“I am blind and my wife has cancer. You read about these things and think it will never happen to you.”
When you go out on your next run – be it an easy 5km or a tough marathon – try the following: close your eyes and hold on to your running buddy. Let him be your eyes. Most likely you will not last 500m with your eyes shut because none of us like the fear of the unknown. Now imagine hearing, but never seeing. Imagine running in a world where every pavement, every bump in the road and every water table has to be pointed out to you. It takes courage and determination. Modern Athlete spoke to Stefan Steyn from Polokwane, on running blind.
It was that time of day on the route of the Comrades Marathon; somewhere past the halfway mark and somewhere at the bottom of the umpteenth hill. Stefan Steyn and Guppy Wilkinson, his running guide and best friend, were ready to tackle a monster hill, as always tied by the arm and running side by side, only inches apart. “You are so lucky you can’t see the hills ahead. It must be much easier on you,” a fellow Comrades runner remarked as the two friends struggled up the hill. “I am blind. Not stupid!” Stefan said.
Comments like these are all part of a blind runner’s day on the road, says Stefan, a 46-year-old attorney who runs for Polokwane Athletic Club. He has always been partially sighted but his world became dark in 2000. This has certainly not kept him from living life to the fullest or doing the one thing he loves most, running. He has completed eight Comrades Marathons, loves to bungee jump and lives for his family and running mates. “Runners are amazing people. They can be so funny but some of them can also put their feet in their mouths.” The perfect example of this is the time Stefan’s running guide lost concentration for a second and allowed him to run straight into another runner. “Can’t you see where you’re running?” the woman shouted. “Actually, I can’t,” Stefan replied to the runner, who later realised Stefan was blind, turned back and profusely apologised.
“Attorneys can be very serious. That is why I love being out on the road, running amongst people who are always ready to crack a joke. I have heard some very entertaining comments such as, ‘Are you guys on a blind date?’ and ‘Who is leading who?’ When I run, I can just be myself without any pretence,” says Stefan. But there was a time when his blindness bothered him so much that he tried to hide it from friends, colleagues and to a certain extent, could not even admit it to himself.
Stefan suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that leads to total blindness. He was born with this condition but for most of his school life, his parents thought his impaired vision was due to meningitis, which he had had as a child.
Stefan could see in front of him but battled with tunnel vision and night blindness. As a child, he knew something was wrong with his eyes, especially when participating in sport. He never played rugby because he couldn’t catch the ball when it was out of his field of vision. He never experienced the joy of participating in team sport. At the age of 12, his desire to be part of some kind of sport lead him to running and he started jogging for a couple of kilometres on his own every day.
For a while, Stefan attended a school for vision-impaired learners, but soon decided he could see better than the other kids and went back to a normal school. After school, he enrolled at the North-West University (the former Potchefstroom University). He jogged a bit, mainly with his older brother, Abel, who was born blind and also suffers from RP. “Abel held on to me while the two of us ran together. It was like the blind leading the blind. I could still see back then, but my vision was quickly deteriorating. We sometimes even rode on a tandem. If only my brother knew how little I could actually see!”
Stefan started working in Polokwane and none of his colleagues knew he was partially sighted. “I did not want to talk about it or tell anyone. A lot of people have told me they used to greet me back then and I never responded. Now they realise it was because I couldn’t see. Back then they thought I was just rude.” He continued running short distances and in 1995, he was so inspired watching the Comrades Marathon on TV that he put on his running shoes and ran 18km, silently promising himself that one day he too would be part of the Comrades.
SEEING THE LIGHT
In 1997, he underwent an eye operation but his eyes deteriorated even more in the months that followed. At this stage, he still managed to run on his own and completed a couple of races. In 1998, he ran his first marathon with a friend, Johan Moolman. “I was so tired but ecstatic when we finished in a time of 4:12.” Unfortunately for Stefan, running without a guide was soon a thing of the past. When he and Johan arrived at Om Die Dam Ultra Marathon in Hartbeespoort Dam, Stefan realised how bad his vision had become. “There were just too many people and I battled to see. I held on to Johan’s arm for the first 25km. At Saartjie’s Nek, I was finished and got into the bailer’s bus. The silence in that bus was deafening. When I got out, I looked for my wife; I was struggling to see anything. I walked up to people and asked for help but many thought I was either drunk or joking. Eventually my wife and I found each other. For a couple of weeks after that race, I did not want to know anything about running.”
