Last week we heard from Rocco about the challenges and triumphs of participating at parkrun as a visually impaired runner. This week we hear from the other side, Rocco’s right-hand side – Megan Chatterton, the VI Guide
How did you get involved in guiding?
Unintentionally! A couple of years ago I noticed runner and guides from Achilles Australia in their bright yellow singlets at the Sydney Running Festival. My teenage daughter was looking into community service. She enjoys running and was looking for something ‘commitment light’ that could fit into our family schedule. It seemed like a good fit. We rocked up to Achilles at the Art Gallery in Sydney one Sunday morning and quickly discovered that it was something we could enjoy together that didn’t take up much time. I was also a regular at my local parkrun and it was always in the back of my mind that the logistics of getting to Achilles can be a barrier for many people with disabilities. I thought the inclusive, community-lead, localised nature of parkrun may appeal to people that wouldn’t otherwise get to Achilles. I talked to the Achilles elders and on 1 April 2017 a large group of members and guides mobilised at parkruns around Sydney. It was here that I met Rocco and became his first guide. Fast forward to now, we have a team of 11 Visually Impaired (VI) guides at Willoughby who have supported over 60 runs. The guides have been amazingly dedicated and enthusiastic, to the point where one of them is guiding mid-week runs.
Do I need to be fast on my feet?
Definitely not. Most guides will start out either walking or slow running. You’d never be partnered with someone faster than yourself. That said, my PBs are always when I’m guiding one of our faster runners. The shame of letting him down makes me push myself harder than I do when running alone. A win-win!
So how does it work?
Simple. The runner and guide hold one end of a ‘tether’ which can be anything from a bungee cord, rope or a more specialised tether designed to improve the run experience. Anything can be used in a pinch. Memorably we once improvised by tying the handles of a shopping bag together. Every runner is different and some need more verbal cues and encouragement than others. We keep the directions simple: bollard ahead, branch, veer left, bridge, grate, drain cover, runner in front/child behind. 1km to finish, steep hill in 10 etc. The rest of the time is chatter chatter chatter (for me at least). Our runners are a forgiving bunch so even if you get it wrong, the worst that happens is that we stumble and push on. Trust me, tethered running is much easier than tethered swimming!
Do I need any special talents to be a guide?
Not at all. Just common sense to ensure your runner/walker is safe on the course. The more critical thing is to be reliable. As granny would say, “say what you mean and do what you say”. Having a vision impairment means you are generally completely reliant on other people to get there, do the run and get home. Respect the trust they have placed in you and know that a key barrier to participation in exercise is anxiety around the logistics of getting there and back. If you’ve organised to do a pick up, confirm ahead, arrive on time, make sure your runner/walker knows where the toilets are, help them to a seat in the shade and bubbler after the run etc. It’s likely there will be another person that can pick up/drop off. Be yourself, be friendly and imagine how vulnerable you would be in their shoes.
Knowing that I am making a positive difference to the physical and mental well-being of someone else on a weekly basis. Running plays a big role in managing my own mental health and it’s a privilege to be in the position to afford the same benefits to other people. The friendships and chats are what keep me coming back. Without fail, parkrun and coffee puts me in a great frame of mind for the rest of the weekend. If there was one particular highlight it was seeing Rocco volunteer for the first time. It’s awe-inspiring to think how far he’s come in his fitness and confidence in such a short time. To see him giving back to the community that’s supported him was heart-warming.
Running side-by-side on a narrow path with 200+ runners can be tricky. There’s one part of our course where we are literally brushing shoulders with the front of the pack as they hurtle down the path. I never quite know which is better – to put my running buddy in the direct line of fire or position them on the outside edge where they may end up in a ditch. So far we’ve only had one fall. The only other challenge is runners wearing earphones. It can be very hard to get their attention when we are trying to pass or need ‘turning room’. Generally speaking, our fellow runners are brilliant and have welcomed us with open arms. The run directors could not be more supportive and always make a point of reminding people to keep an eye out for us in the pre-run briefing. We get plenty of shout-outs of ‘Go Achilles’ which never goes unappreciated.
Goals for the year
I’d love to see more VI runners at Willoughby but to do this we need to spend more time spreading the word. I’d also like to support Achilles get more VI runners involved in parkrun at more locations. On a personal level, my daughter and I are stepping up our training to guide our friend Stephen in the New York marathon. At the moment we aren’t fast enough to keep up with him, especially his wicked sprint finishes!
So how do I get involved as a guide?
Achilles Australia has chapters in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. In the first instance, its always a good idea to get along to one of their training sessions if you can. Training is provided on the spot and there’s no need to commit to a regular roster. Their website has some great tips for guiding to give you a taste of what to expect. If you go once and don’t like it, there’s no harm done. You need never show your face again. You can also join The Tandem Movement Facebook page to see if there’s anyone near you that’s looking for a guide. And lastly, feel free to contact me via the Willoughby parkrun email. I’m happy to hear from anyone, especially any parkrun Directors that are interested in promoting their runs to people with disabilities.
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