Achilles Running Club: blind faith in a running guide

When Stephen Green finished the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon in May, he felt "like absolute crap". Nothing new there; who doesn't feel exhausted after 21.1km if they've pushed themselves all the way?

But Green's exhaustion was mental as well as physical. He was concentrating super-hard for 21.1km because he literally couldn't see where he was going.

About five years ago, Green contracted Meige syndrome, a rare neurological movement disorder that affects the eye, face and neck muscles.

Up until then he'd been a regular runner. "I felt at that time of my diagnosis that I wouldn't be able to ever run again," he says. "It was certainly affecting my ability to maintain any physical fitness."

One of the worst side effects of the disorder was that his eyelids wouldn't stay open. Green was put in touch with Achilles Running Club. If you're a regular participant in running events in Sydney or Canberra you may have seen the distinctive yellow singlets making their way through the throng. It's inspiring to witness and makes you quickly dispel any misgivings you might have been having at the time about your own state of comfort.

The fear factor or trauma aspect is real; you feel you could fall any second; and you're hyper-vigilant.

Stephen Green

The road ahead

Achilles gives people with disabilities – in particular vision impairment – the opportunity to engage in physical activities outdoors with the help of a running guide. Runners are attached by a tether to their guide who runs beside or just ahead and gives constant updates on the road surface, obstacles and approaching hills. In crowded events the guide sometimes has a helper to act as sweeper to ensure there's sufficient clear space ahead.

The guide also gives encouragement. Green's guide is Enrique Suana; they've been running together for two years and have become solid friends. Green, 62, even attended Suana's wedding.

"Enrique is quite intuitive and very encouraging," he says. "He's always saying things like 'we can do this, move your arms', and gives me advice on my pacing.

"I'd like to build to doing a marathon later in the year, but it takes a lot of concentration and energy. The fear factor or trauma aspect is real; you feel you could fall any second; and you're hyper-vigilant. I try to do specific meditative relaxation and visualisation exercises usually before the race and certainly during the race to stay as relaxed as possible and focus all energy to the right places."


Achilles strength

Green says some of his friends thought he was crazy when he joined Achilles, but now they get it. And he wishes that more people like him would give it a go.

"I'd love to have more people with disabilities come and join us for their own physical, emotional and social wellbeing. It can be such an isolating thing, as I've found, to have a disability. You can reduce going out and socialising and almost be stuck at home in your room, alone. You can fear embarrassment or humiliation but that tends to head you in the direction of social isolation – and that compounds the situation."

Suana says the Sydney club – which is a branch of the US-based international organisation – has about 80 members comprising 60 guides and 20 vision impaired runners aged between 25 and 65, and there's a Canberra chapter of the club. Unfortunately no such club exists elsewhere in Australia.

The perfect match

"Being a guide requires patience and understanding, but they pick it up after a few sessions," says Suana. "The key thing is that they are there for the runner and we always try to match people up appropriately.

"A lot won't be able to run at 3 minute/km pace," he says. Did he just say 3 minute/km pace? Yes, Suana says some club members can complete the 14km City 2 Surf in under 70 minutes.

For this year's event, on August 9th, the club will have nine vision-impaired runners, each with two or three guides. On August 2 they have teams of runners entered in the Centennial Park Ultra 100km relay event, with each member doing 25km.

"We want to show that these events can be done by anyone," says Suana. "There's always a group of people in the community keen to help you get involved in running."

Heroic stuff.

Do you know anyone who helps others to run? Let us know in the comment section below. 

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.

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