Simon Wheatcroft: the blind ultra runner

Ultra runner Simon Wheatcroft refuses to let his lack of sight prevent him from taking on a challenge.

Simon Wheatcroft: the blind ultra runner

Legally blind since the age of 17, Simon Wheatcroft took up running in 2010 when his vision was just above light perception. ‘Simply that means I can tell light or dark,’ he explains.

I can’t see any details or faces, but I can see the blocking of light or if something passes in front of a light source. People imagine when you are blind that everything is pure black, but only two per cent of people see absolutely nothing.’

He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at age 13. 'It deteriorates your retina, meaning you lose sight gradually,’ he told The Running Bug. ‘Initially you become night blind, then you lose peripheral vision and then more and more sight.’ 

He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at age 13. 'It deteriorates your retina, meaning you lose sight gradually,’ he told The Running Bug. ‘Initially you become night blind, then you lose peripheral vision and then more and more sight.’ 

Thanks to memory Wheatcroft can still mentally visualise objects. ‘I know sizes, such as how big a table is and the size of a cup. It makes moving around much easier, as I have an idea of space,’ he says. ‘The difficulty is things that were designed after I lost my sight. Anything made after 2004 makes it hard for me to understand!’

Over time he has learned to use his senses in a different way. ‘I wouldn’t say my hearing is better or my touch is improved, but I have learned to read those things far more.

'For example, the first time you wear a watch you can feel it,’ he explains. ‘Then after a short period of time the watch no longer exists. It’s still there but you choose to ignore it because your sight overrides it. Now that I don’t have sight I notice those things more.’ 

Run love

Wheatcroft took up running to combat boredom. ‘I was used to working all day and suddenly had a lot of time on my hands, so getting fitter seemed like a good use of all that free time. I just wanted to see if I could go out and run,’ he says. ‘I had a pair of running shoes, so I headed to the local football pitch. Initially I just ran up and down and you can’t go wrong with that.’

He gradually transitioned to roads. ‘I started using a double yellow line which I could feel underfoot. I was using runkeeper which gives distance and pace with audio, so I learnt to run a route through trial and error.

'I love the sense of freedom and the opportunity to push myself,’ he enthuses. ‘How often in life do you say, let’s see if I can keep pushing. Then you discover it’s not as hard as you thought and you can keep on going. When you learn to run, you can apply that to day-to-day life.’                                 

Running solo

Wheatcroft now trains six times a week, but running solo is unsurprisingly a challenge. ‘I was involved in an accident a few months ago which has made it difficult,’ he says. ‘I was just running down my normal route which I had memorised and I suddenly hit an object. I had to put my arms out to stop myself falling forward.

'It turned out someone had left a burnt out car on the pavement, so I got quite hurt and had to call my wife. It’s just one of those obstacles that you wouldn’t expect to be on a quiet footpath down a country lane!’

Fight the fear

Running unassisted is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. ‘I do get scared,’ he explains. ‘It’s always about managing fear. When you go out with a guide it’s fine but running solo you just never know. Every step you have to believe there isn’t going to be an object there. It is about how much you can manage the emotion to keep on moving. It can be very tough sometimes.’

Despite the challenges he faces, Wheatcroft still enters up to eight races a year. ‘I usually run with a guide when I compete and also train on an athletics track with a friend,’ he says. ‘But I wanted to push boundaries as to what I can do as a solo runner. Once I had managed to train solo I then wanted to compete solo. I got that chapter this year when I raced in the Namibian desert.’

The future of tech

Wheatcroft relies heavily on technology to go about his daily life and achieve his running goals, 95 per cent of which is controlled through his iPhone. ‘Technology is the key,’ he says. ‘My treadmill and all my apps go through my phone. It’s such an accessible device that anything can be controlled by it and I can do really intense workouts on the treadmill.’

He has high hopes for the future of tech. ‘I’m nudging a company to put research money into an augmented reality device that truly understands intent; it would work as a constant artificial intelligence assistant and bridge the gap of my sight loss.

'There is a rumour that Apple will be releasing something similar in a few years and Snapchat have released some spectacles,’ he adds. ‘We are moving towards that future, fingers crossed!’

To keep up to date with Simon Wheatcroft's adventures visit www.simonwheatcroft.com or follow him on Twitter @andadapt

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