Like all the best running stories this one starts in a pub…
A little over 18 months ago I was sitting in a pub having a pint with Mark Raine when he mentioned he had enrolled for a Sight Loss Awareness course with England Athletics. This is something I have been interested in for a little while and so I jumped at the chance to join Mark. The course itself is only a few hours long but it is very informative and does give you an opportunity to speak to experienced guide runners and speak to and guide visually impaired (VI) athletes. We also had the opportunity to wear different types of glasses that recreate certain visual impairments so that we can get a feel for what the athlete experiences. Some of you may have seen Mark and I running at parkrun with one of us guiding and the other wearing some blackout glasses Mark made.
It was a great experience and shortly afterwards we gained our qualification and registered with the UK database of guide runners, Find a Guide – https://runtogether.co.uk/running-support/find-a-guide/
Then it went quiet. It took over a year but then out of the blue both Mark and I were contacted within a week. Fast forward a couple of weeks and now both Mark and I have guided VI athletes, Mark and Dal at the Middlesbrough 10K and myself and Louise at Albert parkrun and then Dal at the Great Stockton 10K.
Pete asked me to write this race report from the perspective of the guide, however I must mention a little bit about Dal and Louise. As I mentioned earlier there are many different visual impairments. Dal and Louise both have total sight loss and are completely reliant on their guides. Dal is very new to running and the Middlesbrough 10K was his first 10K race. He finished in 1hr 29min 50 sec. Louise is a much more experienced runner with 287 parkruns under her belt, over 20 marathons and a hand full of ultra-marathons! Both Dal and Louise are great people, very confident and very inspirational.
So back to Great Tees 10K day. Dal and Louise were both arriving on the same train from Newcastle into Middlesbrough just after 8am and I had arranged to meet them at the station. They were coming on their own and I was also on my own, another guide runner (Josh) was meeting us later at Stockton to guide Louise.
Being a guide runner isn’t just about the race. It sounds obvious but the VI athlete needs to get to the race and back, get from the car park to the race, navigate the (very busy and random) athlete villages, avoid barriers and diversion signs that have been placed on the pavement, collect numbers, queue for the loo, collect numbers, leave baggage and find the start.
Louise was keen to do both a parkrun and the 10K so I had chosen Albert parkun as I knew it had good paths for guide running on. This was the first time I would have been a guide so I was keen to keep it simple, especially as I knew the Great Tees 10K course was a lot more technical. I was on my own at this point but Dal was just going to wait at the finish, as a 5K and a 10K in one day was a little much for him. He’s a coffee guy so the plan was to get him a cuppa and then guide Louise. However, when we arrived at the start I figured we could sound out the tail walker and see if they were happy to walk with Dal who would just hold their elbow. The tail walker for the day was Phil who almost offered before I asked when he saw us heading towards him. (A bright orange Guide Runner top gave us away.) What a top guy, and that really was the theme for the day, so many people keen to help and encourage. Phil’s partner even offered to keep hold of our hoodies for us whilst she waited in the café for him.
I’ll be honest, at this point whilst we were waiting to start, I got nervous. I’d spoken to Mark earlier in the week after he had guided at Middlesbrough and he told me it was an amazing high, so I just focused on that. At the start people gave us plenty of space and thankfully the super wide path meant people could get around us easily (or us them, we went past a few people).
One of the things the Sight Loss Awareness course tells us is that we are not coaches or pace makers, so that isn’t an expected part of the role, however if the VI athlete wants to keep a pace it is tricky for them to judge so you do need to also give regular pace and distance updates as well as guide. Louise had asked for me not to tell her how far we had gone or our pace, so I set my Garmin to silent and off we went.
Albert is an incredibly good course for guide running on, it’s pretty flat, all on paths (most of which are super wide), has very few sharp turns and the quality of the tarmac is great. With it being a two lap course I had two chances to memorise the paths and now think I could describe every part of every path in detail! We finished in a respectable 37:58. The volunteers and other athletes were super friendly.
There were a couple of issues with the results, I promise you I wasn’t 6 seconds behind her. However, fun fact, under IBSA rules the VI athlete can be up to 0.5m ahead of the guide to allow for a sprint finish. But if the guide finishes in front of the athlete then the athlete is disqualified. In a marathon a VI athlete can have a relay of up to 4 guides.
The next part of my guide running experience involved navigating us through dogs (lots of dogs) and ducks to get scanned. We then had time to pop into the café whilst we waited for Phil (tail walker) and Dal to pass us. When Dal finished I collected him from Phil and we headed back to the café (past the dogs and ducks again) to meet Louise. Then the second most embarrassing part of the day occurred. I’ve only been to Albert once before, many moons ago and it suddenly dawned on me that whilst I was focusing on helping Dal and Louise out of the car and over the roads I had not paid any attention to where I had parked (we just followed other parkrunners from the car park to the start)! Thankfully Google saved the day.
With parkrun bagged it was on to the main event of the day. We headed back to the car (via dogs and ducks) and headed over to Stockton. Luckily Ray had provided me with maps for road closures and car parks so I had a rough idea of what I thought would be the best place to park minimising roads to cross etc. Once we got there and I had committed the car location to memory it was time to get sorted and head to the start. The walk was a lot more complex than it had been getting from the car to the start of parkrun. The footpaths were a lot narrower and I had a VI on either side of me with lots of people using the paths. Also at various points there were temporary signs on the footpaths to guide cars and people to the correct places, which created pinch points. I realised this was going to be a lot more tricky than Albert.
