Joined at the Wrist: Guide running and Achilles International UK

Chris Blackabee and guide Colin Johnson. Photo credit: Achilles International UK

Emily Jenkins introduces us to Achilles International UK, a new London running group for runners with disabilities.

When a close friend of mine, who is visually impaired (VI), expressed an interest in running I decided I needed to find out more about guide running in the hope that we could run together.

So, I took to the Internet and one of the first things I came across was a short training course certified by England Athletics called ‘Sight Loss Awareness and Guide Running’. The workshops run throughout the year and consist of a two-hour training session. This year, in July, there were two workshops held in London (which will be back next year) in Regents Park, with the other remaining workshops spread across the UK.

I noticed there were many workshops outside of London, in places such as the Midlands, the North, the South East and West. As Liz Purbeck, Inclusion Manager for England Athletics explains, “Workshop locations are based on where more guide runners are needed for our national database and where there is interest from visually impaired people to run”. The national database Liz is referring to is ‘Find a Guide’: a database of trained licensed guide runners that helps match guides with individual VI runners.

The seasons came and went and I failed to make any of the London workshops. This did not stop my friend however, who had, in the meantime, discovered a great organisation called Achilles International UK and had embarked on her running journey.

Achilles meets every Thursday at 6.30pm at the Paddington Recreation Ground track (during the summer months they run in Hyde Park, just like we do). Currently the group consists largely of VI runners, but not exclusively so, and is open to people with all types of disabilities. They are a mixed ability group, ranging from speedy runners to beginners.

Achilles International UK was founded in April this year by Chris Blackabee and Will Trembath. It is part of a larger organisation called Achilles International; whose aim is to ‘enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events in order to promote personal achievement’.

I met with Will and Chris for an interview in London to find out more about the background of Achilles International UK.

“Achilles International is very well established in America,” Will says, “particularly in New York”. In fact, it was while Will was living and working in NY that one day, as he was running in Central Park, he spotted a large group of people in ‘high vis’ tee shirts and became involved. Then, when he relocated to London, for work, he looked up ‘Achilles London’ and was surprised to find there wasn’t one! “Achilles didn’t have a UK chapter (branch) … they were setting up in all kinds of places in the world: New Zealand, Asia, South America … even Cuba, but strangely they didn’t have one in the UK!” he says.

Chris, a VI runner himself (and Co-Founder), explains that Achilles International UK is the only group in the London area that he is aware of for VI runners; “There is a database of guide runners – and there is also British Blind Sport – but both those are primarily about matching individuals with guides.” Chris thinks it’s the ‘group factor’ that makes Achilles so special and different from other VI running opportunities.

It was the need for a group like this that spurred on Chris and Will to establish the Achilles group in the UK. It’s much smaller than its US counterpart. Will tells me that in New York, between 50 and 100 VI runners turn up for a run every week and are matched with a guide. In comparison, seven or eight runners turn up at the track every week here, so it’s a significantly smaller operation.

Although the group in London is still relatively small, already the pressure is on to find enough guides every week. To increase the number of available guides Will and Chris are trying to ‘grow the network’ through social networking sites such as Facebook. Each week Will or Chris will put a shout out on the Achilles Facebook page (which currently has 220 members) asking for guides. Usually there are enough volunteers, but not always, for example, if the regular volunteers are away or injured; Will himself is lamenting and nursing an injured foot. Chris emphasises that the main thing runners like about Achilles is they know they will be matched with a guide if they turn up to the track; as Andrew, a regular VI runner, says, “I’m just really grateful that people turn out to run with us”. So, it’s important to make sure there are enough guides every week.

Achilles need guide runners and already there are some familiar Serpie faces turning up to the run each week. If you’re a Serpie reading this and think you might like to help, then this is how you could get involved.

Guides can be of all abilities from speedy runners to laid back joggers. They can turn up with relatively little or no experience of guiding. “We don’t ask for official training instead we give them the opportunity to get experience …. e.g., training on the job,” says Chris.

Speaking from my own experience this was a definite plus as I hadn’t had time to do the EA Sight Loss Awareness workshop. With Achilles, I was able to start running with VI runners straight away – on my first Achilles run – which made it accessible and easy to get involved.

On the other hand, Chris and Will are aware that some runners may feel unprepared to guide a VI runner. In which case, ‘newbies’ will either run with Chris on their first session, and be shown how to guide, or they will run alongside another guide runner and observe (for anyone who is not familiar with guide running, runners are attached loosely at the wrist by a tether).

It is also acknowledged that not all volunteers will have the same level of comfort starting out. “Some are a bit [understandably] concerned that the VI runners might hurt themselves” Will says.  For this reason, Will and Chris are keen to offer training to people, or groups (such as Serpentine), who feel they would like to get involved.

The training would be very similar to the England Athletics training and would actually be delivered by the same person – Colin Johnson. However, Colin, Will and Chris are keen to stress that it wouldn’t be an England Athletics certified course; so not one for the ‘CV’ perhaps, but more about helping people feel more prepared if they are interested in guide running.

Looking ahead, winter is coming, which poses new challenges for the group. Where will they put the guide dogs so that they stay warm? Where will they put the coats and bags so they don’t get wet? It’s the main topic of conversation amongst the runners at the moment who are naturally concerned about whether their weekly runs will continue, as they love coming to the group. “It’s just really nice to be outdoors and I’m so grateful,” remarks one regular runner. For many, without a group like Achilles, running is restricted to running indoors – on the treadmill – for safety reasons. What many of us take for granted – being able to enjoy a carefree run outside – is not always possible for some. Which is why groups, such as Achilles, are so vital. And so, the group must go on!

If reading this has made anyone feel they would like to help out or get involved then please contact Chris (details below).

Chris Blackabee (Co-Founder Achilles International).  07703741127

Twitter @AchillesIntlLDN

Facebook Achilles International United Kingdom

Emily Jenkins has been a Serpentine member since 2016 and is a regular at the Sunday Richmond Run and attends the Achilles Thursday track run. She works as a College Lecturer with a diverse group of students in London and the South East. When she is not running or working she is thinking about what post-run cake to eat, what film to watch next or where to go next on her travels.