Simon Wheatcroft Q&A: The Blind Ultra-Runner

Jason Smith 22 April 2016

Blindness is no barrier for Simon Wheatcroft. With technology and willpower as his only guides, Simon achieved the impossible by learning to run on the open road and later, complete in ultra-marathons.

You started to go blind at 17; that must have been tough for a teenager. How did you deal with that at the time?

It was intensely difficult. Technically by the age of 17 I was registered blind. Unbeknown to me I was born with a genetic disorder so my vision began to deteriorate literally as soon as I was born. So I thought I had normal vision up until the age of 13. I wasn't even aware that I had poor sight. It wasn’t until I was told that I had quite compromised eyesight I was like: really? I thought this is what everyone saw! I had no comprehension. You don’t sit down with your friends and discuss what you can and can’t see. I had no idea I’d been losing my sight so when I found out it was very difficult to deal with. Perhaps at that point in time you think it’s not going to happen but ultimately it did and a lot quicker than I thought.

At 17, I had my first field tests which confirmed I was legally blind. At that time, I was like ‘Wow! I hadn’t realised it was that bad’. It’s difficult to deal at any age but at 17, you realise you’re never going to drive a car - which I’d been really looking forward to. It took until my 20s until I reached some kind of acceptance with 3 or 4 years after that wondering what I was going to do with my life.

There’s this fear, now that you’re blind – all of sudden – you’re not capable of doing a lot of things. You’re also put in a box and labelled; you’re only capable of X and Y, and it takes a while to realise, you know what, you can do anything you want.

Doncaster: Simon's training ground

You certainly proved that later in life which leads to our next question; according to your website you rejected the idea of mobility aids early on. Was that because of not wanting to be categorised or a healthy stubbornness on your part which allows you to push against the norm?

It’s both. Walking around with a cane is a very distinguishable symbol that people see. It’s also a surprising barrier with certain people not wanting to engage with you when you’re carrying a cane. People avoid you. Essentially you’re sweeping a cane which can be seen as wanting to move people out of the way. I didn’t want that stigma at that time and yes, I was a bit stubborn to use one. Although legally blind at that time I could still, in fact, see to an extent. I probably needed a cane but I just modified the way I moved around. It was a lot of feeling under foot; I would bump into to a lot of things, and try to watch out for movement [in crowds] and follow the flow. Also, at that time – 16, 18 – I was going out drinking a lot on nights out. I realised the only way I could to that would be to memorise all the layouts of pubs of Doncaster.

This sounds like good training for what comes later in your running?

Yes, definitely [laughs]. That stubbornness of not using mobility aids allowed me to develop my skills in memorising environments in 3D.

So how did the running start?

That came about after a trip to America to climb a mountain. I had to pull out because the environment was much too dangerous for me and my guide. It was the first time I had to quit something because of my site. That was hard to deal with. After that, I made a promise that I’d never quit again. I would never refuse to do something because I couldn’t see. I always felt there could be a way to adapt.

I’d signed up for university and had some time before that started so I thought what can I do with my time. I needed to get fitter but there were the mobility issues to think about. I thought, though, how hard could it be to get my trainers on go for out for a run solo. That was the challenge I set myself. I went to a football pitch behind my house and positioned myself between some goal posts and ran up and down. I did this regularly but then my trainers quickly disintegrated as a result. Being a poor student, I didn’t have the money for a pair of new ones so I wrote to Brooks explaining my situation and they sent me a free pair of trainers which was brilliant of them.

The closed roads of Robin Hood Airport

So what next; a new challenge?

I quickly realised the limitations of running up and down a football pitch, plus, dog walkers was also a reason for moving on. It became too difficult as there were a few close calls of me not being able to see them. I lived near an airport, at the time, with lots of closed roads so I thought I’d head down there; they’d be no cars or pedestrians and I’d be able to run up and down. That’s exactly what I did and had nothing to run into. I realised then that the app I’d been using on my phone - which told me how far I’d run and how fast - I could pair it with what it felt like under foot to those distance markers. It was with this idea I asked myself: could I learn to run the open road? From that point, I transitioned from the closed roads of the airport to a busy dual carriageway. That began the next step of memorising my routes on the open road.

You make the transition sound incredibly easy but it must’ve been more difficult. We understand your wife didn’t know you’d started running on the open roads?

That’s right, she didn’t. She'd drop me off at the airport and I'd wait until she had gone. I suppose now it sounds easy because I’ve got so used to doing it. It’s become a daily automatic routine. That first step though was a difficult first step. You need to believe you’re invincible; you’re running on a road, there’s traffic, and I just had to put myself in a mental space of invincibility to run through walls. There was nothing that could stop me. I would though only exist in that space for brief moments as I would run into road signs, traffic lights, cones, wheelie bins and trees.

I guess, though, those moments of invincibility increased in size though as you were able to build up that mental 3D map?

