Through Someone Else’s Eyes
It was in the autumn of 2015 and, like all triathletes at this time of year, my thoughts were starting to draw towards the next years events. What race do I fancy doing? To which exciting locations might this next year take me? What can I do to challenge myself? Maybe this year I’ll do a 70.3.
Then I read a request from Chris, a blind athlete, who already enjoyed all three disciplines of bike and run and a very small bit of swim (the usual triathlete proportions) but wanted to tie it all together. He had various people who had guided him on runs or steered his tandem, but wanted to do the full tri, so he had placed a few messages around and I happened to see one of them.
Immediately it sparked my interest. Triathlon is a very selfish sport, we expect to be able to train 3 times as often as other athletes, and then ask for our family to come and stand in a field for 2 hours waiting for us to cross the finish line shouting “Look at me, look at me!”.
If I took on the challenge of being a guide then I would still get to do all the bits of triathlon that I love, but I would also be helping someone else to do so, someone who couldn’t otherwise. I spoke to my wife about it and she was totally behind me with the venture (I later discovered it was her cunning plan to save me from getting bitten by the Ironman bug… or at least to delay the inevitable.)
So I responded to Chris and said I’d try a bit of training with him and see how well we were matched before committing to anything at a competition level. I knew that I would have to be a little faster than him in order to cope with doing all the directions and also not hold him up, but that was about all I thought this challenge required.
Through Facebook and email we managed to arrange to meet one evening. In what was going to become something of a habit, instead of driving home after work I drove to Chris’ house and found a tall young lad wearing running kit and dark glasses. As I walked over I introduced myself and he handed me one end of the tether and said “Put your hand through there.” Then we set off on a 10k run. As we ran we chatted and I learnt how not to run him into trees and quickly had to learn how to cope with steps up and down. Side roads proved a little issue as Chris’ motto is ‘they’ve got eyes, they should look out for me’ whereas I’m a little bit more inclined towards ‘give way to cars because they hurt when they hit you’ (learnt by painful experience)
Two things struck me on that first run. Firstly was how much trust this guy was putting in a complete stranger who had just turned up on a street corner. Secondly was how absurd it was that we had the blind guy giving all the directions, you see we were on his home turf now and I didn’t know the area. When he felt the hill start to rise up he would tell me a right turn was approaching and we should take that.
After this first outing I did a bit of research and came across the awesome resource that is the Blind Sport Podcast. The presenter of this podcast, Mike, is himself a blind runner and gives a few tips for newbie guides. Things such as start with walking not running, start somewhere you know, start somewhere with no kerbs. Basically the opposite to everything we’d just done.
On future trips out we discussed this at some length and quickly realised that neither of us were out to do this the easy and safe way, we were going to do it our way.
So training progressed, on the bike at the excellent Hammerstones cycle facility and also with the Huddersfield based Tandem Trekkers. This was my first rude awakening. “Surely the bike section will be just a case of me riding a bike but having someone else to help pedal.” WRONG!
First of all you need to learn how to get moving. All manner of websites and books describe the difficulties of the process but nothing seems to help other than practice, practice, practice. The tandem is a lot less stable than a solo at low speeds, and you are sat down so can’t move the bike to balance like you might be used to doing. You are essentially starting to learn to ride a bike from scratch.
I quickly grew to know that the stoker is not simply a passenger, they are part of the machine just like the pilot. There was so much to discuss from gear changes to leaning for corners to negotiating speed bumps. Eventually it became clearer what we absolutely needed to communicate and instructions were shorter and interspersed with conversation. “I’m a little tired tonight because – gentle left – I’ve had a tough day at the office– gear down and climbing – to meet a deadline ”
The night my head torch battery started to fail led to some amusement. My stoker seemed oblivious to my concerns and simply wanted to pedal faster. “You’ve no idea how hard this is when all I can see is a little pinprick of the road in front of me, it’s so scary when you can’t see where you’re going!”
