Specialist guides are giving visually impaired runners the freedom of the road. But taking the first step requires a lot of courage, as Charley Lanyon finds out
In 2010, two teams of four runners completed Hong Kong's Oxfam Trailwalker 100-kilometre race in about 32 hours, without sleep, stopping only briefly to eat. Both teams finished about halfway through the field of 600 teams - which is remarkable when you consider that four of the runners were visually impaired and the other four were their guides.
Kate Cheung Fung-oi, a marathon runner and running coach, was a driving force behind their success: "Everybody said it was an impossible challenge, but the runners said they could do it and I believed in them."
Worldwide, blind marathon runners are not a new phenomenon. Some visually impaired runners such as Britain's Simon Wheatcroft even train and compete unaided. In June, Wheatcroft was a torch-bearer for the London Olympics. He used his smartphone for guidance.
But blind runners are still relatively new in Hong Kong largely because they lacked support until about four years ago. Cheung was among the first coaches to volunteer her services. In 2008, Cheung's running coach started working with the blind, and invited her to help. She jumped at the opportunity.
Cheung has been fascinated by the lives of the blind since her college days, when she worked with visually impaired children on the local sailing programme, Adventure-Ship. She realised the children were confident, focused and determined to learn despite their handicap.
After college, Cheung started running. She ran her first race, the Trailwalker, in 2006 and has since run 20 marathons. To date, she has guided runners through five ultramarathons and marathons, and several shorter races.
More visually impaired people take up the sport in Hong Kong every year, and there is a push to get blind children interested in competitive running. Cheung recently set up a programme called 101, which teaches visually impaired secondary school students how to run. It also shows their sighted peers how to act as guides, so that they can run together.
This is how it works: guides and runners are linked by a strap. The guide runs slightly in front of the runner and the strap is kept loose, rising and falling with the runner's strides. The guide keeps the runner on track, and helps him to avoid obstacles, as well as providing a steady commentary about the surroundings, and the incline of the track. Guides also offer support and encouragement.
"You have to observe their feelings, speak a lot, and tell them what's going on," Cheung explains. "You have to ask them, 'How do you feel? What are you thinking?' I talk constantly during the race, not just as a guide, but as a coach, too."
Runner and guide are united by more than a strap - over many training sessions they develop a deep trust and respect. Running blind can be a terrifying experience, and it is that emotional bond, strengthened through constant communication, that gives the runner the confidence to keep going.
The actual running is only the final step in what can be a long process. Many blind runners, even those who lost their sight later in life, have never run before. So they need to be taught. Coaches employ the "ABC technique".
This mandates that each of the three stages of a good stride is given a letter: A, when the knee is raised; B, when the foot strikes the ground; and C, for the back kick. Guide and runner swing their bound arms in unison. As the strap rises, so does the opposite leg. This way the pace and rhythm of the strides can be kept steady.
When you watch an experienced blind runner and guide, it can look easy. But the experience can be terrifying at the start. Running blind is disorienting, and the mind is at a constant, often taxing, level of hyper-awareness.
According to blind runner Galant Ng, a rehabilitation and education specialist at the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, the first run can be very scary. "Normally, I don't walk very fast, so I wasn't used to running. I started very slowly," says Ng.
Aside from the physical fears, there are profound emotional challenges to overcome.
Blindness can be intensely isolating. For many, putting their trust in another person does not come easily. "Many people are not born blind. Maybe after 10 or 20 years of sight, they can't see any more," says Cheung.
"So they are very afraid; they don't want to leave their house. It's important for them to open their heart, to accept other people's help. Sports can build that confidence."
I put on a blindfold and allowed Cheung to guide me around the Happy Valley running track. I felt immediately helpless. Within 10 seconds I felt disoriented. I would take a step, and be sure I was about to tumble into the trees lining the path, even though they were at least two metres away.
After just a minute or so of jogging, Cheung noticed that I was shaking so violently that she could feel it through the strap.
She told me to relax, making her presence known through the tension in the strap. "The trees are on your left, the football pitch is on your right, and the path is at 12 o'clock, straight ahead," she said. She showed me how to keep apace with her and we started to jog. Those first few strides were frightening. With every step, I felt as if I was about to crash into something. I could not relax my muscles, and the tension made my neck and shoulders ache.
Without visual stimuli, one's balance fails. I felt that I was in constant danger of stumbling, that I could not run in a straight line. Just getting my foot to meet the tarmac took enormous focus.
Then there was the isolation, a kind of loneliness. I needed help and I understood what the runners meant when they emphasised the importance of communication.
In those rare moments when Cheung fell silent as we ran, all my fears would flood back. When she did speak, I was calm. She talked constantly, alternating between chat and practical advice. As my trust in my guide grew, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience. There was a real pleasure in relinquishing control to another person.
Still, it was such a relief to remove my blindfold after the run. I still can't fathom how the blind runners completed the Trailwalker race.
For them, running seems to be about more than achieving the impossible. It changes their lives in profound and positive ways.
"Running has really expanded my social circle. I have more friends now," says Ng. "Today I am stronger physically, and I am more persistent. My boss even told me my work attitude is better."
Marathon running has helped him reorganise his life. He has become driven to set up harder challenges for himself.
He wants his accomplishments to show the world that the blind are capable of anything.
Ng's greatest challenge was pairing blind runners with deaf guide runners. "It is much harder because of the communication problems between the deaf and the blind," he says. But trust often grows between guide and runner, and sometimes friendships blossom.
Cheung was also involved in these pairings. "If one person is blind and another is deaf, you would think they could not have a connection," she says.
"One can't see the signs, and the other can't hear. The one thing they can do is be patient and have the same goal.
"After they've been running for a very long time, they build up a relationship. It is wonderful. They can just touch hands and they know 'Oh, you want a drink of water.'"
After 18 months of training together, the pairs were able to compete in a marathon. Ng felt triumphant. "Now I feel equally comfortable running with my deaf guide runner as I do with a hearing guide runner." Despite the support that is now available, many visually impaired people are reluctant to take up running because they are scared or lack confidence.
Ng has some good advice for them: "Just take your first step and you won't be scared. Running is about your legs and your heart, not your eyes."