Image of a range of guide running tethers.

A Guide To Guide Running

So you’re thinking about becoming a guide runner, or maybe you’re just a little bit curious about how it all works, but don’t know where to start. Well you’re in the right place. Hi, I’m Meg, and I’ll be your runner, and your guide to guide running for the day.

Guide running for a blind or low vision athlete can be nerve racking. After all, you don’t quite know how much is involved or what to expect, right? But I promise it isn’t as complicated as you may think. So take a deep breath, and relax. You’ve so got this – we’ve so got this! Now let’s get down to the majesty, brilliance, and brass tacks of guide running. What is it, and how do you go about it?

Guide running is a collaboration between a sighted guide and a blind or low vision athlete. Sounds awesome, right? The good news is, not all the onus is on you as the guide to make this work. This alone should make you feel a little better about your preconceptions and wild imaginings of possible pending catastrophe and imperfection.

I prefer to approach it as running with a friend I haven’t made yet. The fact is, guide running is impossible without a willing runner, and I cannot run without a willing guide. Okay, well I can, but between the pedestrians, poles, and other people, it isn’t always pretty. So let’s just admit that we, and of course I mean me, need one another, and discretely move on.

The most important thing about guide running is communication. I know, it is an oldie but a goody, and  honestly, this gig cannot be had without it. I’m not just talking about the step-ups and step-downs of this world. Although yes, that is extremely helpful while we are out on the course. So I do suggest you mention those. Because trust me, if you don’t, at least one of us is likely to trip.

However, first things first. I am talking about asking questions before we even begin to plod the pavement, take on the trail, suffer the sand, tickle the track, bound gracefully across the grass, or whatever we are going to do.

Firstly, it is always useful to introduce yourself, just as you would with anyone. Hi, it is so and so, and I’ll be guide running for you today, or something along those lines is definitely appropriate. Knowing who I am paired with for the duration is always helpful.

Honestly, it doesn’t even have to be that formal. Although it does depend on the setting. I mean if we’re in a group setting, then yes, that might be a good opening phrase. However if you are picking me up outside my driveway for a quickie around the block, then it is usually pretty self-evident. Therefore you can drop the guide running introduction, and simply move on to the how are you, how can I help, and/or what do you need me to do type questions.

Needless to say, all this will become second nature, and depending on our familiarity with one another, many of the preliminaries will drop away of their own accord, and you’ll find our conversation to be easy and natural.

Guide Running is Like Finding a New Lover

Yes, guide running is akin to finding a new lover. At first, things are often awkward, exciting, stilted, and full of anticipation. However soon enough, all being well of course, a natural cadence emerges. So what I am saying is, don’t worry if at first it feels like really really hard work, and you’re left wondering if you are indeed equipped for the job. I can assure you, you most certainly are.

The trick is, not to arm yourself with the assumption you know everything, or that you know nothing either. Chances are, you fit somewhere in the middle. However, if we are talking introductions, a mumbled hello, then yanking me by the arm, or pushing me forward by the shoulder does not a good first impression make.

Speaking of which, in terms of guide running etiquette in general, as in meet on the street type thing, it is preferable that you offer your arm for your companion, and ask them if they would like to hook on, grab a wing, or take your arm etc. rather than take theirs, and lead from the back. This is because when navigating the environment, although you might see where my foot is going to fall, and even feel you have a better vantage point from the rear, I cannot. Let me reiterate that last one – I do not.

So although you might feel like you’re in control, no amount of Jedi mind tricking is going to ensure the predictability of my movements. In other words, although you might feel safe, I am not. And this isn’t about you. By allowing me to take your elbow instead of you taking mine, I can follow the natural cues of your body by being just a fraction of a step behind. And it also gives you time to think about the commentary you’re providing.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, back to the guide running. The idea is to build a circle of trust, and the more quickly that is established, the better. This means asking questions, making small talk, and relaxing into the conversation just as you would with any acquaintance or new friend.

Of course, you’re allowed to be apprehensive, and certainly let your runner know if that is the case. We won’t hold it against you. If anything, knowing how you’re feeling can help. If I know you’re a bit anxious, which is entirely understandable I might add, then I can begin to put your mind to rest by explaining how I work, and what I need.

Again let me reiterate, you don’t get to figure this all out on your own, so stop worrying. And for goodness sake, try not to take it too seriously. I promise it is not that difficult. After all, we both like to run, right?

For example, once the preliminaries are over, I may even suggest we practice by walking together to begin with, in a bid to find a rhythm. That is of course unless you suggest it first. Definitely don’t be afraid to throw ideas out there and take the initiative.

