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.                           

Bronze in London 

PPOne week until race day and I am standing outside the Southwark Athletics Track in inner city London. We have been standing outside it for over an hour now. To my left is Deon Kenzie, bedecked in green and gold. A World Record holder, never a gold medallist. A man that this time around has his sights firmly set on becoming World Champion. To my right is Philo Saunders. A warrior of distance running, tasked with guiding Deon and I to World Championship success. In front, are a group of local runners. We all stand under a nearby tree, green leaves glistening in the dusk. From high above water is falling. It runs down my face, seeping through my clothes. My teeth chatter in the cold. Finally, someone arrives and the gates open. Once on the track my feet dance a merry dance. My hardened body, white and shimmering with sweat, launches forward, propelling itself through puddles, hurling through the bends. I was ready. Ready for anything. Nothing could stop me!
*
In the preceding weeks, I had toiled on the towering hills through Greensborough, Eltham and Research in Melbourne. Running up to 140km a week, training twice a day nearly every day. The winter had made the going tough and made me tougher in the process. Each day it would seem as if my legs were screaming, pleading the question of when this relentless pummelling would cease.

After the winter, came the European summer. I spent just over a week in Cologne in Germany with Deon. We ran through its famed parks and ancient university grounds. A cavalry of Aussie athletes joined us, utilising the city as a base camp including my amazing girlfriend Sarah Walsh, many soon-to-be IPC World Champions and a large quantity of able-bodied athletes still chasing qualifiers for the IAAF World Championships. It was here that the sharpening of weaponry took place. Each day, every session, was a sign that something special was on the horizon.

The next stop was Brussels, Belgium. A short but necessary detour on our journey to London. It was here that we were to smooth out any kinks in the armoury. I had many. My last competitive race was many months before, a DNF due to visual fatigue. This time around, I was physically primed. Tactically, I suffered. I made mistakes. Still, I managed a 3:49.41 for 1500m. Nearly a PB and only 1-second outside the World Record. Also racing in Brussels, Philo ran his first 3:45 for the year and Kiwi Olympic medallist Nick Willis was still chasing an IAAF World qualifier, helped by the pacing of Aussie Jordan Gusman. Sadly, this meet would spell the end of one my teammates World Championship hopes for 2017. T46 (Arm Amputee) 1500m World Record holder Michael Roeger, suffering from a niggling injury, struggled in his race. It was the catalyst for his heartbreaking decision to withdraw only days later. This year was not his year, but one year will be. I have no doubt.
*
By the time we arrived in London the hard work was done. The hours of punishing the body and pushing its limits were over. The final days are about meticulous preparation and careful execution. After a week of tapering, resting the body, I felt like a compressed spring waiting to be thrust into action. In the opening days of the Championship I was incredibly proud to witness Sarah’s 4th place in the T44 (Leg Amputee) Long Jump and Deon’s heat win and eventual Silver medal in the T38 (Cerebral Palsy) 800m, with his main event the 1500m still to come.

When I woke on race day, I felt a calm wash over me. I went about my routine as usual. I ate breakfast, I stretched, I ate an early lunch and a late lunch. I slept for an hour and even did homework in between. The bus left at 5pm, three hours before my race. On the bus, we talked as normal, Philo, Deon and Roegs – all the distance boys together as one. At the warm up track, the main stadium looms as an awe inspiring mass above. I hear the calls of the Neofitou clan, friends who have travelled from their holiday in Greece. Mum, Dad, my sister Elsie, my coaches back home Max Balchin and Lyn Davis and my Gran and Pa (there first time overseas) would be in the crowd too. I experienced then, the first flutter of the heart. The first nerves.
I ran through my usual pre-race warm up routine, 3 kilometres of jogging, drills and strides. I had never felt like this before a race. Calm, relaxed, legs firing. We walked to the call room under the London stadium. “You’re ready. You can beat these guys.” Philo’s last words to me.

In the call room, I assessed the situation. Across from me, I heard the familiar Canadian accent of Guillaume Ouellet, a medallist in the 5000m only days before and a good friend. Also in front was the unpredictable Moroccan pair, 5000m Champion Yousef Benibrahim and Paralympic Marathon Champion El Amin Chentouf – always a threat. I was flanked, as if choreographed, by the charismatic twin Algerian Baka brothers. Abdellatif on one side, Paralympic Champion, World Record holder and defending World Champion – he was the undisputed favourite. On the other side, his less accomplished brother Fouad, 4th in Rio but an 800m specialist (soon-to-be World 800m Champion). The other contenders, the unknown Koskei of Kenya, Aloui the Tunisian, Wietecki the Pole and Bereziuk the Ukrainian. We had all worked hard for this moment, the question now… Who had worked the hardest of all? I had done everything in my power, now it was time to race.

