When I first found out I’d be writing about Simon Wheatcroft, one of the things I promised myself was that that I’d avoid the more obvious adjectives like “inspirational”, “legendary” or “awesome”. But sometimes promises are made to be broken, and having now met the bloke it’s nigh on impossible to do his story justice without liberal use of those very words.
So, having travelled up to sunny Doncaster in the belly of a giant metal snake*, I now found myself sitting face to face with the man himself as I tried to find out a little bit more about what makes him tick. For those of you who haven’t heard of him yet, here’s something in the way of a bio…
Simon is an accomplished runner, and although it’s only been a couple of years since he first laced up his trainers he’s already made a name for himself as a competent ultra-marathoner. On top of that he writes a popular blog, raises money for charity and has recently been selected to carry the Olympic flame through the streets of Armthorpe, Doncaster.
Oh, and he’s blind.
You read that right – blind. As in “can’t see stuff”.
As conditions go, it’s fair to assume that blindness is (to bastardise a medical term) incompatible with running, almost to the same extent as being born without a head or living above a branch of Greggs.
Except it isn’t.
Simon was born with a genetic condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which, by the time he reached his late teens, left him blind in both eyes but did nothing to dull his zest for life. For the first few years he trained indoors, using various pieces of home kit to keep himself in shape, but after a while he started to crave something a little more challenging and decided to step outside. His first tentative steps as a runner saw him jogging the length of a nearby football pitch, using goalposts as landmarks to keep him on track, before a combination of boredom and tripping over one too many dogs pushed him even further afield. He spent several painstaking weeks gradually plotting out a training route that takes him alongside a dual carriageway, around an industrial estate and onto a length of closed-off road. Impressively, he runs this 6 mile loop alone (except when he’s accompanied by nosy bloggers) using a variety of techniques he’s developed over time. Although the extent of his condition means that he can sometimes pick out things that are sharply contrasted (very handy when encountering pandas, nuns and zebra crossings), he mostly navigates by concentrating on the landmarks under his feet, such as particular cambers of footpath and the almost imperceptibly raised edges of double yellow lines. It’s essential for Simon to find the right footwear for the job – he experimented with Vibram fivefingers but found that while they provided a good level of feedback they just didn’t offer enough protection against the occasional (but inevitable) battle of Toe versus Rock**. He’s currently using a pair of Asics Gel Hyper 33’s, a natural shoe that give him the right balance of sensitivity and safety. I’m not particularly clued up on the technical aspects of running shoes, but I did notice that they were yellow, which was nice.
As well as navigating through the soles of his feet (which, if we’re honest, is pretty darn ninja!) Simon also uses the RunKeeper app on his iPhone, with the audio cues providing a vital way of working out how far he’s come and, more importantly, how far he is from the next turning, road crossing, etc.
So, that’s a bit of background, now back to the day itself. I’d been joined by Simon Freeman, author of the amazing www.simonfreeman.com which is a proper running blog (i.e. far less references to Chorlton and the Wheelies than the one you’re reading right now) and well worth checking out. We made our way from the train station to Simon’s house*** to spend a little while talking to the man himself before heading out with him for a training run to see first-hand how he does what he does. For someone who’s had to battle and adapt in order to do something that most of us take for granted, he’s remarkably relaxed and self-effacing. For instance, recounting the story of how, when he first started out, the local running club wouldn’t even return his calls, there’s not so much as a hint of bitterness in his voice. Which is a shame, because it would have been great if on 26th June he decided to take a quick detour so that he could turn up, Olympic torch in hand, outside the clubhouse like a modern-day version of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (in the snooty-shop-revenge scene, not the other stuff). We continued to chat about every aspect of running, from Simon’s secret race tactics (start at the back – better atmosphere, more sweets) to what had inspired him to start running in the first place (one inspiration being the last book he read before he lost his sight completely – Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes). And then it was time to run…
We drove to the outskirts of town, just down the road from Robin Hood airport, and set off at a steady pace. The hardest thing about going out running with Simon is actually remembering that he’s blind; there’s certainly no clue to be found in the fluid, effortless steps he takes as he deftly manoeuvres his way around the 10k loop. Simon’s running style is all about economy of movement, which makes sense considering the way he navigates – long bounding strides would make it difficult to get accurate feedback from the terrain. This natural conservation of effort is probably one of the reasons Simon has found an affinity with endurance running. No wasted energy, no unnecessary movement = plenty in the tank. Of course, in terms of keeping your glycogen levels topped up, nothing quite beats nicking jelly babies off the runners at the back of the pack 😉
In short, this isn’t a man who’s overcome a disability. This is a man who’s run up to a disability, kicked it up the arse and then skipped off down the road laughing, leaving aforementioned disability lying in the gutter crying for its mum. He might have shouted “Raaaah!” while he was doing it too. I’m not sure, I wasn’t there.
Looking to the future, Simon has his sights set firmly on competing in the Badwater Ultra through California’s Death Valley (but not the dangerous Badwater, in case Mrs Wheatcroft is reading this – he’s entering the other Badwater. The nice one). But that’s at least a couple of years’ training away yet, and in the meantime there are plenty of other gruelling races out there for Simon to hone his craft at. And for him it is a craft.
The man’s an awesome, inspirational legend 🙂
An hour later, while sitting on a train bound for home, my thoughts turned to something Simon said that will most likely pop back into my head whenever I try and tackle a new distance…
“Just a little bit of belief can do amazing things. Distance is nothing – it’s just that little number ticking up. You only have to hit it once and it’s done forever”.
Simon’s next race is the self-titled “Marathon Sandwich” this Sunday (27th May 2012) in which he’ll run the equivalent of a half-marathon then a full marathon then another half-marathon, back to back for a total of 52.4 miles. It’s in aid of the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind (SRSB), so a very worthy cause and you can donate by visiting http://www.justgiving.com/MarathonSandwich2012 or by texting “SRSB12 £1” to 70070 (you can substitute the £1 for another amount if you want).
It’s a bloody long distance (I’d struggle to run so much as a Parkrun Baguette) and he’s out doing it all for charity while the rest of us will be enjoying the weekend sunshine, so please donate if you can.
PS: Simon, if you’re reading this, a word of warning: If you turn up on Dragons Den anytime soon claiming to be the inventor of the “Camelbak Fondue” I will sue you! 😉