Do You See What I See?

However, here’s what you need to know before getting started. When it comes to working with a blind or low vision athlete, there are about a gazillion different variations and manifestations of said disability. Therefore, it always helps to ask your runner about their eye condition. Yes, even if you have run with them before.

Vision is a fickle creature, and can be affected by all sorts of things; the weather, stress, lack of sleep, genetics, the consumption of sugar, or any number of factors. Some might even say the alignment   of the stars. The point is, you just never know, so it is always worth checking in.

For example, some athletes may be sensitive to certain colours, particularly fluorescent colours. Some may see through a tunnel, while others see around the tunnel, others through layers and layers of plastic cling film, others as though there is a torch being pointed in their eyes, others in splotches, patches, shadows, shapes, and others may see nothing at all. Some people experience more than a single disability, and may have different needs again.

The best thing to do is just ask. Trust me, you’re not going to sound foolish or stupid or ignorant by posing such questions. Good guide running is about good communication. If anything, it illustrates your commitment to the task, and everybody’s safety.

But the communication doesn’t stop there. No no no, this won’t be one of those runs where you can keep company with your thoughts. If anything, this is a great way of escaping those annoying little narratives for a while. But if perchance you need to consciously stir and stew over some nagging niggling problem, this is not the run for that. So either let it go for the duration, and trust the wiring of your subconscious to unwind with the movement of your hips, or store it away for later.

Guide running requires attention, and focus. Not only are you looking out for yourself, but you are literally looking out for your runner, as in yes, literally! Therefore strategy and the ability to think six steps ahead, and concentrate on more than one thing at once is definitely a plus, if not a must.

It is essential the runner is your top priority, because they are absolutely depending on you. What this means is, you cannot assume they are going to dodge that tree root, miss the side of that garbage bin, avoid that pothole, skip that drain, hear that pushbike, know their split, or sense that rise.

All these things and more are your job. Obviously avoiding them, and communicating clearly, be it verbally, through body language, or any other means necessary in a timely, relevant, and succinct manner is up to you.

But remember, just because something isn’t in your path, doesn’t mean it isn’t in mine. And it is here where you are most likely to come undone. It might be a larger crack, deeper puddle, or sneaky drain plug thingy that is in my path instead.

Be aware it does take time to develop a rapport and language with one another, but this doesn’t mean you should put off running until you perfect it. If anything, the sooner you start, the sooner you will have this under control.

My job as the runner is to listen, feel, and engage with those cues, then respond accordingly. As a model runner, I am to follow your instructions, and trust your judgement. For example, If you say squeeze in, slow down, drop behind, duck, hard right, soft left, or anything else, then it is essential I immediately comply regardless of what my perception is telling me. And if I am unsure, it is up to me to ask for further information. Admittedly theory is one thing while personality and practicality are another, so don’t be surprised if you get the odd obstinate runner who thinks they know best.

I know it is a lot to get your head around, especially when not being able to see such incidentals is so utterly foreign, but bear with me. Vision is a passive sense, in that it cannot be turned on and off at will. In other words, if you’ve got it you use it. And in some cases even when you don’t, your brain will just make stuff up as though you do.

So yes, it is sort of complicated, but totally worth the mishaps, miss-starts, missteps, and potential mayhem. This isn’t to say you can’t chatter with your runner about this and that as you’re traveling along. After all, we’re not robots. If anything, conversation makes the run more fun, not to mention increases cardiovascular output, and keeps things light and real.

So yes, that same code of confidentiality applies here, as it would in any other situation of implied intimacy. As I said earlier, guide running is built on trust, thus ought to be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to grow.

Obviously in highly competitive or complicated environments, or super crowded places and spaces it is advisable to concentrate purely on the task at hand, but if for example the harbour looks particularly stunning this morning, then yes, I would like to know about it. And yes, do tell me about the crazy funny thing your ten year old said, your naughty dog, lovely spouse, or frantic boss did. I am all ears. You will find that after a time, the step-ups and step-downs of the world will become second nature, and intersperse within the conversation like punctuation marks.

The important thing to know is that some of this stuff cannot be worked out beforehand, or if it is, may change on the fly. Therefore, be flexible. Sometimes one has to change tact at a moment’s notice, and it can be a case of trial and error. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

As an example, some people like a one-step or two-step call before the gutter, others a three, and so on. Personally I am a three-stepper. The question of whether the one is considered the actual step, or the one is the step before the object, thereby making the object a zero so to speak, comes down to a personal preference.

