Lack of guide runners becomes hurdle for Tokyo Paralympians
“As the top visually impaired marathon runners prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, they are facing an unforeseen hurdle on the path to glory — a lack of qualified guide runners to help them navigate the course.”
As the top visually impaired marathon runners prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, they are facing an unforeseen hurdle on the path to glory — a lack of qualified guide runners to help them navigate the course.
An elite runner needs 10 or more guide runners to properly train for a major race, but only a handful have been able to secure them. In addition to its objective of winning medals at the Tokyo Games, the Japan Blind Marathon Association (JBMA) has accelerated its efforts to nurture guide runners to broaden the base of competitors.
“A good guide runner doesn’t make the runner go faster, but allows them to run with confidence,” said an instructor at a guide-running clinic held by JBMA in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on Nov. 4. The instructor explained the nature of the task to the participants, each of whom was tethered to a visually impaired runner.
“I’m taking part because I want to do something helpful,” said a 55-year-old female company employee from Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. “It was fun to run together.”
At the Tokyo Games, Japan officials are hopeful of following up on the nation’s success at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, where Japan won medals in the marathon races. But to accomplish that, the key will be guide runners who work together in training and competitions.
The JBMA began holding periodic clinics about 30 years ago with the aim of fostering guide runners. The number of participants has increased in recent years, but there are still not enough guide runners who have attained a certain level of ability.
Many of the runners aiming for places on the national team train two times a day, in the morning and evening, meaning more than 10 sessions per week. It is difficult for full-time workers or college students who serve as guide runners to attend all of the runs. There needs to be about the same number of guide runners as there are weekly training sessions.
The association has begun beseeching universities that have competed in the prestigious Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden to dispatch guide runners to help competitors at training camps and other occasions. However, it is difficult to find people available for training on a daily basis.
“Even when looking just at the elite athletes, it seems half of them haven’t secured the number of guide runners they need,” a JBMA official in charge said.
To alleviate the problem, the association has formed tie-ups with a number of universities. Since 2014, Waseda University has sent students from its sports teams to the clinics. Aoyama Gakuin University held its own guide-running clinic for the first time aimed at students who love running in November and will organize another one in December.
“The guide runner needs to be a strong runner and strong mentally,” said Misato Michishita, 41, who won a silver medal in the women’s T12 marathon at the Rio Paralympics. “It feels like a team sport.”
Michishita currently is supported by 12 guide runners who range in age from their 20s to 70s, and come from a wide mix of jobs. Megumi Kawaguchi, who works with Michishita at Mitsui Sumimoto Insurance, is among the 12 who joined the team two years ago.
“You use more physical energy than when running alone, but you get a much greater feeling of accomplishment when you produce a good result,” Kawaguchi said.
Michishita hopes more people will want to become guide runners.
“It would be great if more and more people run with them, not just visually impaired people who are aiming for the Paralympics, but also people who are interested in trying running but haven’t expressed that wish,” she said.
According to a 2017 study by the Japan Sports Agency, 32.7 percent of people with serious visual impairment said, “I want to play sports but I can’t.” This was the largest percentage among groups of respondents in different categories of disability.
A second runner who guides a visually impaired runner along the course, with the two connected by each holding onto a rope forming a loop. The guide will point out turns, such as “10 meters ahead the road curves 45 degrees to the right,” and alert the runner to different road surface conditions. Many general marathoners serve as guide runners. They are not limited to long-distance races, but are also used in short- and middle-distance races. In the Paralympics, a guide runner can be substituted for another during the race in events of 5,000 meters or longer.