Blind runner develops tech to compete in races solo

Post date: 
Thursday, 29 June 2017
Photo of Simon and his guide dog on stage at the conference

At the Vision UK 2017 conference, Simon Wheatcroft, who is registered blind, spoke about his dream of competing in races without guide runners and what he’s doing to achieve it.

Hello, my name’s Simon Wheatcroft and to give you a little background about me, I’m blind. I lost my sight to RP [Retinitis Pigmentosa] and was registered blind at 17. By mid to late 20s I was down to just light perception.
So the story I’m about to tell takes place with my vision at that level, and the story starts with an idea. The idea was to climb to the top of a mountain and propose to my girlfriend, and she was going to say "yes" because I’d put in a lot of effort.

My first mountain

I had never climbed a mountain before and I thought, “How hard can it be?” So we’re at the base of the mountain and after two hours it was still really flat – turns out that we were walking away from the mountain. I struggled with that because my girlfriend can see and I couldn’t help but wonder how she didn’t know the mountain was getting smaller!
Eventually we turned around. Turns out mountains are steep, much steeper than I thought. I was tripping and stumbling a lot. There was some sheer cliff face on this particular mountain so the chance of death seemed too likely. So at the halfway point I made the very difficult decision to quit climbing this mountain.
It wasn’t because I wasn’t fit enough or anything like that – it was because I couldn’t see. I did propose to my girlfriend and we got married in Vegas a few weeks later. Afterwards we spent a couple months travelling through America and then returned to the UK.

Pushing the boundaries

The thought of quitting because of my sight was plaguing me.

I told myself I’d never quit doing something again just because I couldn’t see.

I thought, “What can I do to really push the boundaries of what’s possible for a blind person?” Around this time the iPhone had finally got a screen reader (Voiceover), so I downloaded an app called Runkeeper. Now Runkeeper was the first fitness app to give information through audio, so rather than having to look at a screen, it said when you’d run a mile and how fast you were running.
So I headed down to a football pitch behind my house, positioned myself between the goal posts and just ran up and down, getting all my information from Runkeeper. It was working great. But it did get a little too dangerous thanks to the dog walkers.

They assumed I could see – I assumed they would move.

It was time to find somewhere a bit safer, so I persuaded my wife to take me to the local airport.

Building up confidence

At the local airport, the infrastructure was never finished. That means closed roads, no cars, no pedestrians, no dog walkers. And what was great about this piece of road was the double yellow lines that went all the way down. I could feel the lines with my feet and follow them up and down the road.
After a few runs I noticed that Runkeeper would always trigger 0.3 miles whenever I hit some grates, so I thought – is it possible to pair distance markers with the feeling of my foot to run on the open road?
So my wife dropped me off one day, I waited until she left, I ran up and down the road to build up some confidence, and then I stepped out onto the dual-carriage way. I ran down the road. I got to the bottom.

I couldn’t believe I did it.

I burst into tears and then thought, “I must get back to that closed road before my wife does!” I got back just in time.

The open road

For the next few weeks, I basically lied to my wife and told her I was running the closed road. What I was actually doing was waiting until she left, stepping out onto the open road and beginning to learn it.
Thankfully there was always something underfoot, double yellow lines, sometimes the pavement arched so one foot ends up higher than the other, or there would be grass on one side or bush on the other – you could always tell.

Things like traffic lights, road signs and bushes, unfortunately you do run into them – but you remember where they are and you make sure you’re on the other side of the pavement next time.

I managed to run about 10 miles before my wife figured out what I was doing and I was banned from running. But I moped around long enough and she eventually let me train again.

My first race

I started thinking, “Maybe it’s time to enter a race”, so for my first ever race I entered a 100-mile competition in the Cotswolds. I had six months to learn to route and train to run 100 miles, which if anyone’s into running it’s quite a compressed time frame. Fast-forward to the race. I trained at an airport, airports are flat – turns out the Cotswolds are really hilly.
We used guide runners who run alongside you. When I got to 50 miles of hills I was destroyed. My legs were in pieces, I was crying (I seem to cry a lot when I run) and I thought, “Can I really quit doing this?” I didn’t want to.

I felt failure was unacceptable, so I stood back up and ran 33 more miles until I could no longer stand, then I was removed by the race organisers.

