Running with Ray

Runners leaving Tower Bridge

Hello, everyone, this is a first for me. I am posting something written by someone else! Lazy or what? Actually not! I read this article written by Sue Karstens and thought it amusing, educative and insightful so on that basis I thought I’d share it with all of you. I hope you enjoy it and if you’ve got something you’d like to share let me know.

Some years ago I worked in the accounts department of my local leisure centre.

I had always loved sport in general, and one of my passions at that time was running. Having participated in four London Marathons, I was looking for a new challenge. It came in the form of a knock at my door, and the arrival of one of the gym instructors.

“You have run the London Marathon, haven’t you?”

I nodded.

“How would you feel about running as a guide for a blind runner?”

She explained that she had a client in the gym who had been referred to her by his GP. It was an unusual story; Ray had gone to work on a building site, where he had fallen and banged his head. He seemed to be okay but collapsed at the station on his way home, and when he woke up, he couldn’t see. No warning, no history of illness. He went from sighted to blind in a heartbeat. He lost confidence and became clinically depressed. The exercise programme was to aid in his recovery.

It was Suzy’s responsibility to design a fitness schedule. She told Ray to set himself a goal. He said that he wanted to run the London Marathon. She smiled and suggested a realistic goal, but Ray was adamant; he was not a man to accept half measures!

Our first meeting took place on the running track during my lunch break. My training partner Helen had joined us because even at this early stage I realised that I was going to need backup. If I became ill or injured at any point, I didn’t want to impede Ray’s progress.

We were all terrified. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be up to the task; the only thing that worried Ray was that he would trip and take one of us down with him. We got our heads together and decided that we should worry about getting the training right, having a laugh, and accepting whatever may happen along the way. With that in mind, we ran a couple of laps on the track, just to see how we would get on.

The first issue that came up was staying in contact with each other. We began by holding hands, but it became apparent very early on that this would not work. Sweaty hands and one-armed running would be unsustainable over twenty-six miles.       We tried a length of rope, but it was just too flexible. Helen came up with the idea of using a dog pull – the rubber bow-tie shaped toy. It was rigid when we needed it to be but would bend when the distance between us closed up. Perfect!

After a couple of training sessions on the track, we progressed to the road. What an eye opener that was (if you pardon the expression!) I felt like a cross between a sports commentator and a contestant on the Golden Shot (for those of you old enough to remember the show). I spent my whole time going “Left a bit, Right a bit, Puddle! Kerb coming up in three, two, one, down, three two, one up… …                     I had to be aware of every step, pothole, grating, pile of wet leaves, stray Jack Russell that crossed our path. Ray trusted us completely, which overwhelmed me. We progressed without mishap – other than the odd stitch from laughing too much!

Our next move was to participate in an actual road race. We chose a 10k, and duly rolled up to the start. We started at the back, just to give us space to get into our stride, but it wasn’t too long before we began overtaking runners. This highlighted another issue. When running in a crowd, you can’t always see the ground in front of you. This meant that both our instincts and reactions had to be quick to avoid any last-minute hazards. Water stations were an issue too, but with two guides, one of us could stay with Ray while the other grabbed drinks for us all. There were other practical difficulties too. With two female guides, we were very grateful to our fellow male runners who were happy to assist with bathroom breaks and locker rooms visits.

All too soon the day itself dawned, and we assembled, bright and early in Greenwich Park. Helen began by trying to describe the scene, but gave up when Ray and I fell about laughing; it wasn’t so much her “schoolteacher” manner, but the fact that she was pointing to landmarks as she described them. We had discussed such things in the bar after training on many occasions – how common expressions suddenly seem tactless. “I see what you mean, or “look before you leap.” Ray always wanted to avoid the Fawlty Towers “don’t mention the war” scenario, where everyone tried not to mention the fact that he was blind. It was a fact, not a judgement of him.

Early on Helen had been mortified having spent half an hour being teased by Ray because she had spent large sections of our run stopping to salute lone magpies. She turned to him and said, “so what do you do when you see one magpie?” There was a pregnant pause before he grinned answered: “Say Hallelujah I suspect!”

The start was always going to be problematic; Thirty-five thousand people milling around, kit bags to get onto lorries, finding the portaloos, collecting bottles of water, and all the general pre-race rituals. We positioned ourselves early and allowed the assembled masses to gather around us. Tannoy announcements kept us up to date with the progress of the race. An ironic cheer went up when it was announced that the elite runners had gone past the three-mile mark when many of us had yet to take our first steps.

The race unfolded slowly. We walked much of the first mile, as the sheer volume of runners made it impossible to pick up speed. Eventually, gaps opened up, and we were able to settle into a comfortable pace.

To say that the terrain was variable would be an understatement. Between carpets and cobblestones, we all had to keep our wits about us. Water stations were a nightmare, with plastic bottles strewn across the course for several hundred yards. One wrong step and any one of us could have sprained an ankle. Due to a little luck and a lot of preparation, we survived without incident. Helen still insisted on keeping up the commentary (without the pointing), and Ray thought she was getting her own back when she described the rhinoceros running beside him. It wasn’t until we got him to stretch his hand out to the side and edged him over that he came into contact with our thick-skinned companion. The smile that spread across his face was a delight to witness. We were now officially surrounded by lunatics!

Our fellow runners were incredibly supportive. Helen had obtained some high viz vests. Ray’s clearly stated “blind runner”, and Helen’s “guide”. I wanted to run in a Scooby Doo costume and put “dog” on mine, but sadly they were only available in size 7-8 years, so I had to settle for “guide” on mine too. It just gave those running around us an opportunity to provide us with a little more space, and more importantly not to try to run between us.

We made it. We crossed the finish line arm in arm in slightly over 5 hours;

Picture of the three successful runners.
Helen (left) Ray (second left), Sue (far right)

Not my fastest time, but far and away my proudest moment. Ray kept thanking us, but in actual fact, it was his drive and enthusiasm that kept us going through those dark February mornings in the pouring rain when we were heading out for those long, long training runs. He never once faltered, never once complained. Every challenge was met with joy and devilment. We carried on running for a long while afterwards; anything from ten-mile road races to cross country – complete with styles, ploughed fields, and loose horses. The highlight had to be a ridiculous event, aptly named “Only Fools, Not Horses.” It is run over the cross country section of the three-day event course at Blenheim Palace – complete with jumps. Fortunately one of the burlier male runners joined our team; we would never have got over the jumps without his help. It was my turn to trust Ray as he braced himself at the top of the bigger jumps and reached down to help me over. The water jumps were extraordinary, but Ray handled it all like a well -trained thoroughbred. Princess Anne would have been proud of him!

We didn’t do it to prove a point. We just did it for the pure hell of it, and I have photos of us laughing so hard that we can’t stand up straight. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to belittle the enormity of the impact that losing his sight had on my wonderful friend; but without it I would never have met him, and would have lost the opportunity to understand the pitfalls that face so many visually impaired people have to negotiate on a regular basis. They say you should walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. We managed twenty-six, and for all but Ray it was a real eye opener!

Sue Karstens 2016


Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – has provided consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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