Meet Simon Wheatcroft, the blind runner who is breaking new ground in distance running and accessible technology.
Simon likes to challenge our perception of what a person’s limits should be.
A degenerative eye disease led him to gradually lose his sight in his teens and twenties, to the point where he is now completely blind. One day, frustrated at what others saw as a limitation, he decided to try something new. Something that others might have considered him incapable of. He started running.
“Things are only believed possible once someone is willing to take them on,” Simon told me. “That barrier isn’t real, it’s just an imaginary barrier. And once someone removes that barrier, all of a sudden, other people can do it too.”
I first met Simon in a hotel bar in Swakopmund, Namibia, on the eve of a 250km week-long ultra-marathon through the desert. A 250km ultra-marathon which I – along with Simon and 230 other runners – had trained for months to run. The big difference between Simon and I was that I would be able to see where I was going in the week that followed.
Simon was preparing to be the first blind person to compete in a 250km stage race, completely unaided – other than with some new technology that he’d developed along with IBM. But more on the desert later . . .first I should explain how Simon started running.
First Steps As A Blind Runner
After deciding to take up running, Simon started by doing laps in the park behind his house. Gradually, he built up distance, progressing to a closed piece of road. Running in quiet, flat places allowed Simon to find his feet without worrying about obstacles, or other people. Eventually he progressed to the open road (without telling his wife). Setting out, he picked a route down the pavement alongside a busy rural road – memorizing each camber, curve and corner. Only by committing the route to memory could he slowly master it, increasing his pace – and mileage – along the way.
When Simon realized he could run, as is the case with many others he saw that it unlocked a new world. Now races, runs and marathons were something within reach.
Of course, setbacks were inevitable – like every runner. Being blind added an extra level of complexity – Simon would fall occasionally, and was even hit by a van once. As his running progressed, he started to look at ways he could minimize risk while out training.
“I’ve got a guide dog, I’ve tried twice to run with him, but he’s trained to do very specific things. So when he’s in the harness, he’s trained to stay in a particular location on the pavement . Uou have to take corners a particular way and cross roads a particular way so when you try and take him out for a run, even on the lead, he still tries to do the behaviour that he’s been taught to do. When I’m running on the road, for example, he panics – because he’s been trained that I should not be on the road – so he really doesn’t like that. So we don’t really run together.”
So Simon continued to run alone, or train with friends. He’d run races side-by-side with buddies, with the friend essentially describing the course, noting each upcoming rock or hazard. This is how other blind runners operate, too. (As an aside, on the same race I met Simon, there was a team of blind runners from China that were guided by friends with bells on their packs – see The Sound of Small Bells ).
Eventually he built his way up to marathons. After getting a space on the New York City Marathon, he decided to go one better – run the 260 miles from Boston to New York. Boston is the home of RunKeeper, the tracking software which Simon has used for all his training. Running the 260 miles with friends and people he met along the way was a way of saying thanks to the technology that Simon had used to navigate many of his runs.
To The Desert
Fast-forward to May 2016, and we’re back at the bar in Swakopmund. Simon is sitting nursing a drink, looking fairly relaxed for a man with no sight who is about to attempt to run 250km through a desert, alone. Out in the desert there’s no phone signal, no wifi – and no-one running with him. So how’s he going to do it?
Simon had spent the last few months working alongside IBM to develop a new smartphone app that would allow him to navigate the desert solo.
By getting the GPS route directly from the 4 Deserts course director, IBM developed a system that could detect Simon’s location in relation to the course – using the GPS on his smartphone. If Simon veered too far off to the left, his phone would start beeping. Too far to the right, the same – but a higher tone. This way, Simon could – in theory – course correct, and lead himself all the way to the finish line.
A great idea, I thought, as we sat in the bar. I wished Simon good luck and the next day, we were bundled into buses for a 4 hour journey into the desert which we’d be running through for the next week.
As we left the pleasant colonial town of Swakopmund, I realized how remote we were. Outside of the town, there was literally nothing. The Namibian desert is pretty vast. The area we were headed into is off-limits to the public – there’s literally no-one around for hundreds of miles. Instead, there are lions. Lions and other big animals, the kind that will happily eat a blind runner who gets lost because he can’t see where he’s going, and his new flashy GPS app has failed. I should mention that the race organisers worked with an expert lion tracker to ensure there were never any lions near the course, but if a runner got lost and strayed too far from the route, who knows where they could end up.
The Campfire, the future
The race days were long and hot in the desert – the dry heat of the mid-day sun typically sat around 40°C, and there was zero shelter to be had. After finishing each day, I would sit around and watch the other runners come into camp. Each day, Simon came firing through the finish line in the mid-afternoon, wearing his all-white running suit. Despite the fact that he obviously had to keep a cautious pace to make sure he didn’t get lost or trip over anything, Simon was making consistently good time. And what’s more, the IBM app was working.
One big unforeseen issue was really slowing Simon down, however – the rocks. The course took us through a few ‘rock fields’ – areas where football-sized rocks were scattered all over the place. Even for someone with perfect vision, they were tiring to pick your way through. As I crossed the rocks, I couldn’t help but picture Simon struggling his way through them.
