Simon Wheatcroft lost his sight at 17 and began a journey of adapting technology to achieve the impossible. Through the aid of a smartphone and the feeling underfoot Simon learnt to run solo outdoors and ran his first ever race 7 months later – a 100 mile road race.
My story of running is best told through an essay I wrote for Like The Wind, I have also included a POV video of how I run. This video was shot a couple of years ago, since losing more vision, I have adjusted how I navigate. But this video gives a great description of how I run blind.
Unknown to my family and I, I was born with the genetic degenerative eye condition – Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which gradually deteriorates your retina. At age 13, during a routine eye test the optician noticed something strange about my retina. A few months later I was diagnosed with RP. I had expected to live the majority of my life with vision, but by the age of 17, my vision had deteriorated to the point I became legally blind.
Blindness is a spectrum disorder, in that, while holding the label blind you may still retain some vision. Up until the age of 23 despite the label of blind, my lack of vision did not adversely affect my day-to-day life. However at this point the degeneration of my retina became severe. I rapidly lost large amounts of vision and I had to adapt.
While I began to adapt my day-to-day life, I refused to use any mobility aid, instead learning to walk with feel, sound and the little vision I had left. Little did I know this would serve me well in the future. By the age of 28 my vision loss was so severe I finally succumb and began to use a mobility aid. After a couple of years of using a long cane, I was lucky enough to receive my guide dog, Ascot.
Now at the age of 31 my vision loss is nearing completion. I no longer have peripheral or central vision (loss of acuity on central), edge detection, colour detection, compromised light sensitivity and complete night blindness. In terms of what that looks like when observing a scene, I just have a fog of dull colour that covers a small percentage of visual field. For example I can no longer see faces or details of people, just a sense of figures that move.
eAscot is a mobile application built by the IBM Bluemix Garage London which allows Simon to run a marathon without a ghost runner. The app has stored GPS files with the coordinates of the race paths. As soon as Simon presses the start button on the simple one page interface, the app chooses the stored path which is closest to Simon's current location. Simon is wearing an external and more accurate GPS device on his backpack, which is connected to his iPhone via Bluetooth.
If Simon runs too far right of the stored path, the app will warn with simple high pitch beeps which increase in frequency the further away he gets from the track. If Simon runs too far left, low pitch beeps will warn him. The app tells Simon every 5 minutes the time and distance he has been running as well as informing him once he has reached the finish line.
In the future blind runners will be able to share their routes. Furthermore the run path will be recorded and compared to the stored path so eAscot can learn and improve existing routes.
The 4 Deserts Race Series is widely recognized as the most prestigious outdoor footrace series in the world.