Meet Simon Wheatcroft, the blind ultramarathon runner An eye disease left Wheatcroft blind at 18, but by memorising routes he runs unaided and even competes in ultramarathons. Mark Russell joins him for a run and hears his remarkable story
Hard road to travel … unsighted distance runner Simon Wheatcroft. Photograph: Harry Page/Cherryduck Productions
The London Marathon will see tens of thousands of competitors take to the capital's streets this weekend, but for some runners the prospect of covering 26.2 miles just isn't enough and only an ultramarathon will satisfy their itchy feet. Running distances of 50, 100 or even hundreds of miles poses extreme physical and mental challenges for anyone, but for Simon Wheatcroft there is another hurdle: retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has left him blind since he was 18 years old. For the past two years Wheatcroft, now 29, has been overcoming this disability to compete in ultramarathons by training with guide runners and also, rather uniquely, by teaching himself to run solo, out on the streets.
"I got bored exercising indoors, so I thought, 'I'll have a crack at running outside,'" he explains. "I began by training on football pitches behind my house, running between the goalposts. Then I got bored so I moved on to a closed road I knew of, until one day I thought I'd see if I could run alongside the dual carriageway next to that road …"
Over weeks of gradual exploration and slow experimentation walking a route alone, he was able to memorise a set three-mile course along little-used pavements and grass verges – albeit with some sections alongside a dual carriageway – near his home in Rossington, Doncaster. He also recruited technology to help him form his mental map of the area, using a smartphone app, RunKeeper, to provide aural feedback through headphones about his pace and distance. This information could then be cross-referenced with his knowledge of the route and any obstacles, giving him extra confidence regarding his surroundings.
Wheatcroft explains: "From where I start, the first turning is at about 0.75 of a mile and I knew it would take me seven minutes to run that. So when the app told me I'd been running for six minutes and my distance, I knew in the next 60 seconds there would be a turning and the pavement drops."
Now, having clocked up hundreds of miles alone on the route, Wheatcroft has been able, gradually, to phase out the app. "When I first started I had to really concentrate to a unbelievable level to know where my feet were falling. Now it has become quite automated." This is not to say the learning curve hasn't been without incident. "I did make a few mistakes early on – like running into posts. But you only run into a post once before you think, 'Right, I'm going to remember where that is next time," he laughs.
Joining Wheatcroft for a training session, it's striking how natural and fluid his movement is; he takes shorter, shallower, more gentle steps than most runners, using his feet to feel his way. His landmarks are minute changes in gradient, slight ridges where the Tarmac joins the kerb or particular branches that protrude from bushes into his path. For the blind solo runner, familiarity and consistency are essential. "I have to believe this route is going to stay constant, and there won't be things like roadwork signs or big rocks," he says.
Wheatcroft believes the feelings of liberation and independence he gets from running solo far outweigh any anxiety over dangers. "My successful footsteps must be something like 99.999%, and there's just that one every now and again that goes wrong. I try to concentrate on the millions that go right rather than the 10 or 15 that go wrong."
When it comes to racing in ultra-distance events, such as the South Downs Way 100-mile race in June, for which he is currently in training, Wheatcroft has to use guides to run sections of the course with him; after all, it would be almost impossible to memorise a 100-mile stretch of countryside by heart. However, the physical and practical advantages of training in the fresh air, on his own terms, are vast and have boosted his confidence in his running ability as well as providing inspiration to others.
Wheatcroft's blog detailing his training method and achievements has led to other blind people getting in touch, as well as runners of all abilities across the globe and even sponsors, such as sportswear brand Asics, for whom he recently starred in the "Made of Sport" advertising campaign. But for Wheatcroft, the real thrill and motivation for training come from simply being able to compete on a level playing field.
"This gives me a great opportunity to compete with everybody," he says. "I can't hide from the fact I'm blind, but at the same time I would rather compete with everybody else and not be put into a special section. Being visually impaired doesn't mean you can't run."