Sitting around the camp fire each night, eating our dehydrated meals, I’d usually gravitate towards Simon’s group – intrigued by this guy who was taking on a much bigger challenge than the rest of the runners.
“I like to think that if someone with vision can do it, there’s no reason I can’t do it. All you need to do is you need to adapt, sometimes you need to get hold of some technology, sometimes you need to persuade a company to make that technology. But those are just challenges to overcome in order to allow you to do it. And rather than saying ‘no’ and thinking it can’t be done, perhaps that’s boring or the less fun approach .
There are a few things that I do think are now beyond what I’m capable of, but with every new piece of technology and every challenge you complete your confidence grows, and then perhaps you are willing to take these things on it the future.
It all depends on people’s appetites to the projects, because they are expensive. So what you’re looking for is companies that are willing to spend the money and hopefully see the future benefit.”
I asked him about what the next challenge would be. Where can a blind runner go after running solo through the desert?
“I think the next step for the technology, and what I’m probably going to look at next, is object detection. I went to the desert because I thought there’d be a lack of objects – turns out there were a lot of objects – the rocks. However, any object detections system will not deal with those rocks very well. The way those rocks are dispersed, how can you translate it to a blind person? It’s too much information! So you’ve just got to deal with it.
What I’m interested in, is that now I’ve used the guiding technology in the desert, could I do it in a city marathon?
In a city marathon, you’ve got to navigate the course, and then you’ve also got to avoid every other runner. In a city marathon, it can get pretty packed. So what we’re throwing around at the minute, is using li-dar (laser radar). This will sweep the horizon at 5m in an arc, that will detect any runner or other obstacle, and translate that into haptic feedback through some kind of vibration belt that you could wear on your chest or your waist and it tells you where someone is – so you can just move around all the people. So that’s the next step – can we get it to the point of doing it in a very, very crowded environment?
If it works, it means we’ve developed a very generalized piece of technology. If it can work in a marathon at speed, of course it will work walking down the street. Because you’ve tested it in the worst place you could’ve tested it. So if we can get it off the ground and create that, then we’ll have a really generalized system that we can give the people and enable people to independently move around.”
(Since we chatted, Simon has cemented his plans to run the NYC 2017 Marathon completely solo. He’ll use new augmented technology to alert him to the other runners and obstacles around him.)
As the week progressed, we chatted more about how Simon’s outlook molded his approach to new challenges, and about influences:
“My favourite book to do with adventures and running, is by Rosie Swalepope – ‘Just Little Run Around The World’. One day she just decided to run all the way around the world. She was the first person to ever do it, and it took her five years. She even went the hard way – all the way through Siberia.
Rosie didn’t even have any money to fund it, she had to rent out her house, then use the rent money to do the run. And she managed to do it. It’s a beautiful story – an adventure that lasted five years, of phenomenal hardships. It’s not easy running in those environments. We’re talking about places that are so tough that some days you’re lucky if you make 1km. You see that as a massive success, as it’s -40degC.
She was born in Switzerland, but then her mother died while she was still a baby and then she ended up in England. It’s a really heartbreaking story actually.
Then during the run around the world, Rosie found the woman that cared for her as a baby. It’s just incredible. Thats what’s interesting for me about great running or great adventure books. It’s not about the stats, about how far you’ve run or what your heart rate was, or what the temperature was. It’s about the experience, the people, the emotions, the feeling . That’s what makes it really interesting, and Rosie’s book has that in spades.”
Failure As An Opportunity
As the week of running went on, the route took us inland – to ever-hotter and more vast plains. On the fourth stage, the heat peaked – and stopped many runners in their tracks. One of my friends had to get an IV administered on the course. Many runners didn’t complete that day because of the heat – including Simon. The IBM system functioned fine in the end – but his body wasn’t used to the 40+degC heat. After all, when you live in the UK there’s a lack of opportunities to do heat-resistance training for one of these event.s
“When there’s a failure, there’s always the possibility of a return,” Simon said. “And I think a lot of the time you want to return because… failure’s a great learning tool. But at the same time, you almost want to go back to yourself and prove that you can do it. Failure’s only really a negative thing when you see it as a total failure. Then you just walk away without trying. That’s when failure is bad. So yeah, I’ve failed, but lessons learned, let’s go back.”
Simon hasn’t committed to returning to the desert yet. But having proved the IBM system works, he’s now working on the new augmented technology to let him run the NYC marathon. And when he’s not doing that, he’s training for his first triathlon.
“One of my favourite things to do is jump on a plane and run somewhere else. If you say yes to more things, incredible things can happen. I’ve said ‘yes’ to a lot of events where I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but something caught my eye. I go to the event with an open mind, and the next thing that happens is I bump into someone who turns out to be interesting. Then we do something really cool together.
A great day is when you come up with these ideas, and you imagine it, and the day that someone says ‘yes’ – you know, for example when 4 Deserts agreed to have me in Namibia! And the next great day is making and proving the technology. So I guess, every day that an idea and a dream get one step closer to reality is a great day.”
By Thomas Watson
Further reading, based on this article:
My Race Report for the 4 Deserts Namibia 250km race