Training for a major endurance challenge often brings up several logistical challenges. When will you find time train? Can you find training terrain that will match your race’s terrain? How will you balance training with work and family responsibilities? When Richard Hunter decided to run a marathon in 2007, he faced another question: who would guide him?
Hunter, who is legally blind, set out to run a marathon as a visually impaired runner, but had little knowledge of the resources available to help him accomplish that goal eight years ago.
“When I was first setting the goal to run a marathon with vision loss, I didn’t know a single other athlete,” Hunter says. “I didn’t know any of the organizations that existed that supported me.”
Since that time, Hunter has built up quite the network of people and organizations that assist blind and visually impaired athletes, came to be known in the community as one of the go-to contacts for those who needed guides and is the program coordinator for the United States Association of Blind Athletes’ National Marathon Championships. Using his position, Hunter, along with the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Vision Impaired, created United in Stride, a website designed to help match sighted guides with blind and visually impaired runners.
“What we needed to do was come up with a central resource so anybody who contacted us about guiding opportunities or wanted to know how to meet people [to guide them] could come to each other independent of us through the Internet,” Hunter says.
United in Stride launched the Tuesday leading into the Boston Marathon and within two and a half weeks had nearly 300 people who had created profiles on the site. Both blind and visually impaired runners along with those who wish to serve as guides can create a free account on the website. Visually impaired runners can indicate where they train and plan to race, and also have the option to include other relevant information about training and racing paces, which allows them to be matched with local guides.
“I’ve come to believe with all my heart that there are visually impaired and blind people in every community across this country who would be willing to get outdoors and become more active, but they haven’t had the mentoring or resources in place for them to be able to get off the treadmill or get outdoors and move faster and have that freedom,” Hunter says. “I’m also a believer that there are caring people in every community that would share the sport they love with someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate by serving as a sighted guide.”
In addition to connecting visually impaired and blind runners to sighted guides, the site also provides a guide tutorial that helps first timers understand the ins and outs of guiding, including typical guiding methods and what to expect while guiding.
“There’s always a concern that guiding someone is going to be too much responsibility or be too hard,” Hunter says. “Guiding a blind person is very easy to do and people can do it very safely.”
Hunters has trained runners as young as high school aged to guide visually impaired and blind runners and notes that a runner needing guidance will know his or her needs and will communicate to his or her guide what types of cuing methods to use on a run.
Athletes need guides on training runs as well as during races, and Hunter says each visually impaired runner should ideally have six to eight training guides available to keep guiding from becoming a daily responsibility for any one person. This also allows blind and visually impaired runners to train effectively at different paces.
“I finished the Boston Marathon in 3:21 this year, but not all my runs are that fast,” Hunter says. “Not all my runs are long. Even though I can run a marathon at a 7:40 pace, I run with training guides that run anywhere from 7:00 miles to 9:30 miles because not all my runs are at tempo.”
Training with a blind runner can put you in a good position to guide a runner in a race, Hunter says. Runners don’t have to be fast to serve as a guide, however.
“We really need resource in place not just for fast people, but also for people who maybe aren’t going to race and just want to get off the treadmill or couch and start by powerwalking or jogging shorter distances.”
Hunter also says that dare2tri often serves as a local resource for those in the community either looking for guides or to be a guide. Those interested in learning more about guide running and pairing can visit unitedinstride.com.