The mistakes now are so rare. I can go and run the route I’ve memorised and it’s now so smooth and automatic. Sometimes I ask myself how did I do that? I’m sure people who see me out running across dual carriageways, negotiating central reservations, listening out for traffic and crossing while instinctively knowing now when to step up for the kerbs have no idea I’m blind.

Simon at home on the open roads

That is truly incredible. You’ve mentioned using phone apps; have you seen improvements in technology in this area since you started running?

I just love tech. Right now I’m wearing two wearables and I have two smartphones in my pocket. The app that made it possible was Runkeeper. In those very early days I was capped by the capability of the phone, more specifically the battery. I could run for as far as the battery would last. I was having to use external power so I could run even further. The capability of phone apps though didn’t expand too much. I only needed very simplistic things like audio updates on how far I’ve run and pace.

Technology has to move on though and I’m now at a point where I’ve actually created a piece of tech that is now going to enable me to go from solo running to actually competing in races. That is thanks to the steady march of technology and can only mean, in a few years time, that I maybe I can go beyond running and see what else is possible.

I was amazed to find out that your first race you decided to do was a 100-mile race. Didn’t you consider doing something ‘easy’ like a marathon or something?

The idea to run 100 miles was just born out of the progression I’d been making. When I was on the football pitch I was able to run 1 mile; when I got to train on the open road I’d managed to run 10 miles, so I got hooked on this X10 sort of thing. I thought if I could go from 1 to 10, I’m sure I can go from 10 to 100. From deciding to do running to the 100-mile race itself was 6 months. I put in a lot of training for it which took its toll physically and mentally. I was collapsing while out running. The fatigue was incredible so it was definitely a difficult point in time.

Where was the run?

It took place in the Cotswolds. The race unfortunately no longer exists, which is a real shame. It was called the Cotswold Ultra 100. I was used to running on pancake flat surfaces so of course there were hills and I was like – what’s this? I’ve never experienced a hill before!

The Cotswolds: rather hilly

Were you running solo or did you have anyone guiding you?

That turned into a fantastic adventure because the idea was to take a guide team with me that was going to be made up of friends. Unfortunately, all my friends became injured before race day so then I just turned to Twitter asking for help and 20 strangers agreed to come out as support crew. I’d never even met these people before until I ran with them. Every 10 miles, two new people appeared and it really demonstrated how willing the general public was to come out and get involved. Since that race, any big event I’ve done, I’ve always tried to recreate that model and get local people out.

Since that 100, I’ve done lots of distances: 20, 30 and 50K’s, but I’d never run a marathon. The idea was there so I thought about which one. Well if you’re going to do a marathon you’ve got to do the New York marathon.

Of course!

It turns out New York is tantalisingly close to Boston, which is the headquarters for Runkeeper. So I thought it would be nice to run from their offices in Massachusetts to New York City, which is around 230 to 240 miles, and then run my first marathon.

Excuse the pun but I'm running out of adjectives! How did it go?

I jumped on Twitter again and loads of people came out every day to help me run for a mile or two or more. That was just an incredible experience getting that kind of help from strangers. It’s also the conversations you have with people doing the race, not the professionals, but the part-time runners or the first-timers: those people who have to dig deep on every step to achieve their Everest. They are the most interesting to me.
It’s not about how far you’ve run, as long as you can get there and do something and get involved in a journey or adventure; that's what important.

The NYC Marathon over Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

You’re speaking now, of course, Simon and spoken already to a variety of audiences already; what kind of messages do you like to share with people?

Not having to conform to labels. Just because we’ve been labelled, it doesn’t mean you have to perform within it. There’s no need to be constrained. We can all perhaps do bigger, better, greater things which is really important to remember. This is important to remember in your personal life but also in a corporate setting and just not in leadership but anywhere in the organisation. Anyone can do great things no matter what your title is.

My other key topic is adaptability and change. For me, my entire life has been in constant change meaning I’m having to adapt. I’m constantly searching for ways to improve; whether that’s personally and/or through technology.

And setting goals would be important for you?

Yes, absolutely. You set a goal. You adapt to achieve that goal. I like to set a goal that is very, very lofty. If you don’t achieve that goal, failure is a fantastic learning tool. When you fail, you can go away and examine what happened so the next time you do that task perhaps you’ll perform even better. Achieving goals have to be hard. If it’s too easy not a lot can be learned. Do not be afraid to fail.

A great message Simon. And now for our final question: what next?

Well, the next challenge is to cross the Sahara Desert solo. That is being done with some technology that I designed to help me with point-to-point navigation. Up until recently I considered this to be as far as I could go on this front. However now, the technology exists which may allow me to go beyond the Sahara. I’m currently looking into some more advanced haptic navigation [tech which recreates the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user]. We’ll see where that leads but in the meantime I am currently planning to cross America by bike. In 2017, though, I am looking to do something really crazy but I can’t talk about that just yet.

Well Simon, we very much look forward to hearing about what that might be. Regarding your topics, you should definitely include inspirational to that list. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.

Thank you.

Images courtesy of Simon Wheatcroft & Wikipedia

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