WE MEET A SPECIAL DUO WHO PROVE LOSING YOUR SIGHT DOESN’T MEAN YOU LOSE YOUR FREEDOM TO RUN
How guide runners are helping visually impaired athletes hit the trail
I’m standing in the middle of a field in Wollaton Park, Nottingham, about to run blindfolded. As a complete adrenaline-phobe who avoids boats, is nervous of flying, won’t contemplate fairground rides and takes to downhill fells like a puppy encountering stairs for the first time, I’m wondering how I will cope with this.
I’m at the mercy of Tim Vincent, a guide for blind runner Nick Thorley, and we’re attached at the wrist by a leash around 30cm in length. If you’re familiar with Wollaton Park and its herds of roaming deer, you’ll know it has a whopping great hill leading up to Wollaton Hall, immortalised as Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises. We’ve avoided the hill, though, and found a flat bit safe enough for me to make my blind running debut. There are few obstacles in the way – no trees, no low-hanging branches, no deer to negotiate. It’s not quite a cricket pitch, but certainly not your typical trail. The trickiest bit is the long grass we start off in.
Simple? Try telling that to my heart, which raises by 10 or 20 beats before we head off. It’s still pounding when we get on the move, even though we’re doing outside 10-minute mile pace. You take the ground for granted when you can see it, but with that luxury gone you have a closer connection. You feel every stride – each one a step into the unknown. In truth, though, before we stop I realise the experience isn’t half as scary as I’d imagined.
Now it’s my turn to guide Nick, who was born with retinitis pigmentosa and whose vision started to deteriorate
aged five, before disappearing completely aged 28. A few words of advice from Tim, like pointing out undulations and advising me to keep the leash short so your wrists are touching, are greatly appreciated. However, it’s such a huge responsibility that my heart-rate soon soars again.
I tell Nick we’re starting with a section of long grass, then we’re off. “Now into short grass,” “slight dip coming up”, “slight rise coming”. The inclines are such that you would barely notice them normally. I manage not to send Nick, who’s completed several ultras and marathons, to only his second ever fall. But let’s not get carried away – if I were guiding properly we could be negotiating everything from tree stumps to people to bins on narrow pavements.
Tim, an experienced runner who was a friend of Nick’s before the latter began running in 2015, says: “It’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be. We started off very steady on an old disused railway line that had been turned into a path, so it was pretty flat and wide and we could just keep going.
“I got confidence from that. Then we started running on the streets, which was harder.
“I’d feel awful if I ever hurt Nick or if my guiding in a race caused someone else to get hurt by clipping their heels and knocking them flying. But it’s never happened, in all the miles we’ve run together. It’s nowhere near as hard as you think it’s going to be. Start off small, start off safe, build up your confidence, and build up that trust.”
That trust isn’t to be underestimated. Nick calls Tim his friend rather than his guide, and you have to get on when you could spend so much time together. Their longest guided run was the Dukeries 40 trail race in Nottinghamshire. “That was a long eight and a half hours,” jokes Tim, but they say they’ve never fallen out.
Runner and guide have to be compatible when it comes to pace. The guide could be slightly quicker, but not so much that it’s a bind for them to run so slowly. Nick, who does most of his running on a treadmill at home, says: “A couple of times I’ve run with people and I’ve really wanted to get a PB but then they’ve tired. That’s where it becomes harder to find the right partner.”
That’s where the Find A Guide scheme comes in. Run by England Athletics in conjunction with British Blind Sport, it’s a training and licence scheme for runners that provides a searchable database. The training isn’t a requirement when it comes to guiding someone in an event – Tim himself is self-taught – but it would definitely be of use when it comes to your confidence.
Tim’s right behind anyone who wants to try it. “I find it rewarding because running has really helped me in my life,” he says. “So to share that with someone who perhaps wouldn’t be able to do those longer off-road runs without a bit of help is hugely rewarding for me. I’d encourage anyone to have a go at it.”
‘START OFF SMALL, START OFF SAFE. BUILD UP YOUR CONFIDENCE AND BUILD UP TRUST.’ Tim Vincent, guide runner
Tim Vincent (left) has guided Nick Thorley on a 40-mile trail run
Paul Halford treads gingerly as he guides Nick Thorley after receiving advice from Tim Vincent (inset)
Nottingham’s Wollaton Park is full of easy trails that are suitable for guided running