Guide Running & When will I need it?

The physiological concept of forward advancement, by placing one foot in front of the other at speed, has been ingrained in human movement since the time of early evolution. It is a motion deeply embedded into human instinct, establishing it as a pursuit undertaken effortlessly by a myriad of runners every day. However, despite its easily perceived simplicity, this motion beholds an additional exertion, other than physical, for several runners around the globe, myself included.

Throughout my career, I have run with severely impaired sight. An additional challenge that I have chosen to never let phase me and never use as an excuse in races. When I began running I subconsciously decided to deal with it in a way that would make me tougher. I put up with it. The idea of not seeing where I am going is one I have grown up with and accepted as normality my entire life. Nonetheless, when I began getting faster and running further, I was soon taking my first steps into the competitive cauldron of high performance sport. This introduction to elite racing highlighted the disadvantages and made the potential dangers hard to ignore. As my times became quicker and the speeds I reached became increasingly uncontrollable, I realised that eventually I would be facing a compromised racing ability. I understood that to give justice to achieving my true physical potential I must adopt a new outlook on my running. This realisation sparked the idea to tap into Australia’s distance running community and employ the assistance of some elite runners to form a team of guides that I could call upon when circumstances demanded.

After scrupulous planning and consideration, I toed the line of my first serious attempt at running full gas on the road. The Melbourne 10km Road Race. As I raced through the streets of my home city, tethered by a simple shoelace to my guides, Olympian Luke Mathews and up and coming domestic runner Matthew Clarke, I experienced an exhilaration unlike anything I had ever felt. I imagined what I was feeling was the sense of freedom most runners encounter on a run. A relentless and flowing fluidity transcended my body and my only thought was that this, finally, was my first genuine experience of the zone. It was a sensation I had so often read about and dreamt of without ever truly grasping the feeling of sheer bliss that you experience when your only worry is to keep placing one foot in front of the other. Guide running feels like my ticket to take on the world.

GUIDE RUNNING EXPLAINED

The benefits, challenges and when I will use it. Including first hand words from my debut guides, Olympian Luke Matthews & Matthew Clarke.

Situations in my career when guide running is beneficial.

Often the misconception of guide running is that its sole purpose is safely guiding a runner from start to finish. The reality is though that in elite racing a vision-impaired runner lacks the ability to do the little things that able-bodied runners often take for granted. This expands the role of a guide, making it more complex than it may seem from the sidelines. (More about what I require from a guide in races below).

For instance, my last three 5000m track races have involved race-defining mistakes, which a guide could help prevent.

  1. In Sydney earlier this year I crossed the line believing myself to be the winner before realising a runner had broken away from the pack in the earlier laps without my knowledge. This is a common mistake, as I rarely know with certainty my exact position during a race because of my inability to see further than the person directly in front of me. A tactical nightmare.
  2. In Sydney once more, in the National Junior final, I submitted to my first DNF in a major race. I decided to pull myself from the race due to visual fatigue when I reached a point where I believed I was threatening my own safety and that of my competitors in finishing the race. This is simply when my vision falters due to overstraining. A common factor I must consider in long races and sessions. An endurance nightmare.
  3. Most recently in Melbourne, whilst running a PB of 14:22.45, I ran the final six laps thinking there were five laps to go. A silly but easily made error under fatigue. Thus demonstrating my inability to check lap counters and splits, subtle yet important. In this race, I was also in a medal position on the last lap without realising. A racing nightmare.

These mistakes do not necessarily impede my ability to run a fast time but they do disadvantage me tactically in championship style races. At a Paralympic Games, the pinnacle of my sporting career, one of these simple mistakes could cost me a medal.

On the Road

Contrary to the track where it is still possible for me to race solo, the road is non-negotiable. If I have any aspiration to run a remotely fast time or place highly, guide running is a necessity. Unlike the track, where the course is a repetitive alternation between 100m bends and 100m straights, the road is an unpredictable labyrinth of twist, turns, bollards and a vast array of dangerous difficulties.

When I previously raced off the track in years past, I resigned myself to a meticulous course reconnaissance where I attempted to commit every inch of ground to my memory and hope that under fatigue my plan to omit the necessity for vision held strong. It often failed to do so.

Fast forward to now and as I approach 3min/km pace for courses as long as 10km, complete memory retainment of a course is impossible. Running solo is a death wish.