When the gun went, my legs flowed forth. The only major bump came in the first fifty metres. I regathered, unperturbed through the first lap in 64, a pedestrian pace for this level. After two laps, I sensed someone had forged ahead, I would later find out it was Koskei, the Kenyan. The fireworks had begun. 

Entering the home stretch for the penultimate time, I sat eighth moving into seventh. At the bell, I was fifth and composed. My legs stretched out down the backstraight, a single file line led by Wietecki. My entire being was all consumed by the ensuing battle at hands, my mind focussed on the four runners ahead. Around the last bend, the Baka brothers made their move. I never saw it. I rocketed into the straight, sling shotting into the Bronze medal position. My arms pumped and my legs worked like pistons. I was flying and a medal was beckoning. This was it, the last effort of a long campaign, the final strides. Finally, I saw the line and I was over it. The race was run. 
*
When I crossed the line, I knew I had won Bronze. I knew, but could not comprehend. My mind was a chaotic sea of oblivion. I ran to where I knew my Aussie teammates waited in the stands. They wrapped me in the flag, hugged me and shouted with me. Then to where my family sat. The people who have stuck by me my whole life, the people that always believed. This medal was for them.
*
In the days after I had the opportunity to reflect and look ahead. I had never expected a medal. This changed only one thing. I had always dreamt big, always believed I would one day ascend to the top of this mountain. The only change was that this made it more real. It broadened my view of what was possible for me. My sights now turned to the future. Over summer, there is the possible opportunity of qualifying for an IAAF (Able-Bodied) World Juniors and attacking the Vision-Impaired 1500m World Record of 3:48.29 held by Abdellatif Baka, the World Champion of my race. On the other hand the long term is still somewhat of a mystery and I like it this way. One thing for certain, I’m only beginning!
*
The final night of competition produced the final moment worth noting. Deon Kenzie, one of the most hard working and dedicated athletes I have ever met left it all out on the track to become the World Champion in the T38 (Cerebral Palsy) 1500m. I had run countless kilometres through the mountains of Flagstaff and the streets of London and Cologne with him in the lead up. He had always had my back when I was struggling to see on runs and ultimately was the reason I arrived in London in one piece. Deon winning his first world title was the perfect end to a perfect few weeks!

5 Key Session leading up to London 2017 (My race was on the 19th July)

July 15 (London): 2x400m-3x300m-4x200m (1-2min recovery) in 62-59-44-43-43-28-27-26-26 “Last session before the race with Philo at the warm up track.”

July 11 (London): 2x(500m (60s rest), 300m (30s rest), 200m) in 74-43-28 & 71-43-27 “This is the session in the rain mentioned in the opening paragraph with Philo and Deon.”

July 4 (Cologne): 6x300m (3min recovery cycle) in 41.3-40.8-40.7-41.5-42.5-42.8 “First session off the plane with Deon.”

June 27 (Melbourne): 2x(5x200m alternating speed – rest is 30s after slow rep and 60s after fast rep) in 30.1-27.3-29.5-27.2-29.3 & 26.6-29.3-26.9-29.7-26.8 “Last speed session at home with Jarrod Woods.”

June 8 (Melbourne): 600m (6min rest), 500m (5min), 400m (4′), 300m (3′), 200m in 1:30-71-55-42-27 “With Jarrod Woods”

 

 

 

 

Flagstaff 2017 – I don’t just sit in classrooms!

It is 6.40am on a Sunday morning. I am lying in bed, trying to keep as still as possible. My alarm went off ten minutes ago, but with each attempt to rise, my aching muscles respond with violent disapproval. Instead, I have resigned to watch as the light of dawn dances with shadows on the bedroom floor, brought to beautiful fruition by the many trees in the wood outside. They too dancing, but with the wind. My thoughts wander to the mountain outside. Its natural beauty, rising through clouds, dwarfing even our simple dwelling at 2000m. I have been living in the mountains for the past two weeks, its great mass casting an aura of endless opportunity. It is with this thought that I finally rise to greet a new day at altitude in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Once we hit the road, I start getting excited about the run that lays ahead. A 25km long run at 2400m above sea level to bring to an end a 135km week, the biggest in my career so far. The run tracks its way through an extraordinary forest rich in the sounds of nature and far from the relentless buzz of city life. Today’s run is one of the more spectacular in the Flagstaff region.

*

Throughout this trip, I have been staying with a group of fellow Aussie distance runners. Old friends and new friends, runners of various distances and levels of experience. Runners in our group included; Paralympic 1500m silver medallist Deon Kenzie, Olympic 3000m steeplechase and 5000m finalist Madeline Hills, Olympic Marathoner Milly Clark, Commonwealth Games 800m runner Josh Ralph and the wise ageless warrior Philo Saunders. At 17, the company I was keeping was invaluable to my learning experience and over the course of only a few weeks helped mature me as a runner.

