Keen to do take your running in a different direction or to make a difference? Our NoviceRunnerNik has a story for you:
Take your running in a different direction: Visually Impaired Guiding
I’ve been a qualified England Athletics Run Leader (Leader in Running Fitness) for a few years. My running club put me through the course. One of our coaches plans and organises routes but the leaders are there to lead the route, manage the group, risk assess and make route changes if needed (e.g. when you find a tree has just fallen across the road you were supposed to be running up!) and keep everyone safe and happy. I lead a run with the club each week, usually, but not always, from the back of the group, encouraging the slower runners and making sure no one is left behind. Learning to enjoy running and other physical activity in my late 30s has been a complete revelation and life changer and I’m keen to inspire others to get outside and move.
In February this year I attended an England Athletics Sight Loss Awareness Course & Guide Running Workshop where we learned how to support more visually impaired (VI) people in running. We learned that visual impairment covers a huge spectrum of sight issues, from mild to totally blind, and that you won’t insult a visually impaired person if you say ‘See you next week’. We practised running blindfold with a guide which is frightening when you go from full vision to no vision, even when you’re tethered to a guide. I learned that telling someone to turn 90 degrees to the left doesn’t help much when you can’t see how much you’re turning! We learned that a guiding partnership is very unique and you have to, to a large extent, work it out as you go. And finally we learned that the hardest thing about guiding is finding visually impaired people who want to run!
Finding VI Runners
I set up a Facebook Group to help connect local VI Guides with VI runners and wannabe runners and anyone else interested. We’ve had some success, pairing a guide from the course with a VI runner who was in desperate need of a training partner and guide for the London Marathon. I’ve talked to various signposting and support organisations to try and get us known about.
A VI Runner Finds me!
But no VI Guiding joy for me until August when I had an email via Run Together’s Find a Guide website, where I’m listed as a Licenced VI Guide. Sam emailed to see if I would guide her at the Eden Project parkrun when she was visiting the area on her holidays. I was so pleased to be asked but explained that I had yet to actually guide anyone and I’ve only run that course once. Whilst Sam was fine with this, the Run Director of the parkrun preferred that Sam used one of the course’s VI guides who was very experienced on this fast, popular and narrow course. To avoid possible pile ups Sam went with their suggestion but very kindly offered to meet me in Truro to take me out for my first VI Guiding experience.
And we go for a run!
I met with Sam, her husband Matt and her lovely Guide Dog Lizzie at the start of the route my club uses for its Walk Run group as although it’s not without its hazards, it provides varying but easy surfaces to run on and is partly away from traffic.
Sam and I were both a bit nervous – it was quite a lot like a blind date! Sam had previously been a sighted runner before her vision began to fail and she’s been a VI runner for a year or so. She ran the London Marathon this year with her brother guiding her, so is very experienced. We talked about how much she can see, how she likes to be guided, what I need to tell her about and how, which side of the guide she runs on, how to use the tether and so on. We donned our Run Together High Vis bibs with’ Blind Runner’ and ‘Guide Runner’ on them and then we were off. I watched the route surface all the time and to let Sam know of surface changes, variations in surface height (‘high knees Sam’ then ‘back to normal Sam’) and changes in direction (much used by the Chuckle Brothers but ‘to me’ and ‘to you’ or ‘away from me’ worked much better for us both than left or right!) just before they happen.
The Reality of VI Guiding
Sam and I confessed that we are terrible chatters – I do love a good chinwag when I run socially as it passes the time and helps with the tedium of long runs – but as a guide you have to remember to keep feeding back the useful information and instructions, so you often have to interrupt the conversation.
As a guide you have to do all the thinking and basic decision making for the both of you. Although I had a simple route lined up, I had to think about where we were going, when we should stop to let a car pass. And guiding is exhausting! Sam said to me that guides need to be fitter than their running partners as so much energy goes into the guiding part of the run and she wasn’t wrong. We ran 2.75 miles at a slower pace than I’d run on my own and I felt like I’d raced a 10k! I’m in awe of VI Runners and their guides running marathons and offroad trails. Just incredible.
I really enjoyed running with Sam – she was so friendly and helpful and gave me a great first guiding experience, which I’ll always be grateful for.
Sam told me that in her home county of Essex there’s only one guide, so he’s in huge demand. I suggested she moves to Cornwall where she could have a different guide every day of the week!
If you’re looking to take your running, or other activity, in a different direction consider volunteering to help others do the things you like to do. From parkrun to run leading to VI guiding, there are all sorts of opportunities out there.
Words by Nicola Bathe, images by Colin Bathe.