Trail Running (UK) - - Contents - Words Paul Hal­ford Pho­tos Tom Bai­ley

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.”


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

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