*

After a quick drive, our car pulls off the highway and comes to a halt at the opening of a dirt road, that I assume stretches far into the distance. Waiting for us, as we pile out of the cars, is a group of about 30 local runners, our training partners for the day. At 8am, in one swift movement, as the morning sun finally crests the mountains peak, the days run begins.

*

One of my favourite type of runs is a hard long run and it does not take long for today’s run to become one. As the road at our feet bears the brunt of our rhythmic pounding, our lungs desperately clinging to every breath, our muscles waking into methodical action, a lead group begins to form. I begin to listen to the chatter around me and it soon dawns on me who I am running with. There are around seven guys running with me. I have worked out who they are. On my right are a group from the NAZ (Northern Arizona) Elite Group including 2:11 and top-10 Boston marathoner Nick Arciniaga and his compatriot, 2:12 marathoner Matt Llano. On my left, is my trusted running partner, the man overlooking my training over the next few months, Philo Saunders. In front is the best ultra-marathoner in the world, the winner of 100-mile (160km) trail races, Jim Walmsley. Then there was I. Seventeen years old and still with 18 months of High School ahead of me, dropping sub-4 minute kilometres in the mountains with some of America’s and even the World’s best distance runners. My incredulity and disbelief at my position in that moment was unbounded.

*

My whole time away was consumed with these type of awe-inspiring experiences.

I ran in snow for the first time. A simple fartlek (Swedish for speed play), became one of the most painful sessions of my life. I ran in shorts and without gloves. Fog turned to ice on my glasses, numb hands were rendered immovable lumps, snot froze to my face and my toenails became a lifeless black colour. It made me tougher.

Then there was my first run at altitude through the famed Buffalo Park. A 10km run at a pace that during the run I perceived as comfortable. However, soon after, I was a wreck. Drenched in cold sweat, head spinning, I collapsed on the nearest rock. All I could see was white and I felt as if I was fighting to remain conscious. I had made the rookie error of underestimating the mountains thin air and the time my body would take to adjust physiologically. It was embarrassing, but I learnt my lesson.

As I grew accustomed to the added challenges of running in the mountains, I began to unearth results on the track that I thought were beyond me at this point in my career. I was able to push my body to realms I had not thought were possible for me to reach. I left Flagstaff a fitter, faster and more experienced athlete than before.

*

One of the most valuable experiences of my trip to Flagstaff was spending some time with my fellow blinky (vision impaired) distance runner, Sam Harding. In Australia, it is not often for me to come across athletes who face similar challenges to me and understand what it is like to be running at an elite level with a vision impairment. It makes training easier when you know someone else is riding the rollercoaster with you. If I am struggling visually with a section of a run, Sam is usually struggling too, so we help each other out. Even if we have to do a whole mornings run at walking pace, which did happen (See Instagram picture). Training with Sammy helped reinforce my confidence that being vision impaired is no barrier to running.

*

Where to next?

For the next few weeks, the aim is to maintain my current speed and fitness. My next stop is Canberra (June 18), for my first 800m race since 2014, a chance to test my speed.

Then, it is the big one, the World Championships. First, though, I am off to Cologne, Germany to make final preparations before flying to London for the Championships, to be held in the 2012 Olympic Stadium. On July 17, I will run the heats of the T12/13 1500m and on July 19, if all goes to plan, I will line up in the final.

Previously, I have three 7th place finishes from three races (including missing 6th by 0.01 in the Rio 5000m) at the international level. This time around I am in far better shape than ever before!

I am setting no limitations on possibility!

Exciting times lay ahead!

*

Sample Week from Flagstaff (See Strava for more)

  • WU (Warm up) CD (Cool down) ‘ (mins)
  • Runs @ 2000-2200m altitude unless specified

 

Monday

AM 6.3km (7:38/km, 2700m alt.) “Survived tough trail with Sammy”

PM 11km (4:12/km) + Sprints + Gym/Plyos

Tuesday

AM 5km WU, 3×3’-2’-1’ (equal to rep jog recovery), 5km CD (17.8km overall)

“This was the snow session”

PM 8km (5:07/km)

Wednesday

AM 14km (4:31/km)

PM 4.2km (4:45/km)

Thursday

AM (1400m alt.) 5km WU, 300m-400m-300m-400m-300m (6’ cycle recovery) Splits @ 40,55,40,55,42, 5km CD (Overall 11km) “Lactic”

PM 8km (5:19/km)

Friday

AM 5.6km (4:24/km) + Gym

PM 1.6km Treadmill Test

Saturday

AM 5km WU, 6×3’ hills (2’ jog recovery) dist. 800-830m each, 5km CD (Overall 17km)

PM 5.6km (4:48/km)

Sunday

AM 25km (4:07/km, 2400m alt.)

“The long run from the story above”

135km Week in the Mountains.