore can’t separate or meander. The guide also indicates when another runner is approaching, so if you’re sharing the path with a partially sighted runner, saying hi as you pass is helpful. The key is for both runner and guide to gel and ultimately garner trust and teamwork.

When I consider what visual elements motivate and reassure me, there are many. Km/mile markers, marshalls, arrows, friendly faces, the finish line, the clock, chances to overtake, the crest of a hill. How vital the guide is, to describe all this so the runner can build a mental picture that ultimately will get him or her through the run. 

If you feel inspired to use your sight to help a visually impaired runner, you can get involved. Contact British Blind Sport who are working with England Athletics to compile a list of guide runners. EA also run Sight Loss Awareness and Guide Running workshops for all levels. Runnymede Runners are also keen to hear from you, as may your local parkrun or running club. Paul’s advice is to give it a go and don’t be afraid – and he certainly lives by these words.

Links:

Bedfont Lakes parkrun
British Blind Sport
England Athletics
parkrun
Runnymede Runners
Sight Loss Awareness and Guide Running workshop

Paul works full-time in accessibility. When he is not running, he enjoys music, socialising, new tech and taking his daughter out for coffee and shopping trips.  

Thanks to Paul and Leigh at Runnymede Runners for sharing their stories. 

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