For example:

-Motionless objects at race pace are invisible to my eye.

-Corners appear only at the last second, which makes it hard to react efficiently and safely.

-When I run up or down a hill, I can never ascertain its length or upcoming gradient. This makes it difficult to gauge an effort.

What do I need from a guide in a racing environment?

On and off the track a guide must first be able to keep up, something made more difficult on the track where they must run on the outside. Whilst keeping up they must have the capability of verbally relaying information to me as often as 15-30 seconds. Summarily, a guide is acting as my eyes. Consequently, this means that the guide’s purpose is to fill me in on information that an able-bodied runner would naturally acquire from full vision. Both on and off the track this can include…

Safe navigation. By notifying me of my space with other athletes.

Tactical position. By informing me of my position in the race as well as where certain athletes are in regards to me. This includes informing me of overtaking situations.

Distance remaining. By ensuring my understanding of how many laps to go on the track. On the other hand, how many kilometres to go on the roads.

Splits. By keeping me up to date on my lap and kilometre splits. (Often I have no capability to know what pace I am running until the race is completed).

Obstacles. By explaining them on approach and then physically guiding me to ensure avoidance. Often these involve gutters or traffic islands.

Corners. By explaining them, often by degrees and right/left, and then counting me in until the turning point. (Eg, “20m, 10m, 5m, now!”)

Gradient and length of an incline to ensure I gauge my effort appropriately.

Abiding to rules. Guides must not push or extremely pull the athlete. They must maintain a gap of no larger than 50cm at all times except in the last 10 metres when the athlete must finish ahead of the guide.

Words from the guides themselves… 

Luke Mathews

“I really enjoyed my time as a guide runner. Initially, I was a little nervous, as my fitness was not in a spot I wanted it to be and I was not quite sure of the logistics. I was also a little nervous about getting Jaryd to run in the right direction using my voice and physical movements.

“There were a few moments where I could see a parked car approaching, but I was able to yank the tether quickly and got Jaryd running in the right direction.

“I really enjoyed the experience, and felt honoured to be a part of something special. I have always known Jaryd to be an exceptional runner. However, I did not realise the full extent and severity of his disability. I walked away happy, with a different kind of sense of accomplishment in my running.”

Matthew Clarke

“The first practice session I did with Jaryd it felt unnatural. I thought that to do it properly I had to have the same stride, but I quickly found out that the effort was too tiring. At first, I was worried about it being too hard and I did not finish the first session.

“When race day came around I think I got an adrenaline spike. I was just focussing settling in and voicing anything to Jaryd that popped into my head. As we ran through the streets I realised that race day was much easier. It felt a lot more natural and relaxed. I realised that to be of more help I had to get through the run as easily as possible by focussing on my own running form, which allowed me to relay more messages.

“The turning point was realising that relaying as much information as possible and using the tether to keep him on the right path would give him the best chance at having a good race.”

Guiding in Training

Often, and most recently, I have been undertaking three track sessions a week as it is the safest way I can run race-paced sessions on my own. Alternatively, a 1500m gravel circuit replaces my third track session. The rest of my easy & double runs take place around a 1.7km loop on repeat.

Having someone to run with and help guide me through runs is a relief from the monotony of the day-to-day repetition. At home, this is only possible on my Wednesday run and Sunday long run. The dream is to one-day train in an environment where I can establish a consistent and continuous training partner/guide set up.

Future Guide Racing

-Over the short 1500m, the benefits of a guide are lesser due to the heightened possibility for error in a high speed and physical environment. At this stage, running solo is still optimal.

-Over distances 3000m and above, it is still worth risking tactical losses for faster times so that I can continue competing in elite able-bodied races. (The inclusion of a guide would justly disqualify me from competing). However, on the world stage against other para athletes, my coach, Philo Saunders and I have decided that in all future 5000m races I will be using two guides who will swap at approximately halfway. A decision made in order to bring as many variables under my control. The more I am in control in my racing environment the more realistic my dream of one day becoming Paralympic Champion becomes.

Future guides will be an integral part of my international career. They will get to run in front of thousands of spectators in Olympic stadiums and win medals on the world stage.

I hope that I have a long career ahead of me. Over the course of it, I will inevitably use a multitude of guides. If you are interested and believe you can hold up to the criteria of being a guide runner please let me know. Knowing that there are people out there that will be happy to help me out in races will in turn help me plan for my goals years into the future.                           

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