However, the urge to do the one thing that made him feel free was overwhelming and Stefan was soon back on the road, this time with the help of another friend, Leon Visser. The two friends decided to tackle Comrades. “Leon is the one who invented the straps around our wrists with a string that looks like a shoelace tied to both straps. It works so well. We keep the lace, which is between 90 and 120cm long, tied to the wrist straps. Leon shortens the lace until our hands nearly touch. The longer you run with someone, the easier it is to read his body language. Trust is by far the most important thing between a blind runner and his guide. The biggest mistake people sometimes make is to grab a blind person by the hand and drag them along,” says Stefan. “I am comfortable with our system of guiding. Another option often used is where the blind guy holds on to the guide’s elbow.”
Though he has never tripped one of his guides, Stefan has often fallen himself. “I am very good at doing somersaults. Cat eyes in the road are the most dangerous and I have tripped over a couple of those.”
Stefan’s first Comrades in 1999 was not meant to be. At Botha’s Hill, he got into the bailer’s bus but while waiting for the bus, he vowed to return and conquer the distance. And he did. In 2000, Stefan and Leon finished in a time of 11:45. “I was so happy and exhausted. After the race, I kept on saying I would never do it again, but the next morning I found myself already talking about the next one.” The year 2000 was significant in many ways. Stefan realised he was becoming completely blind. “It was quite a mind shift to admit it. My eyes were so bad that I had to ask my staff to type documents in bold lettering. I even battled to read.” In this time, he also had to deal with the painful experience of his wife, Hanlie, being diagnosed with breast cancer. “The less I could see, the more I ran. It was my way of clearing my head of everything that was happening.” In 2002, Stefan and Leon improved their Comrades time to 10:36.
Stefan’s blindness does not keep him from experiencing the great atmosphere and excitement at a race such as Comrades. “I listen to the voices of encouragement and my guides are usually very vocal. When I ran with Leon, he described all the pretty girls to me. I have found the male guides I run with usually tell me about the girls while the female guides describe the beautiful scenery,” says Stefan. When Leon moved away, Stefan went on to complete two more Comrades with another friend, Dries Stoltz.
THE DREAM RUN
In 2006, he started running with Guppy, his guide of the last four years. Since their first run together, an unbreakable partnership has been formed. “Initially, it takes time to get used to a new guide. There are some guides I can run with and some I just can’t. It’s got nothing to do with length, it’s all in the stride and rhythm. The most important thing is you have to be good friends. Guppy and I are very close; make no mistake, we do have our moments when we disagree. We have to be in agreement as to how fast we are going to run and if we are racing or not. It’s not as if we can let go of each other halfway through the race.” They know each other inside out. “When I get tired, Guppy starts singing ‘We are the Champions’. That’s his polite way of saying we’d better speed up.”
Stefan and Guppy have different morning schedules. They train together three times a week, on weekend days as well as one weekday at the local time trial. On the other two training days, Stefan runs on a treadmill, something he has become used to but does not enjoy. “I run about 50km a week with Guppy and on the treadmill, but increase my distance as Comrades approaches. Right now, I am running an average of about 60km or 70km a week. I will build up to 110km in the months closer to Comrades,” says Stefan. He admits to getting frustrated when Guppy is sick or on holiday and can’t run with him. He then resorts to his treadmill and runs by holding on to the bars with one hand. “I am used to it. Believe it or not, but in seven years of treadmill running, I have not fallen once.”
Their dream of a Bill Rowan medal came true this year when they finished Comrades in 8:59:22. “I asked Guppy to tell me when we got to the 3km-to-go mark. He forgot! When I eventually asked if we were there yet, we were already at the 2km-to-go mark. That was a good feeling, but we had to move in the last kilometre. My wife was at the finish and it was such a special race!” A week before the race, Stefan had dedicated his 2009 Comrades to his wife. At that stage, there wasn’t a specific reason for it, says Stefan. Little did they know what was to follow a week after Comrades; Hanlie lost consciousness and was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “Now I realise there was a reason for me running that race for my wife. We are trying to stay positive and see every day as a grace and a gift from God,” says Stefan.
