Visually impaired guiding: Who is leading who?

We’ve successfully dodged dogs and avoided children. We’re two minutes into Jersey parkrun.

“Now just run straight” I said.

“I don’t know what straight is” replied Jenny.

My first visually impaired (VI) guiding was off to a wobbly start. It was the first of a number of moments which could have been awkward but we both laughed it off and kept going along the first “straight” of the course.

Fears

I’d signed up to be a VI guide at Mile End but never had the call. A bit like signing up for the Territorial Army, there was definitely a part of me that hoped never to get an email asking for help.

It was a fear of doing or saying something wrong. At best, it might be a faux pas about “looking out” for an obstacle. At worst, it would be my fault if my runner ended up in the canal or in a bush.

Jersey parkrun is a relatively uncomplicated course that loops twice around concrete path but it then veers through some trees to join a gravel track with two hairpin bends. There were definitely prime opportunities to lose my partner down a ditch or trip over some roots.

But when I saw they were asking for volunteers I put my name forward. I was instantly contacted by Alastair who co-ordinates the VI guides and before I knew it, I’d committed to a Saturday morning just two weeks later.

Reality

There isn’t any real training for becoming a VI guide but I thought it would be best to at least see how it was done so I asked to follow Alastair and my future VI runner Jenny on their parkrun.

As with nearly everyone I’ve met at Jersey parkrun or any other, they were friendly. That was a good start. Alastair ran me through a couple of bits and pieces about the equipment, a high viz vest and guide rope, and then we were off.

On the way round, we followed a loose two minutes run to one and half minute walk. We chatted about the weather (being British), work, injuries and athletics. All the way round, Alastair was giving Jenny a commentary on what was coming up whether it looked like an obvious hazard or not.

It felt like the driving test simulator, keeping an eye out at all times for twists in the path or pine cones on the floor. The weather had been wet in the days beforehand so there were some guided manoeuvres around puddles but all with plenty of time and advance warning.

We walked through the brief, obstacle strewn transition section between concrete path and gravel track with no bother but apart from that, we kept up our pace resulting in a new PB for Jenny.

My turn

My parkrun record shows that it inevitably starts rushed or late. That morning though, I was due to meet in the leisure centre reception at 08:40 so a hurried uphill cycle was required to make it on time.

Jenny was there waiting for me, having caught a bus up and been guided to reception by a dog walker. We chatted briefly then she took my arm as we walked round to other volunteers doing last minute prep.

It is amazing how hyper-aware you become of your surrounding when you’re worried about someone else. Kerbs, speed bumps, cars and other runners going past all spooked me slightly but we made it. Jenny is a bit of a parkrun celeb so people were always saying hi.

Sometimes she knew them, sometimes she didn’t, I knew almost none of them but they all looked familiar. She then put away her stick, I put her bag down, pulled on the vest and we walked to the start.

If I’d been worried on the walk round, I was petrified now. There were so many people, kids, prams and dogs that I felt sure someone would knock into us but somehow we avoided them all.

We decided on a two minutes on, two minutes off strategy and started off. I tried to copy Alastair’s style of commentary but found it hard at first to avoid saying things like “look out for”. Being British (well Irish in Jenny’s case), I just apologised profusely. And when she bumped into me she apologised. So we headed round the loop, apologising back and forth while discussing previous marathon attempts.

Jenny had two London Marathons under her belt to my one. Somewhere while discussing this and and our forthcoming trips to Ireland, I completely forgot about our strategy and realised we’d been walking too long. Time flies when you’re having fun I guess but it doesn’t really help with PBs.

We negotiated our way through the trees to the railway path and I even managed to swing Jenny around the two hairpin turns with a lot of urgent “left, left, left, left, left” calling.

Due to my poor timekeeping, we were about a minute off a personal best but with no catastrophes on route, I was very pleased with myself.

“How did I do?” I asked. “You were good”, Jenny replied before adding with a smile, “it’s not hard”.

And that’s the truth of it. It really isn’t. I walked her to the bus stop which was actually harder than the run, navigating kerbs and road crossings. Luckily we didn’t have to worry about dogs attacking the ball on the end of her stick which apparently happens regularly.

Your turn?

There really is nothing to worry about or be scared about. By the sounds of it, your running partner will have experienced far weirder behaviour from members of the general public.

Do it to meet someone new, do it to get a different perspective on your weekly run or do it to help someone out. If nothing else, do it because you get a runner AND volunteer credit!

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