Runnymede Runners: visionaries for the future of guide running

In a previous blogpost I recounted how a visually impaired runner Paul and his guide Leigh had greatly inspired me at Bedfont Lakes parkrun in the autumn, Leigh steering Paul to a sub-35 finish despite Paul being registered blind.

Paul and his guide Leigh at Bedfont Lakes parkrun
Paul and his guide Leigh at Bedfont Lakes parkrun
My article breezily explained how almost anyone could give guide running a go, pairing up with a visually impaired (VI) runner and sharing the exhilaration of crossing the finish line. So when the opportunity arose to attend a Sight Loss and Guide Running workshop, I thought I had better put my money where my mouth is and give it a shot.

In fact, I didn’t have to part with any cash (just some loose change for venue hire, caffeine and biscuits) as the workshop was delivered by England Athletics (EA) in conjunction with British Blind Sport for FREE. Runnymede Runners organised the 2-hour event in a lovely venue – Wraysbury Skiff and Punting Club within Runnymede Pleasure Grounds in Surrey – and I snapped up one of 20 available places.

On a bright, cold Sunday morning in November we assembled. The group was mixed: some like me were rookies, others had tried guide running before – Paul being their guinea pig. Having Paul at the workshop was really insightful; we got his personal opinion and thoughts on various scenarios.

workshop group
Workshop participants
Friendly EA Club and Coach Support Officer Christine Benning facilitated the workshop and led us through a presentation covering types of visual impairment, racing regulations, terminology, technique and tips and we watched a video of guide running in action. In the footage they all seemed to gel in their pairs and navigate the routes effectively. I was feeling positive! The workshop atmosphere was informal, chatty and full of banter (Paul’s a good sport, as is Leigh who was reminded a few times that he previously led Paul into a low hanging branch. The jokes were later aimed in my direction. Read on…).

 

Out came the box of props.

goggles
Vision goggles to simulate variations of visual impairment
We tried on 10 pairs of goggles/glasses and a blindfold that simulated different levels of visual impairment (e.g. tunnel vision, reduced clarity of vision, patchy vision, loss of central vision). Some were stark, like the ones with totally white lenses to mimic sight loss on a severe scale ‘light perception only in both eyes’, when you can only identify between light and dark. I always assumed being blind meant you would just see black. To be frank, I probably wasn’t the only one who realised I take my non-impaired vision for granted.

pairs
Running AND smiling
We paired up for the practical element, tethers at the ready. I was now nervous. Other park users were watching curiously as we donned the goggles and put our lives in the hands of our running guides. The first route was straight up, around a (yellow, not red) cone and back down. I was inclined to cheat and whip off the goggles but instead I trusted my guide Mandy and off we went. We walked, then ran very slowly, but did pick up the pace as we bonded. When preparing to slow down we counted down ‘3, 2, 1, and stop’ which worked perfectly.

running pairsWe even snaked in and out of cones; the narration was a bit like the Chuckle Brothers’ “to me, to you” but it worked! The final task was to go for a longer run, speed up, navigate a narrow gap and change in elevation. Mandy was brilliant and I felt confident running ‘blind’ across the grass and tarmac. We swapped, and all was going well until I let myself get distracted. Having a chat en route is definitely encouraged, but surprising the VI runner with a sudden instruction is not. During the video I had noticed a guide’s tactic of telling the runner to pull in behind them to get through a tight space. So I merrily announced this to Mandy but without enough warning. She was caught unawares, bumped (gently) into a tree to the right and then an ice cream sign to her left, much to the amusement of the rest of the group. At least Leigh was pleased he was now getting less stick for his low hanging branch incident, and I learned a valuable lesson on timing and not being too ambitious too early on! I think Mandy has forgiven me and may trust me again… 🙂

The practical task was the final section of the workshop. We received certificates of attendance from England Athletics, lots of informative factsheets, and invitation to the next stage, a Leadership in Running Fitness course which qualifies and insures leaders to deliver safe and fun running sessions.

I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, learned lots and had fun! I know that with a few more trials guide running is something I want to put into practice, helping my visually impaired running community enjoy the sport we love. We are all now on the guide running database, so watch this space!

Workshop top takeaways:

  • There is a huge range of visual impairment severity. Ensure you find out what the VI runner can and can’t make out
  • Visual impairment can be congenital (from birth) or acquired (e.g. from stroke or accident). This will affect how the VI runner interprets instruction/guiding
  • Weather, time of day and fatigue can all affect level of vision so a clear sunny morning is a good opportunity to try guide running, for both parties
  • Colour blindness should be considered when giving running instructions referring to colour, e.g. ‘run to the red cone’ which may be construed to be green
  • For those wishing to compete, there are three defined degrees of blindness: B1, B2, B3 and British Blind Sport can arrange a sight classification
  • In competitions, the VI runner must cross the finish line before the guide. Both are eligible to win medals 🙂
  • Guides must run, so no bikes or roller skates allowed!
  • The type of obstacles to forewarn the VI runner about include change in terrain, change in elevation, step up/down, narrowing of route, tree roots/branches, oncoming traffic including cars and pedestrians and the need to slow down or stop
  • It is ok to stop if you feel uncomfortable or there is danger!
  • Safety is paramount, and a risk assessment (template provided by EA) should be carried out
  • It’s good to maintain some running commentary, bearing in mind the need to warn of obstacles in good time (as demonstrated!)

With thanks to Colin at Runnymede Runners for arranging the workshop and biscuits, to Christine Benning from England Athletics, my fellow participants for making it fun, Paul for being an inspiration, and of course Mandy for putting her trust in me as her guide runner (and still talking to me!)

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