If you have the will…and a little guidance,
You too, can join the race!
By Lisa Zeigel
On June 5, 2011, more than 6,000 participants raced up the stairs in the second tallest building in the world, the “Taipei 101” in an event dubbed the “Taipei 101 Run-up.” The fastest participant arrived at the 91st floor in just over 11 minutes. This year, the “run-up” raised $85,000 to benefit the visually impaired in Taiwan including children and athletes, so it was fitting that a visually impaired (in this case, blind) athlete finished the race in 16:19! Although this was quite an achievement, it was all in a day’s work for Henry Wanyoike of Kenya, as he is an accomplished “Paralympian.” Wanyoike, born in 1974, lost his sight at the age of 21 when he suffered a stroke. After a period of despair, he entered a special clinic for the blind in his hometown, where he not only learned how to cope with his new way of life but also picked up a knack for knitting - - he became proficient at knitting sweaters! This gave him the self-confidence he needed and he decided to pick up where he had left off in his athletic career (he has been a competitive runner since his youth). Henry proceeded to enter and win marathons in the blind runner divisions as well as one-half marathons, as well as 10K and 5K races and has served as an inspiration to all who are visually impaired.
It is difficult to determine exact figures, but each year an increasing number of visually impaired runners participate in major races, such as the Boston Marathon, and the above-mentioned tower run-up right alongside sighted athletes.
Vision is, of course, an important part of moving our bodies around; we rely on our eyes to see the path ahead of us, to navigate around obstacles, to successfully coordinate complex movements with the hands and feet, and to keep us safe from anything that might harm us in our surroundings. But without “proprioception” we are not as efficient. This can be illustrated by the act of standing and balancing on one leg. Try it with your eyes open - - if you feel yourself wobbling, you can usually correct yourself and will be able to stand after an adjustment or two. Now try it with your eyes closed. It will probably become much more difficult, if not impossible! This is because without vision, we have no reference points to go on (you can’t look at what your foot is doing to be able to adjust it, etc.). But if your eyes remain closed, eventually small “spindles” and organs in all of your supporting tissues (muscles, tendons, and your inner ear) will sense the tension or stretching in your body’s structures and will react to offset these to bring you back into balance.1 It is suggested that this skill can be enhanced when the sense of vision is taken away2 (i.e., performing weight training exercises while blindfolded).
Runners usually start running using a sighted running partner or “guide.” Ideally, a guide’s running ability should be equal to or greater than the blind runner’s because, obviously, he or she needs to be able to keep up with their partner! (In longer races such as marathons, blind runners can usually use up to four separate guides who run part of the way with the athlete). The guide starts out ahead of the runner, and the runner will put one hand in the crook of their guide’s elbow. While they are running, the guide will be moving his or her arm back and forth while the runner maintains a light grip on their arm. In addition, the guides must communicate verbally with the runner to let them know about changes on the running path or obstacles coming up and when these have passed.
When the trainee becomes more comfortable and confident, a tether can be used. The runners hold each end of the tether, connecting them, yet giving the athlete more freedom of movement. A tug from either runner can communicate something different to each, for the athlete, a need for more guidance, or from the guide, a signal to the runner to stay closer. Through practice, some runners develop such a high degree of confidence that they choose to forgo the tether completely and will rely solely on verbal communication from their guide. There are also those who run without guides, but this can be hazardous. In races, blind runners without guides can lose their way off the trail or miss out on hydration stations, which can be dangerous if they do not get enough water. Still, it can be done. As you might imagine, they become finely tuned in to the sounds of the race and rely on asking fellow runners and bystanders for assistance, or they can use a “talking watch” that can be set to count out the distance markers and times as they run.
Guides for track and field competitors help their athletes get settled in their starting block and get positioned correctly behind the starting line. Guides for long jumpers will clap out a rhythm with their hands to help the athletes develop the proper cadence to complete their jump.
In Watertown, Massachusetts, the Perkins School for the Blind holds its own 5k run and walk and invites sighted runners to try the experience of running without sight by wearing a blindfold and running with a guide using a tether.
As I read about Henry Wanyoike and his success in life after suffering what many would consider a catastrophic loss of vision, I felt inspired to write about yet another example of empowerment through fitness. Whatever your physical challenge or mental challenge is, if you have the will…and a little guidance, you too, can join the race!
- Proprioception: How and Why? Shannon Lee
- Training Blind by Kelly Bagget