“You have night blindness, don’t you Soph?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
“Why don’t you do Wings for Life? It’s run at night.”
“Errr…because I have night blindness?!”
I’m a member of the Achilles Running Group, which brings together vision impaired people with fully sighted volunteers who guide them while running. Our chairperson Amanda loves to challenge her VIPs (vision impaired persons).
Little did Amanda know, this conversation actually sowed a seed of confidence in me, after years of telling myself it would be too hard. I’ve had countless mini debates with myself about whether I’d rather be losing my sight, or the use of my legs. To be honest, the legs win every time. I can’t imagine not having the ability to run, or even walk. Using a wheelchair seems to have so many challenges. So the Wings for Life event has always interested me, as it’s solely focused on raising funds for spinal injury research. There are also three totally different things that make this running event stand out from the others:
There’s no distance limit. You’re chased by a car and when it catches you – that’s the end of your race!
It’s run by many thousands of people all around the world at EXACTLY the same time (how cool is that?!)…
…which leads me to the third thing, and the main challenge for me: in Melbourne, the race starts at 9pm, so it’s NIGHT TIME, which means we have to run in the DARK!
I have RP (retinitis pigmentosa), which means I have some central vision, but my field of vision reduces to very little in low light conditions. So I naturally had some misgivings about signing up for a run which is held at night. But that seed that Amanda sowed grew a little more when I found out one of the Achilles guides, Lara, had already signed up. She offered to guide me, and her enthusiasm and excitement was all I needed to sign up too!
The logistics of picking up my race pack on the day were made so much easier by Catherine, another Achilles guide who had also signed up to run. She picked me up during the day and we headed over to the hub, handed over our disclaimer forms and collected our race bib, fluoro t-shirt and head-torch. Yep, you had to wear a head-torch! (which clever me turned on while I was looking at it aargh BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT *stars and floaty blobs*). Then she dropped me home again for a few hours before arranging to collect me again in the evening. Those hours were weird. I felt too nervous to nap, I was trying to hydrate (cue lots of toilet visits) and also work out when/what I should eat etc. I kept myself busy by writing on my t-shirt BLIND RUNNER as I couldn’t wear my usual Achilles one. Before I knew it Catherine was back to pick me up and it was go-time!
We had to park quite a way from the event hub. It was already dark at this point, so I clutched Catherine’s trusty arm and went with the flow. We caught up with fellow Achilles Running Group members Lara, Brooke, Paul and Jacinta at our meeting spot and calmed our nerves, posing for photos and having a giggle. Then it was time to go! Everyone had to make sure their head torches were on. We were marshalled along a footpath which led under the freeway, all lit up with neon lights and music pumping (although Lara was not impressed with the song choices “this is NOT music!”), round the path wound and then …wait, we’re actually on the freeway now!? Woah, cool.
There we waited, dutifully throwing our arms up for the Mexican wave on demand. I’d taken my hearing-aids out at this point so I was in my little quiet world; however, I had no problem hearing the loudspeaker while everyone around me was literally putting their fingers in their ears! We had five minute, two minute and one minute warnings, then the horn sounded! It was awesome to think that the same thing was happening all around the world at the exact same time.
Running on the freeway in the dark was a really cool experience. I wasn’t scared at all. Lara did an awesome job of guiding me around people and then pretty quickly the race spread out and we had loads of space! The street lamps provided enough light so I didn’t feel I was running in total darkness, and Lara kindly went at a pace that was easy for me to keep. After 30 minutes I knew the car would have set off, so I started wondering how much further we’d make it. There were buses stationed along the course to pick up people whose race had finished. I think we managed to pass three buses so I was feeling pretty chuffed but pretty tired. At the drink station they were handing out Red Bull, which was exactly what I needed! After that there were no more street lamps so I’ll be honest, a bit of fear crept in, but then Lara started singing “I got you babe” and I knew I was all right. I suggested we have another little walking break, but then all of a sudden we heard people saying the car was behind us! Noooo not yet! Lara and I sprinted (I don’t know how I did this!), but then she got pushed into me by a guy on a bike telling us to move over, and it was lucky he did because the catcher car went by super close! On it drove, beeping its horn and shutting down people’s races up ahead.
We forgot to track our run but heard from someone near us that we’d made 8km, not bad! Then it was a little walk to the next bus where we grabbed some water and a space blanket (secretly I was thrilled to get this, it made me feel like a marathon runner). The buzz on the bus was immense, it was clear everyone loved it! Lots of people planning to enter again and get further next time!
Back at the event hub there was a huge screen up showing runners all over the world: Germany, Korea, Austria, Brazil and so many more. Forget being ParkRun tourists, we decided we wanted to be Wings tourists! Travel to cool and exotic places and do the run in a different spot each year!
But would it really have the same impact if I ran it during the day? I feel so proud of overcoming my fears of running at night, and it was made possible due to Amanda’s confidence in me, and the sheer brilliance of Achilles guides Lara and Catherine. I’m so grateful to them for giving up their time and energy to help me achieve this milestone.
I highly recommend this event – I’ll be there next year, come and join me!