Blind Ultrarunner Uses iPhone to ‘See’

You don’t love your smartphone nearly as much as blind runner Simon Wheatcroft loves his. He’s training for his first 100-mile ultramarathon, the Cotswolds 100 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and says the RunKeeper app is what’s making it possible.

Training for an ultramarathon is hard. If you’re blind, it’s way harder. Drop a water bottle? It’s gone. You can’t see curbs, rocks, and other obstacles. You need a guide, someone who is willing to run alongside you as you put in long days of training for an ultra or you’re forced to train on a treadmill – which also doesn’t work, as Wheatcroft discovered.

“The treadmill at first would appear the ideal solution — after all it offers a very low risk of death,” Wheatcroft wrote. But treadmills have touch screens, useless if you can’t see them, which makes it impossible for a visually impaired person to change the speed or incline.

Wheatcroft’s solution was to memoriz a three-mile section of pavement — “memorized” meaning he taught himself where each lamppost, dip in the road, and foreign object on his path was — and matched them to audio cues from RunKeeper to safely navigate five runs a week, making him “just like everyone else.”

Wheatcroft listens to the distance cues and feels his way through his training route at certain indicators, notably one point in his route where the app lets him know when he is 100 yards away from a 90-degree turn. “It basically allows me to ignore the ‘noise’ of the footpath underfoot and focus on the signal of the elements that are really important in order to denote direction or location,” Wheatcroft says.

On the day of the Cotswolds 100, Wheatcroft will utilize a guide to help him through the course. Memorizing three miles took him four months attempting to memorize 100 miles of running would be daunting, even more challenging than the physical training for the race as a visually impaired runner. Hydration and eating are issues on long training runs, when dropping something means it’s gone. Wheatcroft started caching water along his route someone started stealing it. He finally dialed his hydration system and found a shoe that balanced performance with letting him feel the running path.

“Smartphones are beginning to replace incredibly expensive tools for the visually impaired,” Wheatcroft says. “Closed-captioned TVs cost an absolute fortune, whereas now you can simply download an app to your smartphone that has the same functionality for free or a few dollars.”

Wheatcroft uses Siri to read and reply to texts and e-mails, as well as make a call to his wife in case of an emergency, instead of struggling with a user interface. And he sees potential in other tech advancements, like the hacks for Microsoft’s XBox 360 motion-sensing Kinect device, which show promise to help the blind “see” through object detection and reporting of direction and distance of objects.

“It is a very specialized market and generally the easiest way to get something working for the blind is to reimagine a use for an existing product,” Wheatcroft says. “That’s what I did with RunKeeper and I am confident along the way I will discover uses for other applications whose original intention was not to help the blind.”

Wheatcroft will be a torchbearer for the London Olympics this June, and will race in the Cotswolds 100 on June 24.

Photo by Harry Page

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