A tumour cost Tony his sight, but running has opened up a new world
As runners gear up for the last Belfast Telegraph Run Forest Run event of the year in Newcastle, Una Brankin talks to blind athlete Tony Barclay, now living in Carrick, who tells her running changed his life.
Tony Barclay (56) is one of the best known faces from the Seapark AC running club in Carrickfergus and the local circuit, which he joined with the help of guide Vivienne Davidson, from Nutt's Corner.
A former Metropolitan police officer, Tony had to take early retirement after a brain tumour damaged his optical nerves and caused him to gradually lose his sight. He lives in Carrickfergus with his wife, Emma, his full-time carer. He says:
When I was in my late teens I got the worst migraine ever and it lasted for 18 months. It turned out to be a tumour on my pituitary gland, pressing on to my optical nerves. The pain was indescribable and I lost half my vision at that stage.
I had to take steroids and couldn't sleep, and I felt like the Incredible Hulk all the time. The mood swings were horrid and it took me a year and a half to get off the steroids. It's too risky to operate on the tumour - I just live with it.
I have an annual check-up - at the last one they told me it had grown two millimetres and that it could invade other areas and kill me. It's a constant shadow to live under, very worrying for Emma.
I was registered blind at 36. I lost my job and I was depressed for a couple of years. We were living in London at the time, but I was born in Dublin and always wanted to go back to Ireland. We came to the north so I could continue my treatment and I fell in love with Carrick. I joined the local running club and started off doing 5k runs.
I hadn't done any running for 20 years and thought I was going to die the first time - it nearly killed me - but I got into it again quite quickly. I run with a guide, with a strap attached to my wrist. We talk all the time.
I can do 5k in 42 and a half minutes. And I did the half marathon in Belfast in two and a half hours. Running has opened up a whole new world for me, so I absolutely love it.
I run 30 miles or more a week and I've made a lot of new friends and it gets me out. It really lifts the spirits; you feel so good afterwards.
I'm quite well known on the local running scene now - I'm recognised as 'the blind runner'. Emma has an ankle injury so she doesn't run, but she cycles. I met her on an internet chat site and convinced her to move over here from London. She worked as a company secretary there.
She loves Carrick, too. We've been here for nine years and it is very much home to us.
I had followed the political situation and the Troubles over the years and had some preconceptions about the place, but I was proven wrong thankfully. Now, I wouldn't live anywhere else.
I run to raise money for the Guide Dog Association. I had a long-haired German Shepherd but he was retired recently and I'm waiting on a new one. He was a great friend, I was sad when he went.
I have some hearing loss, too, so a dog is essential for me when I am crossing the road in heavy traffic.
Having a dog is also good socially - people talk to you more if you have a dog with you.
Now I have 4% vision and I'm totally blind in darkness. I use an assisted technology computer which talks to me - I just get on with it.
I've lost two and a half stones from running. I feel good and sleep like a log, and if I can do it, anyone can.
If I can inspire anyone to get off the couch and out running, I'll be happy."
Vivienne Davidson (58) is a community programme manager within the voluntary sector in Ardoyne, Belfast. She's been running for seven years and became Tony's first running guide when he joined the Seapark AC club in January 2014. She says:
Some guided runners hold onto the arm or the shoulder but when I first met Tony, he'd done his research and had got a strap, along with his shoes and gear.
He put me in touch with Guide Dogs For The Blind and I did a running guide course with them, learning the correct language to use.
You don't just come to a kerb and shout 'stop' - you say in advance there's one coming up and do a one-two-three countdown to it. It's the same with turns, and you grade the steepness of a hill from one to 10, to prepare the runner.
You talk a lot throughout a run and I have to make sure to be running faster than Tony to keep ahead of him.
We ran Tony's first marathon in Londonderry in June, after six months' arduous training in all weather. I've never felt as proud or as emotional as I did that day.
Tony and I have become good friends - although when he started to run with other guides, I complained that he'd dumped me.
But it's great to see him progressing so well; it's great for his independence.
His wife Emma was so concerned for his safety at first, she used to follow behind on her bicycle and warn us about branches ahead and so on.