When approaching stairs, be it a roadside curb, or a flight of thigh burning monsters, (you know the ones) the most efficient, and common sense tactic is to line them up head on. In other words,  your running path will collide with the lip of the step at a ninety degree angle. Always try and be direct, and avoid those diagonal pedestrian lines where possible, because best practice suggests if you are both on the same surface at the same time, then you are less likely to fall or misread a situation.

Slow down if you need, and be sure to instruct your runner whether they are to ascend or descend those babies. Offer them a rail if one is provided, and the best way to do this is put their hand upon it, or instruct them to reach out and feel for it. Ideally you want to be setting foot on those things at the same time, and with the same rhythm. If ground surfaces change, it is always best to warn your runner, such as from concrete to wood or metal grate, grass, sand, or tricky trail.

Is Guide Running a Three-Legged Race?

I don’t think running can be approached without a sense of humour, or a sense of risk. Guide running reminds me of those three-legged races we had as children, although without the chaos of being tied together by the ankles. Instead of being bound like makeshift convicts, we each hold one side of a running rope or guide tether, and coordinate our limbs as a reflective image to synchronise together to make one super-runner. Yes, I did say super-runner.

Just as a good rule of thumb, to coordinate correctly, it is usually the guide’s job to match the stride and pace of the runner, not the other way around. This is why you will often note pairings work well when each person is of a similar height. Although it isn’t essential, so don’t get too caught up on that one. Often what you will find is that each of us will adjust slightly in order to fit in with one another.

Essentially it is the guide who has the ultimate say regarding the speed. In other words, your runner can only go as fast as you allow. Therefore you as the guide get to pick how fast we move, but without dragging me along of course. Alternatively, if your runner is inexperienced, then chances are they will pick the pace, and it will be relatively slow to begin with as they find their feet, so to speak. This is nature’s way of ensuring maximum safety, and preventing injury. However, if you are paired with a more experienced runner, you may find yourself moving more quickly than you anticipated. Personally this is my favourite way to run, because I like the idea of there being less time to think, and each of us having to work more on instinct.

But before you get too caught up in what that may or may not mean, let me stress, this type of fly by the seat of our running shorts is not for everyone, and nor does it have to be. However on the same token, nor should you intentionally hold your runner back or try and dictate to them how and what they are doing based on your own fears or misconceptions of their capabilities.

Let me put it this way. I am not saying your concerns are not valid. Far from it. After all, your job is to keep us  from falling off the edge of a cliff. However I am suggesting that by being overly cautious, no matter how well intended, unconscious bias and coddling will cause inefficient movement, poor technique, greater cognitive load, possible physical tension, and unnecessary stress for all concerned.

Now here is the good news. The secret to good guide running is to trust your runner to know their limitations, and respect their judgement calls and comfort levels the way you would any other running partner. For example, if I am familiar with the terrain, obviously it will be easier for both of us. However if I am not, then let’s get on with changing that and creating me a new mental map of the world.

Guide Running Tethers

Guide running involves the use of guide tethers. When it comes to tethers, there are a gazillion variations. However, for my money I prefer something with more rigidity, as I find the feedback is more instantaneous than that of a bungee or springy type base. But each to their own. Just as different footwear is suited to different situations, distances, and surfaces, sometimes different tethers work better in different circumstances, on different terrains, or even pairings. But again, it comes down to personal preference, practice, and experimentation.

Then there are those people who prefer not to hold anything at all, and simply wish to run alongside or closely behind and rely more heavily on verbal cues, and cellular memory. Alternatively, some people like to run hands free so to speak, but still be tethered via a bungee cord linked to a waist belt, be it side by side, or guide in front, runner at the back, similar to a tandem bike combination.

I wouldn’t advise this unless you and your runner are each confident, and well prepared. As with anything, there are consequences, and the risk of tripping, or missing a nonverbal cue may be higher than with a hand held running rope. However, it definitely has its merits, especially for longer road runs and ultras, as it does afford the best of both worlds so to speak. It allows each runner to be free to move in almost any which way they like, while still maintaining a degree of contact and signalling between each party.

Perhaps you may have seen some people tied or taped together, as in yes literally, or bound by a figure eight type wristband thing, but I disagree with such an approach, and would not recommend it under any circumstance. Purely because if you or your runner goes down, you don’t want to take the other person with you. As unlike the wider hands free tethers mentioned above, there is less time to react.

