Updated: Apr 18
For a lot of us, the things we see and experience on our runs are things we take for granted. Watching the trees change through the seasons, jumping over puddles or waving to people we see.
For visually impaired runners, not only is a guide runner essential to get them around the route safely, but they offer an important insight into what’s going on around them.
Leader at Jog Derbyshire group Long Eaton Running Club, Kevin Barry, is a qualified guide runner. He tells us what it’s like to support visually impaired people, the things you need to consider and what he gets out of it.
How did you get into guide running?
I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve been doing couch to 5ks for years and years. I had friends who were guide runners and I thought it was a good thing to do.
It’s quite a cheap task to qualify for. So I just took the plunge and never really regretted it.
Do you need a qualification?
Anyone can become a guide runner. However, to become a licensed guide – meaning you can join the national database – you need to attend an England Athletics Sight Loss Awareness and Guide Running workshop which costs £30 (£20 for members).
I went to Leicester to do it. There were 20 people there and you spend two hours just basically learning both sides. How it feels to be blind and how it feels to be a guide. You’ll do scenarios and answer questions and they’ll tell you how it is. They give you the base and then it’s down to you and your personality to adapt it once you get out there.
Why did you want to become a guide runner?
Why wouldn’t you? For me, I just knew people in the community that were blind and seeing people say I want to do a Parkrun but I can’t because I’m blind or visually impaired and I need guidance.
I’ve been on the national register as a guide runner which allows visually impaired people to find guide runners in their area. You don’t know these people but they’ll tell you how they run, what pace they run, how they run and how they want to be tethered.
What do you have to think about as a guide runner?
Effectively you are their eyes. It’s about describing what you’re doing. It’s not just about saying turn left, turn right, go straight forward. These are some of the things you have to think about:
Checking pace – If you’re running to a certain pace you’d regularly call it out. For example, “we’re doing really great, we’re running at this pace, are you ok?”
Pre-empting what’s coming – this is about counting down what’s coming, for example a turn. If you were turning right for example you’d get to a point where you’d go, “there’s a right turn coming up”, then you describe the turn, for example, “it’s a sharp turn, or a gradient turn”. Then as you get even closer to the turn you’ll mark the turn by a vocal and you’ll go “turn, turn, turn, straight”. So you’ll guide them around that turn.
The terrain – They can’t see what’s there so you have to give the understanding of visual reference. If you run on a flat pavement, you can feel that. If you close your eyes and you run on a flat pavement and then onto grass, the terrain changes and the movement of your foot changes because obviously it could be long grass, short grass, it could be muddy. You have to call out your terrain as well. So you’ll say, “right we’re running on flat pavement at the moment, in about 200 yards we’re going to hit a change in the terrain, we’re going into grass, it’s quite short, it may be a bit muddy”.
Adding visual references – you could be running on a flat pavement for a mile so it’s always nice to give them familiarity to what they’re doing. So you might go, “oh, beautiful trees either side, nice and green, there’s a pond to your left.” You start giving visual references. Some might not know what those visual references are. Some might have been blind all their life. Whilst others might be partially sighted, for example with something like tunnel vision.
Support interaction with others – it’s always good to call out what’s all around. For example you could be coming up to a group of people who are all shouting in excitement and encourage them to join in by waving their arms in the air or such like. So you’re creating an environment in which they can interact and they don’t look like they’re running past someone and ignoring them.
How does guide running feel?
Guide running is quite amazing to do. It’s a very proud moment every time I’ve done it. I feel a mass sense of achievement that I’ve taken someone from A to B, maneuvered them around and they haven’t fallen over.
Why should someone who’s visually impaired not enjoy a Parkrun, why is it different? It makes such a big difference to someone. It’s watching the sheer emotion on that person’s face because they’ve just literally done something people say you can’t do. We’re breaking barriers.
What are the difficulties?
The downside is there’s not a lot of support. You have to buy your own equipment for starters. You need a vest to announce you’re the guide and they’re the visually impaired person. Because they’re not in massive demand the cost is quite high and this is the real problem. A guide and VI vest can set you back £30 and then the tether £8.
It’s also a lot of responsibility if you think about it. But it’s all about learning and after you’ve done it a few times you’ll be quite surprised how quickly you’ll pick it up.
I’d encourage anyone to become a guide. Anyone and everyone. No one should have to miss out on running.