Running Blind: Meet the Most Inspiring Marathoner
Meet the blind ultramarathoner who’s running from Boston to New York before competing in the TCS New York City Marathon this Sunday. How’s that for inspiration?
Why fly or drive from Boston to New York City when you can run? That was long-distance runner Simon Wheatcroft’s thinking when planning his journey from one city to the other. He’s been blessed with two working legs and he was going to use them.
The reason this Doncaster, England, native is running to NYC in the first place is to participate in the TCS New York City Marathon this Sunday. He will run about 220 miles through four states over the course of nine days before winding down with a nice 26.2-mile stroll through New York City. But he’s not worried about accomplishing all of this because running is something he can do with his eyes closed. Literally. Simon Wheatcroft was diagnosed legally blind at the age of 17.
When I was given the opportunity to speak with Wheatcroft, I thought it’d be a conversation consisting of a sad story peppered with inspirational quotes—understandably so—but within a minute of the interview, I realized Wheatcroft does not view his life as a made-for-TV movie. He talked about his training as if he were talking about the weather; he has no idea how impressive he is, which just makes him more impressive.
Wheatcroft was born with a genetic degenerative eye condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and now at the age of 32 his vision has almost completely deteriorated, leaving him unable to see the road in front of him. But that hasn’t stopped him from running on it. In fact, his loss of vision is what made him run in the first place.
“I wasn’t a runner before I lost my vision, and I probably never would have started running if I didn’t lose it,” Wheatcroft casually told me. “Once I lost my vision, I had to rethink my career and with that, career change; I went back to school and found myself with more time on my hands.”
Getting frustrated with his constraints and bored with his limited lifestyle, he decided to put on some sneakers and see if he could run. And he could. “Running gave me a sense of independence because while there are many parts of my life where I have to rely on others, running is something I can actually do alone.”
Seven months after he started running, he was ready for his first race. As he was already running long distances at that point, he felt like a marathon wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, so he signed up for an ultramarathon and completed 83 miles. No big deal.
“I don’t think it’s any more difficult for me physically because I’m blind,” he said, “it’s just putting one foot in front of the other over and over again so fitness-wise, I’m on the same playing field as everyone else.”
OK, that makes sense, but how does he avoid injury and track his run if he can’t watch where he’s going? Wheatcroft uses the app RunKeeper, which reads aloud distance and pace information. When he first used the app to run one particular route, he noticed that he recognized the feel of each step, and with that he memorized his first run. Think about it: If you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, you can successfully walk there in the dark because you know your route that well. It was the same for Wheatcroft. However, becoming familiar with any route doesn’t happen overnight and it took Wheatcroft a long time to memorize just three miles. Unfortunately, he does not have the time to memorize every course he wants to run, so for longer distances he relies on running guides.
A seasoned ultramarathoner like Wheatcroft is pretty much always marathon-ready (aren’t we all?). But since this will be the longest distance he’s ever run in a multi-day race, he spent 15 weeks training specifically for his Boston-to-New York adventure. “I’d run back-to-back half marathons, five to six days a week,” he explained. Throughout this trip, he’s been running around 25 miles per day, and tweeting his route out to his followers beforehand to see if any locals want to come out and guide him for a bit. “It’s incredible the kindness of strangers,” he said. “All I have to do to get guides is tweet, and they show up.” The best guides he’s had so far were the members of a high-school track team. “They were so excited to be there, and then the entire school came out to cheer,” he shares. “It’s moments like that which make this adventure so memorable. I can run another race, but I will never get another moment like that.”
While running does give him a sense of independence, it’s not why he runs long-distance races. He likes the company. “How often do you get six or seven hours a day to just run and chat with new friends?” he said. Not often, Simon, not often at all. “I don’t run to send one big inspiring message, I just want to meet lots of people and share moments in their lives,” he expresses, humbly unaware of the impact he has on everyone he comes into contact with. It doesn’t surprise us that he’s chosen to also rely on the kindness of strangers to get some rest every night – come on, you didn’t think he was running nine days straight, did you?! He’s using Airbnb to secure housing in every town he’s stopping in because he loves meeting locals and getting an insider experience in the towns he’s running through. (Disclosure note: Airbnb facilitated the interview between the author of this piece and Simon Wheatcroft).
In fact, one of the reasons he wants to run the New York City Marathon is to be amongst people who have similar interests. He plans to make new friends and share his story with anyone who will listen. I have a feeling he’ll have a captive audience. “I don’t run to send one big inspiring message,” he told me. “I just want to meet lots of people and share moments in their lives.”