Have you ever seen a blind person walking along with their guide dog, or using a visibility cane, and wondered to yourself “how do they do it?” Day to day life, the simplest of tasks, it’s all so much harder when you have little or no vision.
But what about exercise? How does a person with vision impairment (VI) who is interested in leading a healthy and active lifestyle do this? We’re all told that moving our bodies and getting our heart rates up is essential for good health, but can you imagine trying to run when you can’t see very well? The pure act of putting your feet on the ground one in front of the other at a speed faster than walking? Doing that when you can’t actually see the ground? Let me tell you, it takes some courage!
As a person who is gradually losing their sight, I’m one of these VI people. My love of jogging started a few years ago with a goal of losing weight for my wedding (nothing motivates women like a wedding dress does!). When I first started, I had enough vision to jog outside on my own. I quickly grew to love it, the freedom of getting away on your own, the feeling of shaking off life’s stresses, the satisfaction of overcoming the kms, the ability to have that extra piece of chocolate without feeling guilty – all you runners out there – you know what I mean.
My vision slowly deteriorated and I’m now reliant on my Seeing Eye Dog to get around. She’s not trained to run-guide, so the days of heading out the door on my own for a blissful solitary jog are long gone. I did start to worry that my running days were over all together, but then a shared goal of completing a half marathon saw myself and my friend Rachel undertaking 6 months of training and we raised almost $7K for Seeing Eye Dogs Australia. After the big run, I unexpectedly experienced a huge crash in confidence and felt very blue. An article I read told me this is actually pretty common in runners and one of the best things to do is join a running group, and with amazing timing, the president of a very special running group got in touch and invited me to join.
Achilles Australia is a running club with a difference. Their website states that they facilitate training and participation in running and walking events in a supportive social environment where people with disabilities can achieve life changing goals. They do this by providing guides to exercise alongside you. The guides are fully sighted volunteers and let me tell you, I have not met such lovely people in all my life!
The Melbourne group meets at the Tan every Sunday at 8.30am. You know that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see a guide dog? Imagine that tenfold…so many of these amazing clever doggies all in one spot! I turn up with Yarra, get her settled and then I head off with my allocated guide for the day. I just love it. It’s the best feeling, being able to jog outside, feeling the air on my face, with the knowledge that someone is dedicated to looking out for me.
The guides must be some of the nicest people in Melbourne, everyone seems so happy and bright and fresh. Even the freezing winter mornings don’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm – lovely smiling faces every time! I’ve been paired with 6 different guides and each one of them has turned to me afterwards and thanked ME for a great jog. That’s so nice! It’s clear they really care.
Achilles has been a saviour for me. It didn’t take long to get over the shock of getting up so early on Sundays, and honestly, when I walk up to our meeting place and hear all the Achilleans chatting away and the beautiful dogs jumping around, I feel so proud to be part of such a wonderful group. I also have a new hero – Adam Koops is an Achilles member who has no sight. He actually started running just 18 months ago and has just completed his 4th marathon in 3 hours and 20 minutes. How inspirational is that? Talk about smashing goals!
So next time you see a VI person walking down the street… imagine them victoriously running through a race finish line – it’s possible, and it happens. Thanks to Achilles!
If you know someone with VI, please spread the word, or are interested in volunteering yourself, head to their website and get in touch! They welcome people of all abilities. Especially dog-lovers who can help entertain the dogs (play and walk) while their handlers head out to exercise.