Running blind – what it’s like as a blind runner to be guided

What’s it really like for a blind runner to be guided in long-distance running events? I’ve been guiding Nick Thorley for just over a year now, and in this post, he shares his contrasting experiences from two recent races to describe what it’s actually like to be guided when you can’t see a single thing. Over to Nick…

The London Marathon vs The Dukeries 40

When I crossed the line at the end of my first London marathon this year I just wanted to curl up and die. I felt absolutely shattered – completely and utterly exhausted. I was freezing cold, finding it hard to move my legs, I felt sick and could hardly walk. For two hours I wondered if this blind runner would ever want to run again, never mind take part in another marathon, of any description.

Three weeks later I had completed my first ultra. 40 miles in just over eight and a half hours. Ironically, this seemed to pass by rather more quickly than the four hours and eight minutes in London! My tank was pretty empty and my legs were definitely aching. But I felt a million times better than three weeks earlier. I had a coffee, a cup of soup and a bread roll and I felt this tremendous thirst for my next run.

This kind of reflection will appear ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t experienced the crazy ups and downs of running. But it’s entirely true. As well as reflecting a little bit on my vastly contrasting experiences in these two races, I’ll try and offer an insight into what it was like to participate in them as a blind runner.

London – an incredible audio experience!

I guess that if you can’t see, you’re particularly aware of what you can hear. Everyone you’ve heard talk about the atmosphere at the London marathon is correct – it’s extraordinary. Miles and miles and miles of cheering crowds. I had my name on my vest, and having countless people shout encouragement to you by name is a tremendous boost. You know they don’t know you but somehow it still really helps and feels great. On one or two occasions the noise was deafening – hundreds of people just shouting at the top of their voices as you ran by.

The atmosphere generated by the crowds at the London Marathon are simply fantastic. So much noise!

 

The problem for me in London was that I hit the wall after 17 miles. I just felt like there was nothing left. The thought of another 9 miles was excruciating. What made it more frustrating was that I had been confident of making a PB. I was aiming at 3 hours 45 and my training had gone well.

I had started to come down with a cold a week or so before the marathon and was worried that this might affect my performance. Everything felt pretty good for the first half of the race but then, fairly suddenly, the tank was empty. With all this going on, towards the end (and forgive me – I feel like I’m about to blaspheme or something) I started to wish that people weren’t shouting. I know, how awful of me! Everything was just too much – the distance, the emptiness and lack of energy, the noise of the crowd…

The Dukeries 40 – the sound of semi-solitude

In contrast, I think there were probably less than 20 people that we passed along the way on the ultra (not including the volunteers at the Aid Stations). However, I think that the applause and warm words from these individuals was equally encouraging and moving and meant so much. The warmth and support of the volunteers at the Aid Stations was also incredibly uplifting – as were the peanut butter sandwiches!

The ultra was so different. Because I felt good (up until the final five miles) I was able to sink into a fairly relaxed, quiet contemplative state. This, of course, wasn’t true for the whole run but, for significant stretches, I was able to think and reflect in a fairly deep way. For example, at one point, I submerged into a really long period of recounting times when I’d knocked myself out by running into things as a child. I had never before considered the impact of these numerous incidents on my well-being. I was thinking about how it must have affected me – the trauma, pain and embarrassment of these moments.

There’s gonna be plenty of time for contemplation… Eight-and-a-half hours in fact!

The main challenge at London

In London, the main challenge to me as a blind runner was the congestion. We were so thrilled to have lots of space around us at the start of the race. I think this continued for maybe 8 or 9 miles. But, from then on, we were constantly having to check our stride, slow down, speed up, slow down again – it was incredibly difficult. Tim did an amazing job of guiding me and I honestly can’t remember bumping into anyone.

Despite us both wearing vests denoting our guide / blind runner status’, people were regularly cutting us up. Tim’s arm would shoot across my chest and I’d know it was time to slam on the breaks. In the early miles, this is fine and you think nothing of it but later in the race – when the legs are really hurting – it becomes an almost agonising experience. We would be running in a good rhythm and then come upon a knot of runners. We’d have to slow down and then suddenly make a run for it when a gap appeared.

In the final 6 or 7 miles I found this excruciating. We’d stop to take on lots of fluid, recover a little energy and then set off again. We must have run for a few miles and I was starting to feel ok but then Tim’s arm would shoot out, the rhythm would be interrupted and I’d just want to stop, roll over and go to sleep.

A different challenge around Sherwood Forest

There was no problem of congestion on the ultra! For a blind runner, the main challenge was the conditions under foot. The most difficult moments were near the start and the end of the race. These were sections when we ran through fields. The ground was very hard and uneven. There were ruts, lumps, bumps, troughs, gullies – it was like the ground had been ploughed and then suddenly set in almost rock like mud.

Because the ground was so undulating it was impossible for Tim to let me know about every hole or step. Instead, he would have to say  “really bumpy bit coming up” and then I’d have to just run carefully. This would involve lifting my feet a little higher and just being ready to adjust my stride, lift my foot again and generally not put too much weight on each step until my foot felt secure. As with the experience of running in congestion in London, this kind of thing is fine when you’re feeling bright and sprightly but 35 miles in it becomes incredibly tough and painful. This is why we walked quite a bit during the final mile or two – it was just too tricky to run over that kind of ground with my suspension shot!

