For the sighted runner, the idea of running – much less racing – with a significant or total loss of vision is hard to grasp. We count on our eyesight to get us across the street safely, focus on the finish line and draw inspiration from the world around us. But for Hazel McFarlane, ultrarunner and president of Troon Tortoises, losing her sight completely was actually a bit of a relief.
After years of running partially sighted, she was told to stop to avoid further damage to her vision. When she lost her sight entirely, she finally had the freedom to achieve her running goals.
Hazel lost no time in making the transition from being a partially sighted runner to running alongside a sighted guide - a trusted friend who keeps her on the right path and alerts her to upcoming hazards or terrain changes. Even though her first few runs made her motion sick, Hazel finds running easier now than when she was partially sighted: “Before I struggled to keep up or read maps,” she told us. “Now I always have company, and my runs are much more relaxing.”
With the help of her guides and the ‘welcoming and inclusive’ members of her club, Hazel takes part in every training session and has completed several ultras.
Like many sighted runners, Hazel finds the treadmill boring. “There’s nothing to stimulate me,” she told us. “Even if I can’t see the sights outside, my guide will tell me what she’s seeing, even if it’s just how the sun is poking out from behind a cloud. Outside I can listen to sounds, and conjure up a picture of what I’m sensing. There’s so much more to running than seeing.”
Neil Skene lost his sight in his late teens, and has now been running for over 25 years. His weekly routines are much like any other runner’s, including track speedwork with a guide or on his own treadmill; he’s added small sticky ‘bumps’ to the buttons to help him find the right ones. For him, running is a great stress buster: “My wife tells me I’m like a bear with a sore head if I don’t get my runs in!” Running also gives Neil the confidence to do one of his many jobs: giving motivational and inspirational talks as a professional speaker.
Like Hazel, Neil runs regularly outdoors with a guide, and uses a short length of rope to keep in close contact. He has a few guides to choose from, but not every visually impaired runner is so lucky. “If you have the opportunity to help a visually impaired person run, don’t be scared,” he told us.
Neil’s guide, Graeme Hay, loves running with him. “The satisfaction experienced from running is as good as it gets. To share that experience with a visually impaired runner like Neil by becoming his running guide surpasses the ‘highs’ you get from running on your own or with others who have full sight.”
Using a guide to talk through a run works well for visually impaired runners – but what about those who also can’t hear? Stephen Joyce has been profoundly deaf and partially sighted (with severe tunnel vision that’s “like looking through two kitchen rolls”) from birth. Like many sighted runners, he runs ‘mainly for the fun of it’ and he enjoys the freedom and independence the sport gives him.
With his restricted vision, Stephen needs to be very careful about where he runs; he sticks to flat paths and places free of obstacles. He’s also not able to run when it’s too bright or dark outside, or when paths are crowded. Unlike runners with no sight at all, Stephen doesn’t need a guide for his regular runs, although he uses them in marathons, to act ‘as both his eyes and ears’.
Stephen’s message to other would-be visually impaired runners is simple: “You can do it. It can be difficult to find the right support, but when you do, it will make your life better. The only person who can put barriers in place is you.”
Wise words for sighted runners too.