But after that, I continued to compete in lots of other distances. I think I peaked at 260 miles – that was a pretty good run. But I’d learnt to train solo, so I thought, “Is it possible to compete solo?”

The right location

Over time I thought, if a blind person can compete solo, all you need is the right location. That location’s the desert. It’s quite open, and there’s nothing to run into, so I found a race in the desert and called the race organiser saying I’d like to enter.
I told her I was blind, she said it was fine and just to bring a guide runner. I told her I wasn’t going to bring a guide runner and I was going to run it alone, she asked how I was going to do it. I told her I had created a special piece of technology that does all the navigation. She agreed and hung up.
I couldn’t believe my lies worked – I had no technology! But I thought, “I’ll figure this out along the way”. So I started training and around six months out from the race and I still didn’t have the technology. I was trying not worry too much.

A chance meeting

Twelve weeks before the race, a chance meeting in Vegas led me to chat with some people from IBM [the company that owns Runkeeper], who decided to partner up with me to develop a new type of navigation software.
Traditionally navigation systems are just like GPS on your phone, similar to Google Maps, where it says “in 200m turn left” and so on. Now that wasn’t really going to work in my situation; what I was actually concerned about was if I was moving in the right direction. So we came out with this corrective navigation system, where if you’re going in the right direction there will be no sound, and as soon as you deviate it uses beeps to bring you back in line so you can always maintain the same route.
We made two key assumptions – that we would know the course ahead of time and there’s nothing to run into. So I headed to the desert. You’ve also got to survive in the desert for seven days as well as running, so I took all my food and sleeping stuff too.

Let the race begin

As the race is about to start, there’s a little race briefing and the race organiser said just at the end, “We’ve changed the course”. And I’m like, “What do you mean you’ve changed the course? This is hard coded – I can’t make any changes.” She went, “Don’t worry, we’ve just moved it 100m to the right.” That’s still a big difference!
But because of the way we had designed the system, it meant I could lock in on a particular frequency of beep, maintain it, and just run that. Turns out, running in open desert is relatively easy. Not much to run into, open plains – you just keep running.

A desert’s boring when you’re blind though, you can’t see anything anyway, but there are no sounds or smells – it’s just sensory deprivation for a long time.

Three days in, I’m sitting down at an aid station eating some M&Ms and someone told me there was a rock field up ahead. There was no mention of that beforehand. I get to the rock field and the ghost runner comes over to me (someone the organisers hired thinking I might die so for insurance purposes had to follow me) and said, “Simon, are you sure you want to do this? It looks bad…the rocks are from the size of your fists to a loaf of bread”. I said “Let’s give it a shot.”
So I head in. I took the skin off the bottom of my left foot, I was in a lot of pain and beginning to black out. Problem is, once you’re in a rock field, no-one’s going to come and get you, the only way out is to walk out. So I dig deep and get out of this rock field. I finish the day and at the campsite I tell myself that as long as I can stand the next day I’ll go back out.
I wake up the next day and annoyingly I can stand, so I think I best go back out. Now the temperature’s getting to about 45 degrees Celsius. And then comes another rock field. I’m already struggling to walk. I try for a bit and realise it probably isn’t going to end well. So I made a very difficult decision to quit the race, probably the first time since the marathon I quit something.

But in that desert, I proved it was possible for a blind person to compete solo.

So what’s next?

It took three months before I could move my leg again. The first day back to the old training ground, my wife drops me off. Ten minutes later, my wife gets a call from me saying I’m hurt, it’s bad, and that she needs to find me.
So she comes to find me and there’s a trail of blood leading to where I am. Turns out what had happened was that there was a burnt-out car in the middle of the pavement. I obviously didn’t see it, ran into it, and it sliced into my shin and arms. I thought that I had to do something, because I couldn’t keep running into things.
I entered the New York marathon, this time I didn’t tell a lie, the idea was to create a piece of technology that would allow me to run the route (which is reasonably complicated), avoid the 50,000 other moving objects (being the other runners) and complete the race solo. So that’s going to be this year in December.
We’ve made progress with the corrective navigation and we’re now into haptic feedback, so it’s a little wearable device. I think it’s going to be released the day after the marathon, so everybody will be able to do really fine grain navigation around cities using haptic feedback.
So that’s my story.


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