The Inspiration: Simon Wheatcroft
Losing his sight hasn’t stopped Simon from taking on the toughest races on the planet.
Ultra marathoner Simon Wheatcroft has the same steely tone as any determined athlete. A knowing grin is etched across his face as he says, “The record will be mine. It’s just a matter of time.” The record in question is for the Badwater ultra held in Death Valley – over 145 miles in over 50C.
A tough enough challenge, before you consider that the athlete is striving to be the fastest blind runner ever to finish.
Simon was registered blind aged 17, having succumbed to retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that attacks the retina, reducing peripheral and night vision and, in his case, causing complete loss of sight. ‘Succumbed’, though, is the wrong word to use when talking abut Simon Wheatcroft.
After the initial shock, he started running. “One day I decided to go to a football pitch behind my house and run from goalpost to goalpost,” he says. “I soon swapped that for a nearby airport where some of the roads were car-free, so I could run without fear of being knocked over. After a couple of weeks I got bored. I found a dual carriageway and ran beside that, then I realised it was possible: I could road-run alone.”
It throws a new perspective on the minor obstacles that stop the rest of us getting out on our feet.
“I worked out a safe route and learned the pavements, where the posts are and the cambers of the roads,” says Simon. “I also used the RunKeeper app, which has distance markers and audio cues so I knew when to turn. I’ve had some mishaps. God, I’ve run into posts at full pelt. You have to presume the route never changes, but that isn’t always true – I’ve come a cropper on roadworks loads of times. Last week I went over what must have been a wooden fence!”
Simon’s first ultra was a 100-miler in the Cotswolds. “I only managed 83 miles, but while I was distraught that I didn’t finish, I couldn’t move my legs anymore and that was better to me than just quitting.”
Talking to Wheatcroft, you marvel at a man who has refused to be the victim. Uncomfortable with the word inspirational, he says, “I’m just living my life. Taking up distance running was me striving for independence.” And not finishing that first ultra spurred Wheatcroft on to continue competing. “My next is a 100-miler in the South Downs. I’ve been told some of the route is along a cliff, so I’d better be careful.”
Training is seven days a week; runs range from four to 30 miles. There are times – like most runners – when he simply thinks, ‘Why?’ “It’s the bad days, though, that are more satisfying,” he says. “They’re what make me stronger – when it’s raining and freezing, or I’ve dropped food and can’t find it and just don’t want to be there, but I still get the run done. Easy is easy. I want to overcome barriers and there is a voice in my head that says, ‘You can do this.’”
All the hard work is for that final goal: Badwater. “All my races are aimed at getting qualification,” says the 30-year-old. “This year I’m running to qualify for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Hopefully I can get enough points to do that in 2013 and then in 2014, I can go and run Badwater. Once I have that though, a record at the toughest foot race in the world, where do I go from there?” You just know he’ll find something.
Watch Simon a video of Simon in action at asics.co.uk/madeofsport.
Words: Leo Moynihan