Human Race: A new guide to running

Photo by Ben Knight

I entered the inaugural Run Forest Run, an obstacle race in Surrey, on a whim in 2014 and, unexpectedly, won it. The champagne and applause were all mine and I was savouring them. So caught up was I in my triumph that at first I didn’t notice Louise Simpson arriving back at the race HQ, drenched and knackered – and last. She finished more than an hour after I crossed the line.

But Louise had just successfully negotiated the 11km course – a combination of rural lanes, waterlogged forest paths and a kilometre-long gauntlet of obstacles that included two river crossings – despite being blind.

How so? Grit, for sure. And running pedigree. But also thanks to a chap running with her as a guide. Humbled – and intrigued – I went over for a chat. Fast-forward a year, and I’m back on the start line. It’s a perishingly cold but clear November morning. I’m nervous, but it’s not just standard pre-race butterflies: this time I’m lining up with Louise. I’ve never guided before.

I’m expecting a thorough briefing involving various detailed technical complexities. But Louise, who, it turns out, is a former Paralympian who competes in an event most weeks, is not big on faffing around. She simply puts her left hand through my cocked right arm, and we’re off.

The first kilometre or so is on country lanes and, save for a short, sharp hill and a couple of speed bumps, dead flat. ‘One of the worst guides I had barely said anything for the first hour,’ Louise told me on the way to the start line. Cue endless blabbering from me.

I count down to our turning and then we weave into the forest. It’s not as wet as the previous year but still boggy in places, with trip hazards every 100 metres or so. I work on refining my commentary, trying to deal only in plain facts: ‘Tree root in five metres.’ ‘Brambles at head height.’ It requires speed of thought and tongue – a far cry from the meditative silence I usually associate with running.

We make good progress, though in places our pace is painfully slow. As runners from the second wave begin to flow past, I feel my competitiveness bristling. But gradually I begin to relax and to enjoy myself. Freed from the self-absorbed fixation with pace and place, I’m able to take in my environment, chat – have fun, even.

There’s a wonderful tortoise-and-hare moment when one of the leaders of the second wave shoots past. We come round the corner to find him trying to excavate his expensive-looking trainer from the mud, cursing. ‘Morning,’ says Louise brightly and, one suspects, mischievously, as we carefully pass.

We reach the obstacle section and power on, clambering under and over logs. On one particular 45-degree scramble, I’m braced for a hauling – as well as a guiding – role. But Louise’s hand remains light on my arm; she’s clearly not one for leaning on others.

With the help of my running buddy James, who has joined us, we assist Louise over the two river crossings, and then we’re back on to the forest path for the return loop.

It’s fascinating to see the reaction of spectators we pass. Bafflement. Dawning realisation. Whole-hearted admiration. Several times, words of encouragement pursue us down the track. Fellow runners seem equally awed. Any impatience from those trying to get by quickly gives way to mortification, and some seem visibly buoyed by the sight of the pair of us, their own struggle placed in context.

Back onto the lane and into the final two kilometres. As we tackle the downhill, I feel a tightening of the hand on my arm (blind runners dislike downhills in much the same way as the sighted abhor climbs).

But once on the flat, I feel Louise kick into gear (she’s a two-hour half-marathon finisher) and we zoom up the final straight, stride to stride in fluid teamwork. Last year, it was just the marshals and me at this point. Now, it’s like turning up tactically late to a party, with raucous applause from the dozens of runners milling around. I feel elated – the sense of collective achievement far outweighs individual satisfaction.

We’ve clocked 1:29 – 15 minutes quicker than Louise’s time last year, with nearly a dozen runners behind us. I feel quietly proud of myself and eager to try guiding again. ‘You did fine,’ says Louise, as we tuck into cake and bacon butties in the clubhouse, before adding with a grin: ‘Don’t take it personally, but guides are usually much better the second time around.’