Stefan has been her rock and has stood by her and supported her through her illness, says Hanlie. The Cancer Association of South Africa recently organised a fundraising night relay in Polokwane for cancer patients and in remembrance of everyone who has lost their lives to cancer. Stefan wore a special t-shirt with the words, ‘Stefan for Hanlie, in faith, hope and love’ and participated with all his colleagues. It was freezing cold and rained a bit yet Stefan and his running mate ran through the night. By 5:50 the next morning they had done 58km. “I could never ask for a better husband,” says Hanlie.
He tries to live as independently as possible. His guide dog, Ziba, goes with him everywhere. “Ziba must be one of the holiest dogs; he even goes to church with me.” Stefan believes in using all the new technology available to blind people. “I dislike pity and it makes me angry when people say, ‘oh shame.’ ” He finds his inspiration in his faith and through running, has raised money to buy bibles for primary school children in Polokwane. In 2007, he raised enough money to buy more than 600 books.
According to Stefan, he wants to get his green number in Comrades and if it happens that he runs another ten Comrades after that, so be it. He also dreams of tackling a 100 miler soon. “I run to clear my head and to get rid of stress. In running, there are no social boundaries and everyone accepts each other. If only we could project these positive feelings amongst all runners in society; this country would be a better place.”
Through everything, he tries to stay positive. “I am blind and my wife has cancer. You read about these things and think it will never happen to you. It’s only human to wonder why it has happened to us. But we are living in faith and making the best of every day. We can’t stop living.”
AN INSPIRATIONAL FRIEND
Though he loves being Stefan’s guide, guiding might not be for everyone, says Guppy. You have to be dedicated; when you don’t feel like running you still have to because you need to consider the other person. You also have to be the type of person who likes to help other people.
Being a guide is not as difficult as it sounds. The most difficult part is motivating the other person when they become tired. Taking drinks from water tables is also no walk in the park. “Stefan runs on my right and most water tables are also to the right side. Sometimes people at water tables don’t look at Stefan and can’t understand why he is not taking water from them. I have to try and lean over and get drinks for both of us.”
Guppy initially started running with Stefan to help him out on a couple of runs, but they immediately got along so well that they are inseparable today. “If Stefan doesn’t run because he is sick, I usually also don’t feel like running. Sometimes I run on my own. It is nice because you can run to your own rhythm, but Stefan and I are lucky; we are equally strong.” Stefan is the most inspirational man he has ever met. “You will never hear Stefan utter negative things. He and his family have been through so much, yet he never complains. His faith is very important to him and has carried him through some hard times. Stefan is a true inspiration to me.”
SO HOW DOES GUIDE RUNNING WORK FOR ELITE-LEVEL ATHLETES?
A blind runner may choose to use an elbow lead, a tether or to run free and receive verbal instruction from the guide. Commonly, the blind runner is tethered to the guide runner, the tether tied loosely around the wrists or else knotted and held between the fingers in each runner’s hand. The ‘rules’ are that the tether should be non-stretch material of a specific length, and that the guide runner, if racing, should never cross the finish line before the blind runner, and should also never be seen to drag or propel the blind runner along.
WHAT ELSE IS IMPORTANT?
A guide runner must be faster or have the potential to be faster than the blind athlete. For this reason, many top blind sportswomen have male guide runners, as they usually have greater ability to run fast enough for elite level competition.
It helps if a guide runner is a similar height to the blind runner, as it is easier to match the stride pattern. Technique isn’t as important as the stride pattern and ability to keep pace.
A number of blind runners have participated in the Comrades Marathon (the following are stats of runners that the Comrades Marathon Association are aware of).
- Johnny Demas (in 2003 Johnny was awarded the Spirit of Comrades award. He has completed 21 Comrades)
- Renette Bloem (1)
- Louis Potgieter (13)
- Chris Stander (18)
- Christo Botha (8)
- Derek Carter (3)
- Jean-Claude Perronnet (1)
- Charlie Mcconnell (1)
- Carl de Campos (1)
Additional sources: www.disaboom.com