Sure, it might happen, but at least if one of you trips, you each have the opportunity to let go of the rope, thus preserving maximum safety given the context of the situation. Whereas if you are linked in such a way that means you cannot release, then I guess you are in for a penny, and in for a pound as they say, and each of you risks becoming injured far worse, than if you were able to untangle as the unfortunate incident unfolds.

And yes, chances are, at some stage within your guide running career it will happen. One or both of you will take a tumble. However, this too is not to be feared. After all, every sport has its cross to bear. Falling over just happens to be a runner’s lot.

So suck it up, see it for what it is, and just think of what a great story it will make in the future. Because trust me, yes, if not at the time, there will become a day when you can indeed laugh about it. My advice is to consider it a rite of passage. Nothing like a baptism by gravel rash or grass stains to show the world, right?

So hopefully it is becoming pretty obvious that there is more than one way to tackle this bad boy. And what may work for one pairing, may not work for another. Just as each run is different, so is each guide run. Be prepared, because some will suck. Some days are simply harder than others.  Unfortunately, guide running does not exempt you from any characteristics of a run. If anything, it enhances all of them. So when it is good, it is very very good. When it is not, well, you know.

What I have found is some pairings work well for distance work, others for speed, and others for strength etc. And although you might work well with one runner in an interval session, it may not work so well with someone else.

It is important to recognize this is not a personal reflection on your guide running skills, or the skills, knowledge, or abilities of the runner, but can simply come down to a mix of styles. I mean, of course give it some time and practice, as you never know if either of us are having an off day, or we’re simply taking a little longer to become a well-oiled machine of magnificence than we thought. But remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it doesn’t have to be anything. Maybe play with it and see if anything gels, but if not, then so be it. I promise it isn’t the end of the world. And yes, we can still be friends. Or not. No pressure. Some pairings simply don’t work.

Although having said that, there are those who prefer to work with a single guide, or a single runner, and this is perfectly reasonable. Simply find what works for you, and own that puppy. As far as I am concerned, guide running is not meant to be a chore or an obligation, nor is it meant to interfere with your personal or professional aspirations. Sure, it might take you places you never thought possible, and it might surprise you with its rewards, but it isn’t meant to be something you secretly resent. If anything, it should enhance your training program, and quality of exercise.

Therefore, it is always wise to be upfront with your runner, so you can come to a mutual agreement regarding what is going to work well for you as a team. Most blind or low vision runners I know would be mortified if they thought you were sacrificing your goals for theirs. So don’t put us in that position.

Speaking of which, not every runner is going to be at a world-class level, and nor do they want to be. So thinking you are too slow, too unfit, or too unsure as to how to get started is irrelevant. There will always be someone at your level who is willing to participate. Even if it is a slow walk around the block.

Alternatively, there are just as many runners who may be faster and fitter, but this doesn’t mean you are excluded from participating. Honestly, most runners I know are just happy to get out. If perchance said runner, or guide for that matter, does want to move on to a different specialty or time bracket, it is absolutely no problem. Guide running is not a lifelong commitment. Nothing need be set in stone.

For example, if you start with someone who likes a cracking 5km, just as you do, but then they discover the euphoria of a good, hard ultra, don’t feel pressured to go along for the ride if it isn’t your thing. And vice versa of course. I mean would you want to rob another guide of that opportunity if that is what they love the most? This isn’t to say stick with what you know, but rather, do what you love, and make no apology for it.

Personally as a runner, I love my long runs in the company of someone who loves guide running over longer distances, and I enjoy the shorter, sharper work with someone who also enjoys it. As far as I’m concerned, I get to work with the best of everyone, which is only going to make me a better runner all round. And what is not to love about that?

When you are first learning about guide running, you’re going to feel awkward, and uncoordinated. And yes, yes you are going to miss details, and wonder why such a small dip in the road caused your runner to stumble. But don’t sweat the small stuff.

For example, when using a running rope or guide tether, chances are, you’re going to grip that baby like your life depends on it, which is going to make you tighten up, and isn’t going to actually save me from tripping on that tuft of grass, in case you were wondering.

You’re also going to feel like you want to match steps. By this, I mean you’re going to want to lead with your right foot, just as I do, rather than mirror me by using your left. This in turn is going to throw the arm action out, which means you’ll want to swing forward, while I’ll want to swing back, and out of courtesy, neither of us will move our arm in any direction, and simply pump harder with our outside limbs to make up the difference. Obviously, this can lead to problems.

Ultimately guide running is supposed to be easy, and that is the place we are headed. But in the meantime, all you can do is get out and have a go. Trust me, you’ll know when you’ve nailed it. Because nailing it forces the run to become as refreshingly light and bubbly as champagne, and you can’t help but smile at its presence.

