Mr Kobayashi is Event Director at Hikarigaoka parkrun in Tokyo. Inspired by the Tokyo Paralympics, he trained as a guide runner and it just so happened his first visually impaired (VI) partner wanted to participate in parkrun.
Here he talks us through his VI training, and what it’s like to guide at parkrun.
At a local park, I used to occasionally see a few visually impaired runners accompanied by a guide runner. They would be wearing a yellow bib with something held in their hand, and I would curiously watch them, wondering whether the two would maybe run with their legs tied together like in a three-legged race! I knew very little about the role of a guide runner back then.
During the Tokyo Paralympics last year, a Japanese female marathon runner with a visual impairment won a gold medal. I was watching the event on TV at the time and as soon as she had crossed the finish line, she immediately reached out and embraced her guide runner as they celebrated their remarkable achievement.
I was fascinated by the beautiful moment and inspired by the idea of supporting someone with a visual impairment.
Around the same time, two friends from my local area were talking about taking a VI training course. Without hesitation, I decided to join them and take on the journey with them.
A few of my fellow parkrunners came to support me during the training sessions. Many people who have an interest in sporting events are likely to enjoy volunteering as well. Some of my friends were also interested in the role of VI Guide and it was an excellent opportunity for us all to see how things work when assisting people with impaired vision.
To learn what it feels like to be a visually impaired walker or runner, the first part of the training required participants to blindfold themselves with an eye mask.
A short guiding strap between the supporter and the guide helps them communicate effectively and efficiently with each other. This helps the runner ‘feel’ which direction they are heading, any obstacles to avoid, steps to mind, as well as the pace.
While it’s crucial for a guide runner to have the technique and skill set to be able to provide appropriate direction/navigation commands, I believe building a mutual trust for one another is the most important aspect of a positive relationship with our walking/running partner.
It can help strengthen the bond between us and reduce loneliness or sense of insecurity. When I’m guiding someone, I try to create a relaxing atmosphere.
As soon as I had officially registered myself as a guide in a visually impared walkers and runners club, a lot of requests came in to me by email from those who were looking for a supported walk/run. At the beginning of December, the day had come. I finally made my debut as a guide runner!
My first running partner was a completely blind runner who happened to have indicated an interest in participating in a parkrun, which was fantastic! Being new to the role, our first session together went for just about two hours, starting at the nearest train station then to a parkrun event and then back to the train station.
When the parkrun event started, we positioned ourselves towards the back of the group, thinking that going at their speedwould help us finish within our target time. However, I was wrong as I ended up guiding him at a much faster pace, we were doing so well!
We continued running for another 5k after the parkrun. I was a little tired by then, even though we still had half an hour to spare, and that was when someone came to lend me a helping hand. It was Mari, who had been at the parkrun just like any other Saturday morning. She took over my role, looking well-versed, and off they went for another run.
When Mari and the partner blind runner came back, he thanked both of us for our company. We promised that we’d participate in more events together this year. Mari joined me as I accompanied the runner back to the train station. My first day as a guide ended there.
There is a volunteering role called ‘VI Guide’ in parkrun. When a VI Guide volunteers at an event, they help visually impaired participants to complete their parkrun, their participation is then recorded as a volunteer. Since I told fellow parkrun friends about my experience, they were interested in getting involved as a VI Guide.
VI guides can assist with all aspects of parkrun, whether you choose to walk, run, volunteer or support others as a guide walker or runner. I will continue promoting inclusiveness of parkrun to the wider community so that more and more participants can enjoy the free weekly 5k event and live healthier and happier lives.
Event Director at Hikarigaoka parkrun (Tokyo)
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