Simon Wheatcroft lost his sight at 17 and began a journey of adapting technology to achieve the impossible. Through the aid of a smartphone and the feeling underfoot Simon learnt to run solo outdoors and ran his first ever race 7 months later – a 100 mile road race.
Unknown to my family and I, I was born with the genetic degenerative eye condition – Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which gradually deteriorates your retina. At age 13, during a routine eye test the optician noticed something strange about my retina. A few months later I was diagnosed with RP. I had expected to live the majority of my life with vision, but by the age of 17, my vision had deteriorated to the point I became legally blind.
Blindness is a spectrum disorder, in that, while holding the label blind you may still retain some vision. Up until the age of 23 despite the label of blind, my lack of vision did not adversely affect my day-to-day life. However at this point the degeneration of my retina became severe. I rapidly lost large amounts of vision and I had to adapt.
While I began to adapt my day-to-day life, I refused to use any mobility aid, instead learning to walk with feel, sound and the little vision I had left. Little did I know this would serve me well in the future. By the age of 28 my vision loss was so severe I finally succumb and began to use a mobility aid. After a couple of years of using a long cane, I was lucky enough to receive my guide dog, Ascot.
Now at the age of 31 my vision loss is nearing completion. I no longer have peripheral or central vision (loss of acuity on central), edge detection, colour detection, compromised light sensitivity and complete night blindness. In terms of what that looks like when observing a scene, I just have a fog of dull colour that covers a small percentage of visual field. For example I can no longer see faces or details of people, just a sense of figures that move.
My story of running is best told through an essay I wrote for Like The Wind, I have also included a POV video of how I run. This video was shot a couple of years ago, since losing more vision, I have adjusted how I navigate. But this video gives a great description of how I run blind.
In the blackness of the early morning I stood in a car park at the foot of the Half Dome, a beautiful mountain in Yosemite National Park. In my pocket I had a ring and in my mind a plan. I would climb this mountain and atop it propose to my girlfriend. I had never climbed a mountain nor had my girlfriend but with it being such a nobel quest I felt we could not fail.
After wondering around aimlessly for a few hours, becoming lost and finding the correct trail we had reached a crossroads. There were two routes to the halfway point — we chose the shortest route and holding hands set off with new found gusto. The route was far trickier than we had expected, steep steps, loose boulders and substantial drops at the edge of the trail made the hike hazardous. I continuously stumbled and fearing I would pull my girlfriend down if I fell we broke holding hands and I began to trail behind. After an hour or so it became far too difficult for me, my plan of proposing to my girlfriend atop the mountain was slipping away.
We decided the hike was too difficult for me, it was just to unsafe. So begrudgingly i agreed to quit at the halfway point. It marked a difficult point in my life, for the first time i had allowed my blindness to restrict what i was physically capable of. I couldn’t be too disheartened though I still had a ring, I just needed to adapt my plan. So as we walked down the far easier longer trail, i proposed. 2 weeks later we arrived in Las Vegas and wed in a wonderful outdoor ceremony.
Returning to the UK I thought back to my failure to climb the mountain — I had become constrained by my lack of vision. Frustrated and bored I sat on my sofa, having recently taken voluntary redundancy and waiting for my new start at university, I had a lot of time on my hands. I thought to myself “maybe I could just go outside and run?”. This thought plagued me for a while until one day I decided to just do it. I headed out to a football pitch behind my house, positioning myself between the goal posts and ran up and down the pitch. Feeling exhilarated I was quickly brought back down to earth by the dog walkers — they assumed I could see, I assumed they would move.
Becoming unsafe I persuaded my wife to drive me to a closed road. I knew I would be safe and I could just run up and down the road to my hearts content. It proved relatively easy, I could feel the double yellow lines underfoot and used them as my guide. While I could feel the hump of the line I knew I was on the right track — I was beginning to be less constrained by my lack of vision. Around the same time I began to use RunKeeper on my iPhone — a running application that reads aloud distance and pace information. I began to notice that I always felt the same grates underfoot as RunKeeper spoke the distance.
After a few weeks of running the closed road I was becoming bored with the straight third of a mile tarmac. Navigating it had almost become automatic, as RunKeeper updated my distance I knew it was time to turn around. The combination of the feeling underfoot and the distance markers provided by RunKeeper were creating a fluid guide. With my confidence riding high from running solo and the boredom of the straights my mind began to wander – “could I just run on the dual carriageway atop this road?”. A few runs later the question continued to pop in my mind, feeling particularly bullish one day I decided to just do it. I put one foot onto the dual carriageway and feeling the yellow lines underfoot ran down the road.
Reaching the bottom of the dual carriageway I stopped. Suddenly the emotions of what I had achieved rushed over me and I began to cry. I no longer felt constrained by my sight loss, I had achieved something that weeks ago I didn’t believe possible. I knew only one thing, if I told my wife she would never let me out again! So for a few weeks I kept up the facade of running the closed road, while secretly I was beginning to learn to run solo on the open road.
I was using the feeling underfoot and the distance markers from RunKeeper to map out a route. If I ran into a post I would remember the distance marker and avoid it next time! After a few weeks of running into posts, bushes and traffic lights I had carved a 3 mile route in my mind. At this point I had to tell my wife, annoyed at first she eventually relented and agreed to continue to drive me to my new memorised route.
After running the route for a while I began to wonder how far I could run — everyone has a marathon in them! But that seemed a little too constraining, after all a marathon is just a number, not the physical limits of how far a person could run. So I looked around for my first ever race to enter, I chose a 100 mile road race in the Cotswolds. I thought that would give me plenty of opportunity to find my limit and if I did finish I could always turn round and run a little further.
The training on my route increased and I peaked at 75 miles a week just before the race. The race was far tougher than I had ever expected, after becoming lost and finally reaching the 50 mile point I was a mess. Emotionally I was drained and physically tired, sitting in the support vehicle I questioned whether I could continue. I decided that I could only live with a DNF if I could no longer physically move, so I stepped back out and continued the run. By mile 83 I could no longer stand, I had found my limit.
No runner likes to have a DNF on their record but for me that DNF signified a great achievement. I had travelled a journey that began with me feeling constrained and held back by my lack of sight to learning to run solo and exploring my physical limits on the road. The DNF reminds me of what is possible if you adapt and keep striving for your goals. I continue to train at the ultra distance and compete, with even greater runs on the horizon I hope to expand my limits and once again see how far I can go.