The sport of running is booming in the UK right now. A recent England survey found the number of people running stands at over 2.1 million, with only swimming more popular.
As a runner for over 20 years, I’ve definitely noticed the recent significant rise in participation in my sport. Community initiatives such as http://www.parkrun.org.uk/parkrun, and practical guides like the Couch to 5K podcasts are playing a vital part in shifting running from a world inhabited mostly by mega-competitive, mud-loving mavericks, to one which is a regular pass-time for people of all abilities, ages, fitness levels and ambitions.
I’ve completed five marathons – personal best 3 hours 29.36, Berlin 2012 – and am training for Nottingham later in the year. I, like thousands of others, am a regular at parkrun, with a personal best over 5k of 20 minutes 09 seconds.
My deafblindness is as a result of the genetic condition Usher Syndrome. I have limited vision – light and dark perception, and am profoundly deaf. With the use of hearing aids this is significantly improved, in the majority of situations my hearing is the lesser of the two impairments. It’s quite common for people not to realise the severity until they think I’m ignoring them or not paying attention (confession, sometimes that’s the truth, ha!). This does have it’s downsides of course. I often find conversation in noisier environments wash over me and concentration to keep up with what is going on around me can be tiring. Then there’s the regular assumption that anyone who can’t see must have amazing hearing.
As I have sufficient hearing to be able to communicate verbally, it is my sight which is the dominant impairment for running. For me to run, assistance from guide runners is essential. Using a sweatband bandanna often popular with tennis players, I’ve tied a knot in the middle which creates too smaller loops. The guide runs alongside me with us holding a loop each. As we’re joined by something small enough to fit round a person’s head, the gap between guide and runner is small; however there is enough space to allow for freedom of arm movement and consequently a more relaxed, natural running style, whilst we’re not too far apart that the guide is unable to take control when necessary.
My hearing impairment does have a limited impact on my running. A good guide/athlete relationship is essential for success, and there are times when my hearing means the guide needs to work harder than they might for other blind runners. Running on windy days often makes it harder to hear.
If it so much as looks like rain I always run in a woolly hat as hearing aids are not water-proof. When I ran the Loch Ness Marathon I made the mistake of believing the weather forecast and left my hat at the hotel – it’s the Scottish Highlands, what was I thinking? A downpour 2 miles into the race meant I ran hearing aid-less for the remaining 24. Whilst my guide had a loud voice, I have absolutely no idea what the race atmosphere was like, a big part of the enjoyment of any event.
Digital hearing aids infuriating insistence on adjusting to noise levels makes my ability to judge my own surroundings by sound trickier. Crowded races can present a challenge, so running with a guide I trust is essential. Parkrun, with it’s “run not a race” mantra has provided excellent opportunities for newer guides to practise in busier environments, before I throw them into an actual race where amongst other things, they have to deal with my reckless style - run hard from the start and hope for the best.
My left is the stronger of my ears and so the guide always runs on that side. With marathon training requiring runs of 3 hours, this does make me more susceptible to injuries. A look through my physio’s records shows she has had to work on virtually every muscle on the left, with far less work needed for the right. Yoga proved to be a great help in dealing with the lop-sided strains of running, however with balance being more difficult for me as a deafblind person, not being able to watch an instructor and hearing being awkward – especially during the bits when my head is upside down - one-to-one coaching is my preferable option. This however has proved more expensive and, at times, harder to organise.
Running’s boom is partly due to how easy it is to start. All a person needs is a reasonable pair of running shoes and somewhere to run. This is also the case for a deafblind person like me, with one obvious addition; I need someone to run with. Thanks to an internet search eight years ago I’m a member of The Stragglers Running Club in Kingston. From day one they were very enthusiastic about integrating me into the club, with many runners offering to take a turn at learning how to guide. I have heard stories about other clubs which aren’t so open. As a result of this support, I don’t consider my achievement to be that I run, something which I’m often told is how other people view me. I prefer people to be impressed by athletic achievement, such as it might be, rather than overcoming any physical barrier.
There are great benefits for the guide too; the loneliness of the long-distance runner is never an issue. Unfortunately age will eventually catch up with all of us, and for runners this can mean those personal bests become a distant memory – I’m pleased to say I’ve not reached that point just yet. I do know that for some guides, the opportunity to take on the challenge of helping someone else to a new personal best is as rewarding as if they were aiming for their own.
As an outdoors-minded person, I can often be frustrated by restrictions on freedom deafblindness places on me. It’s simply not practical for me to get on a train and head for the hills whenever I feel like it. The running lifestyle I’ve created, with the support of others does allow me to satisfy my restlessness and desire to be outside, something a gym membership for example doesn’t do. I could run on a treadmill whenever I like, but for me that’s not the same as feeling the mud on my legs, the sun on my arms, the wind in my face and pulling my woolly hat down over my ears to keep the rain out.
If you would like to read more about how I run, in 2014 I self-published a book focusing on my debut marathon – London in 2011 – and my subsequent exploration of what I ran past along the 26.2 mile course. Find out more at http://www.runningblindbook.com/www.runningblindbook.com