Blind runner and guide navigate a farmer's field
This one wasn’t too bad, but when the path on the edge of a farmer’s field got narrow, things got tricky!

Drinking

After much reflection and thought, we reckon that my main problem in London was me being dehydrated. It was quite a warm day in London and I suffered terribly from not drinking enough early on. My face was a mess of salt towards the end. In the worst moments, downing a bottle of Lucozade did seem to make quite a difference. I learned my lesson and during the 40 miles of the ultra, I consumed over 3 litres of water. It’s always a bit embarrassing when you get caught out by such a basic mistake but there it is – you just have to learn from it. Constantly sipping water from my bottles seemed to do the trick and I’m never going to run without a bottle again!! Having this element of the race nailed made such a positive difference to both my physical performance and the state of my mind.

blind runner being passed a bottle of water
I blame myself for Nick getting dehydrated in London. As the more experience runner, I should’ve ensured he had enough

 

At London, I was a blind runner and semi-pro whinger…

Tim was amazing during both marathons. It’s the first time I’ve run a marathon with one guide. During my two previous marathons, I’ve had 3 or 4 guides, each running a section and then handing me on to someone else. It was a great pleasure running with my old friend for the duration of each run. And the consistency of one voice really helps.

In London, I really needed his calm words. I found myself saying things like ‘I don’t know if I can keep going‘ and ‘I feel like there’s nothing left‘. How embarrassing! Tim hasn’t let me forget about saying those things! The truth is that I had no intention of giving up or stopping. I knew that I’d get over the line one way or another. But – and I reflected on this quite a bit during the ultra – because Tim was there, it was all too easy to moan at him and try and get him to encourage me.

I guess this is one of those unique blind runner things. You’re never alone – you always have someone at your side. Tim’s encouragement was perfect. At my lowest point in London, he said ‘just calm down, breathe deeply, remember your training and let’s just run at a nice pace.’ It helped me so much and we then had a really good four miles or so before the stopping and starting kicked in again in the congestion and it started driving me crazy!

In the Ultra, I was a blind runner and part philosopher

At some points of the Ultra, I did think about moaning at Tim. However, I started to think about what I would do if I was on my own. I do train on my own quite a bit – I have a running machine in my kitchen. When I’m training I have to take responsibility for myself and just keep going. Sometimes I start saying encouraging things to myself and if I’m really struggling I start growling at myself. I thought about how it was a bit of an easy way out to tell Tim that I was tired or struggling or hurting. Then I thought that as well as being annoying for him, it wouldn’t be particularly encouraging if he was struggling a bit. I think I managed not to whinge during the entire 40 miles. It’s something I’ll continue to think about in the future. Blind runner or not, running often hurts.

Tim guiding Nick in his first ultramarathon
It’s a bit blurry, but I love this shot taken by Sharon. This is how I’ll remember The Dukeries 40.

The Guide

What I find most remarkable about Tim’s performance as a guide was his incredible mental endurance. To have the wherewithal to keep saying which way we were turning, what the conditions underfoot were and to point out anything essential was amazing. In marathons, I get to that stage when I take at least five seconds to respond to simple instructions. My guide says “stop” and it takes ages for my brain to register the word. It has to soak in before comprehension dawns and my body obeys! A guide has to be bang on with their instructions right to the end of the race. I think Tim’s performance was utterly remarkable.

As we neared the finish line of the Ultra, Tim congratulated me on my run. I tried to express my gratitude to him and almost started to cry. Earlier in the day, someone had asked Tim how he’d got into Guide Running. I almost said to the questioner – ‘he’s not a guide, he’s my mate‘. If you’ve read my previous post you’ll know how running has changed my life and helped to free me from addiction. It’s all thanks to Tim that I run such crazy long races and it makes me feel incredible. I’ll never take his friendship or his guiding for granted.

2 thoughts on “Running blind – what it’s like as a blind runner to be guided

  1. It sounds like the two of you make a pretty good running team. I find each run teaches me something new, whether it be about running, or myself/life, and that’s without having to factor in running the use of one of my senses, or being responsible for guiding another runner. I’m just venturing into trail running, and find I am frequently checking where my feet are landing. I think it’s pretty amazing to be able to complete a trail ultra without being able to see where your feet are landing, and relying on someone else to guide you; and conversely, to guide someone on a trail while having to make sure you stay upright yourself. Your success as a team speaks volumes about the relationship between the two of you.

    1. Thanks for those kind words, Georgia, they are very much appreciated. You’re right, we do work well as a team. I’ve likened Nick to a mountain goat when he runs on trail – he just seems to instinctively feel the ground out somehow and rarely stumbles. It amazes me, as – like you – I’m continually looking where to land my own feet, and he can’t. We’re tackling a 100-miler together in September, so I think that will test our team to the limits! 🙂 Really appreciate the comment, thank you.

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