Swimming proved a further challenge than cycling. I reflected again on my analysis that I would just have to swim beside someone then ride with them then run beside them. This was all proving to be far more challenging than I had first anticipated, yet it was already proving far more rewarding that I’d first imagined, and we hadn’t even competed yet.
Our biggest swim issues came from Chris struggling to get his ears in the water. Being blind he relies heavily upon his other senses and when the water blocks one of those out he has to fight his body’s natural instinct to pull his head back out again. I found myself taking on the role of swimming coach, but with no training other than having had a few swimming lessons myself I was clearly out of my depth in trying to do this. Front crawl just wasn’t working and with a week to go till our first race something had to change. We were helped here by Sunny Curweil. He came along and watched us and timed us and observed that Chris was only slightly slower doing back crawl than front crawl, but he was far less out of breath. “That’s it, that’s your stroke!” So we got back to the pool several times that week and practiced and practiced back crawl till we were able to rely on it as our race stroke.
Since that first race we have had more time to work on the stroke, and by going down to the local pool for the stroke skills class, along with several other members of Calderdale Tri Club, we were gradually able to get a working front crawl stroke. This was my first big scare as I found that once Chris got the correct technique he would be off like a bullet and I struggled to keep up and also be a guide at the same time. The calls of “move away from me,” and “come closer” were shortened to “come” and “away”, like a shepherd guiding his dog. Also 3-2-1 to count to the wall was simply shortened to “2” with 2 strokes to go. Again these verbal guidances were not advice from any website, we had to work this out for ourselves.
This first race together was an absolutely amazing experience. When we initially rolled up to Edge Hill to register it all became so very real. I thought back to my own first triathlon when I had had no idea what to do and was panicking about forgetting something – panicking so much that I loaded the car with everything but the bike the day before just to be sure it was all there, and then went and set off to the race without my bike. Today I had no such worries but I knew Chris would be going through something similar. Once again I was being guided by the blind man as he had studied here at Edge Hill so knew his way around (though I doubt anyone could know their way around that run route as it was like cat’s cradle). We got to race registration, where we found the organisers were more than accommodating. They themselves were happy to be chosen as the first triathlon for a local para triathlon pairing, and were welcoming from the outset. With yet more freebies coming my way in terms of a free t shirt to go with my free entry I was one happy Yorkshireman.
With registration sorted and a brief bike recce completed it was time for an early night ready for the big day. It was clear that I was chilled out about the next day as I fell asleep in the bath and it wasn’t even 7pm. I guess I had nothing to worry about, we’d trained hard, we’d come up with schemes to cope with obstacles and we’d made it to the race venue. All we had to do now was put into practice what I knew we could do. I had no fears that next morning a thick frost might have stopped me getting into the van, or that we’d have a direction mix up that had me running my athlete into a wooden bollard (I’m sure I said left not right). Yet even with these little adventures thrown into the day nothing could taint that most awesome morning out. We’d done what we set out to do, we’d completed a triathlon as a team composed of a blind athlete and his mad guide and a speedy Dawes tandem.
At the start of the year I’d been anticipating that I’d be doing the triathlon alongside Chris, but what I learnt on that day was that we were well and truly a team. Two individuals who both want to take part in a sport that’s crazy enough to start with, but who are both keen to push the boundaries of normality a little bit further.
I get a lot of people saying that it’s an impressive action to be a guide, however I don’t think so. Yes it can be awkward arranging the timing around work and family commitments, yes it requires patience to do the drills that someone else needs when you could be off doing your own thing, but I get so much more back from guiding. I’ve made a new friend. When I’ve had a bad day I’ve been able to finish work, drive over to Chris’ and get out for a run or a ride or a swim and just switch off from the worries of the day. I’ve had the opportunity to ride a fixie tandem at the velodrome. I get in free to all manner of gyms and pools and events. However, what has been really great is that in taking the time to find out what someone else is thinking / wanting / doing I have been able to put things into better perspective as I’ve been able to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Photograph Copyright Mick Hall photography
Photo: Freebird Events