This is where the most embarrassing part of the day occurred. There were some posts approaching us (this is not going were you think it is) on the edge of the pavement, presumable to stop cars parking up the curb, and I was worried Louise might walk in to one, or even slip off the curb as the path was narrow. Then on my left (the inside of the pavement) there were some lampposts (this is going where you are thinking) and whilst I was paying attention to what Louise was walking towards Dal clipped (I emphasis, clipped) the lamppost with his shoulder. Now Dal has a wicked sense of humour and just laughed, but he did say he was going to push me into a bush later. I felt terrible.
We needed to collect our numbers (I was given a free entry by Great Run, thanks for that!) and meet Josh (guide for Louise) at the information tent. There were quite a few curbs, steps and people to avoid, especially with two VI athletes, but I managed to get them there without injuring them further. Josh was there and took over helping to guide Louise whilst we collected our numbers and filled in the backs of them. The ladies in the information booth were incredibly helpful – I hadn’t considered that Louise would not be able to pin her number on herself (safely) and we had two male guides. Once again everyone was helpful.
Now there was the small matter of the race. Getting to the start was nontrivial due to the entry into the pens being tiny gaps in the barriers, but also just the volume of people. People were very good when they saw the guide runner vest, but in the crowds not everyone saw it. Thankfully I only had one VI athlete now which did make things a lot easier, so I just got very vocal to let people know we were coming through. Seriously, get yourself a Guide Runner vest if you want doors to open. 😉 One of the hardest things at the start, whilst we waited for the gun, was stopping Dal from talking to everyone. Everyone also wanted to talk to him as we started but I needed him to focus on me as we walked/jogged over the start line and the chip timing mats (trip hazards).
Dal runs differently to Louise and it’s up to the guide runner to adapt to whatever the VI athlete prefers. Neither of them use a cord, they both prefer to hold on to you as they get better feedback from that which is good for their confidence, especially with them both being totally blind. Louise likes to be on the right and links her left arm behind your elbow and rests her hand on your arm. Dal prefers to run on the left with his hand resting on your shoulder or occasionally he holds your elbow. It can get quite uncomfortable having the dead weight of someone’s hand on your shoulder for 10K, especially when they get tired. After about 5K my back started to ache and I felt a bit lopsided, maybe this was his way of getting me back for the lamppost.
The course itself was a lot more technical than Albert parkrun but not as bad as Ray had led me to believe 😉 so I was prepared for worse. Like Albert it was not a closed course so there were people walking towards us but, unlike Albert, on quite narrow paths, we also had curbs and bollards to deal with and some pretty tight turns, especially towards the end. In places the path was a little uneven but we managed without incident. Once again the marshals were great and pointed things out to me very early so I had time to pass it on. Dal did want to know his pace as he was keen to beat his time from the previous week with Mark so I gave regular updates. He also asked me to describe certain things he could hear on the river.
At one point I said there was a water station ahead and he asked how far. Now I already knew there was no point in telling him the distance as he has been blind since birth and has no way of knowing how far 10 metres is. Top tip, talk in time, 10 seconds away etc, which for someone like me who has no concept of time posed a challenge. When the water station arrived, I swapped to the left and collected two bottles for us, removed the tops and passed one to Dal. We decided at this point to just walk whilst we drank, it wasn’t going to end well if I tried to guide whilst drinking water! Unlike Albert I needed to talk constantly on this course.
Interestingly (or not) due to the early start to the day I hadn’t eaten breakfast. But I had put a cereal bar in the car for later. The plan was to eat it on the walk from the car to the start of the Stockton 10K. I now know that this wasn’t a great plan as you can’t guide and eat and I hadn’t factored in that I would be guiding from the car. It’s obvious now but totally caught me out at the time. I was getting pretty hungry by now, it was after mid-day and I was mid-way through my second run. I need to plan that better next time.
As we came towards the final mile we knew it was going to be close for beating the Boro 10K time but Dal picked up the pace. He was very tired at this point and putting a lot of weight on my shoulder, but we got to the finish and everyone cheered him over the line. Mark had given me a tip to let him know the cheering is for him, which I did and I think he liked it (thanks for that Mark).
There was only one water station on the course at 4K and Dal was really struggling with the heat, so we needed to find water quick. This is where it was tricky as I could see it but couldn’t get Dal to follow me as he was too tired and a lot of people were wanting to congratulate him. I didn’t want to leave him with lots of people crowding around so I used the power of the Guide Runner vest to create a path. We stopped for some photos and then headed back to the athlete village to meet Louise and Josh.
So, drum roll, did Dal get his PB and did we beat Mark…yes we did, in a time of 1hr 24min. And for those that are worried I had a banana whilst Josh helped Dal and Louise.
But that wasn’t the end. We then had to get back to the car so we could get to Middlesbrough train station. Now I didn’t realise this but at “manned” train stations visually impaired people can get assistance, which in this case was very good. We got to the counter and a guard came onto the platform to wait with Dal and Louise whilst they waited for the train and to make sure they got on the correct train. The guard on the train helps them get off the train at the right stop and then the guard on the platform helps them out of the station. I believe they used a taxi from there to get home.
So my job was suddenly over. It was a bit on an anti-climax in a way but thankfully we had time to have a coffee, so I waited with them (I was off duty thanks to the guard being with them) and we just had a good old chat for 20 minutes. I was exhausted when I got back to the car. My step count was over 30,000 but I think my word count was higher.
Mark was right, the whole experience was an amazing high, I’m still buzzing as I write this the day after. This morning I saw a VI athlete running with a guide at the GNR. Who knows, maybe next year. But really this race report is about how inspiring the VI athletes are, these people are fearless. Try closing your eyes and running for a few seconds (in the park away from roads and the lake!).
By Steve Foreman