Tony will never come to any harm when Emma's around.
One of the best events we've done was the running blind event at Stormont in August.
We all wore blindfolds - it's very tricky to run up a hill blind.
Tony's amazing, the way he can get on with it.
It's very enjoyable running with him."
How to find a winning partnership
Running is a very popular sport for many blind and partially sighted people. Following the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2013 Winter Paralympics, there has been a rise in the number of people looking for an opportunity to be a guide runner for a visually impaired athlete.
The famous blind runner Noel Thatcher competed at six Paralympic Games (1984 to 2004), won five gold medals and set a 5k world record at Sydney. Noel was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.
“For me, my guides were absolutely pivotal to my winning races, although it was difficult to find suitably fast guys,” Noel said. “I ran 3.50 for 1,500m and had 3.34/5 runners to train with, and 2.14 marathon runners. In training, the guide gets you through the session safely, pre-empts potential hazards and gives feedback. Try running 10 mile tempos around Regents Park in the dark and wet. For the visually impaired person who would like to run but who lacks the confidence, a guide can make dreams come true. Guides are worth their weight in gold medals.”
Being a guide runner can bring rewards for both the guided runner and the guide. For a Paralympic hopeful, it provides a guide with new motivation for training, a chance to experience the buzz of competition and, for some guides, a unique experience of entering a world class arena. For the fitness seeker and goal achieving runner, the need for guides can offer a whole new dimension to a running group, and a further extension to paced groups and leaders.
Not all visually impaired and registered blind athletes need a guide. The rules for athletics also limit the use of guides to B1 athletes, and a choice for B2. Indeed, some athletes, for example Libby Clegg, will train without a guide most of the time but in races will always use one. Noel Thatcher chose the opposite — training with guides but racing solo. Each athlete’s vision and preference is very different, so a coach and athlete must explore what works best.
Running distance track and road events with a guide introduces new technical challenges including a fair amount of physical interventions — shoulder knocking and pulling — and lots of verbal feedback and encouragement. For a perfectly run sprint, the emphasis is on executing a synchronised start and pick-up. Whilst a very good guide can help with race strategy and setting the rhythm, it is not pacing.
During a race the leadership should come from the athlete. The advantages against rivals are made with well organised training, plus excellent team-work and understanding.
At the 2012 Paralympics, for the first time guide runners also received medals and financial rewards for assisting with podium finishes. Elite guide runners often receive the same physiotherapy and medical insurance to ensure they are kept in track-shape. British Blind Sport is currently working with England Athletics to create a list of guide runners.
Anyone interested in becoming a guide runner, or who’s looking for one, they can be contacted directly at http://www.britishblindsport.org.uk/contact. To find out more about guide running in Northern Ireland, contact the Belfast Mobility Team at 0845 372 7402
T-shirt reward for completing six of the best
■ Runners who complete six out of eight races will receive a free Run Forest Run commemorative t-shirt at the end of the series. Please note, runners need to complete six races to qualify as a Run Forest Run finisher, as race entry alone does not count. When entering the sixth race, either Mount Stewart, Antrim Castle Gardens or Castlewellan, runners will be asked their T-shirt size. Leading up to the final race, runners are advised of the cut-off date to enter the sixth race, in order to pre-order the correct size t-shirt. The organisers anticipate this will be at the end of January, depending on t-shirt supplier
■ RUN FOREST RUN —
December 19, 10am
Tollymore Forest Park,
East District Forest Office
Newcastle, Co Down BT31 9BU
■ RUN FOREST RUN —
January 2, 2016, 11am
Kilbroney Forest Park,
Rostrevor, Co Down
■ RUN FOREST RUN —
MOUNT STEWART 10K
January 16, 2016, 11am
Newtownards, Co Down
■ RUN FOREST RUN —
ANTRIM CASTLE GARDENS 10K
February 6, 2016, 11am
Antrim Castle Gardens,
Antrim, Co Antrim BT41 4LH
■ RUN FOREST RUN —
February 27, 2016, 11am
Castlewellan Forest Park,
Castlewellan, Co Down