To Be Seen, or Not to Be Seen!

Now let’s talk about clothing as a communication device. Some people are a fan of the high-visibility vest, or a shirt saying “guide” or “blind runner” blazoned across it, which is fine. I can certainly see its value in certain situations, as it does draw attention to you and your runner, and hopefully people will put the pieces together, and get out of your way.

Although this cannot be relied upon, so perhaps it is best to assume that people don’t read signs, and that your high-visibility vest is a high-visibility vest among many, melding into the kaleidoscope of colour and stimulation.

My preference is not to self-identify as such, especially in those more casual one-on-one runs. I think everyone should run in what makes them happy, comfortable, and most of all, feel good. Running is not a consumer industry for nothing you know. Therefore, if high-visibility vests and “guide” t-shirts make you feel good, then fine. But be aware not every runner wants that kind of attention, and some can find it demeaning. Again, this is where open communication comes into play. Personally, I am not a “blind runner” shirt kind of girl, but I will happily sport a pink tutu for that community fun run. So go figure! Yet again, it comes back to individual preference, and there is no wrong answer.

Now in terms of navigating around people, there are several ways to go about this. For my money, if the path is wide enough, why say anything at all. I mean sure, acknowledge them with a hello and a smile, but there is no need to announce to the world you’re guide running another runner.

However, having said that, there are situations where it is entirely appropriate to do so, such as an official running event. In my experience, other runners get it, because it is part of the cool runner’s code.  So if you call out something along the lines of excuse me, I have a blind runner coming through, they’ll usually get out of your way, and offer some encouragement.

Although, even saying a simple “passing” or “excuse us” is plenty, unless of course you are overtaking one of those oblivious, non-responsive runners who wears headphones. In that case, obviously you’ll get nothing.

Then there are those odd balls who are somehow affronted by you overtaking them, and may react by getting angry or making a snide remark in your general direction. And as hurtful as it can feel, honestly it says more about them than it does you or your runner, so shake it off as quickly as possible. People like that aren’t worth your time.

However if you try the “blind runner” thing while on a lone road run around the street, usually people will simply look at you like you’re crazy, or they’ll get flustered and not know what to do, thus turning themselves into an even bigger obstacle. Therefore, I am suggesting you take it on a case-by-case basis, and if you’re unsure, ask your runner how they like to be referred as.

I find the term blind easier when dealing with the public, as that is something clear cut, which can be easily understood as opposed to the more ambiguous, but no less valid label of vision impaired, low vision, partially sighted, or what have you.

But no matter what terminology you choose, be sure to own it, because if there is any hint of trepidation or question in your voice, people will pounce on it, leading to potentially unpredictable results. So be firm, be commanding, and I can almost guarantee, people will instinctively pick up on that and do exactly what you need them to.

Speaking of avoiding things, be it people or obstacles, the best way to approach it is to leave more room than necessary, just in case the unexpected happens. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and in that case, often the best thing to do is slow down, and have a quick strategy session with your runner. After all, if anyone is going to know the best way to circumvent such situations, it is the person who deals with it on a daily basis.

As I said earlier in this post, it is a collaborative effort. Sure you might see that runner up ahead long before I do, but there is a strong possibility I will hear someone approaching from behind long before you are aware of their presence. So don’t under estimate what your runner can bring to the table.

Meanwhile, here are some of my responsibilities within this awesome team. If I feel like you are dragging me along, or we are going too fast, or I need a break, then it is up to me to say so. If I feel we’re out of rhythm, or our form is a little off, then it is up to me to express it. If there is a sound which I either don’t recognize, or causes me anxiety, such as an oncoming car, it is up to me to ask questions. If there is a detail I feel you are missing, or I think there is a better way to do something, it is up to me to mention it.

After all, each and every run, no matter how familiar we are, needs a degree of flexibility. And besides, it isn’t supposed to be work. Therefore, if it isn’t comfortable for me, then chances are it isn’t exactly a picnic for you either. Which brings me back to my first point. Communication is the key to successful guide running, so don’t be afraid to use your words.

The main message here is you don’t have to be or know everything all at once. Guide running, like any skill, takes time, tact, and practice. However, if there is only one thing you take from this article, I hope it is a sense of possibility.

Now all there is left to do is get out there and get guide running. And don’t forget, if you see me on our travels, be sure to say hello.

Posted in The Sanctuary Of Sport and tagged , , , , .