World Sight Day Fitness

No challenge too big for India’s community of runners with visual impairment


Learn what running with vision impairment is like, and what inspires these marathoners to take it up

A 116 half marathons, 67 10Ks, five ultra marathons, and one intercity marathon. These are the numbers of 63-year-old Amarjeet Singh Chawla, a runner with 100% vision loss. He’s just one of India’s community of marathoners, that is visually impaired.

“My first run was in 2004 in Mumbai, and for 300 metres, Kapil Dev was my escort. I figured, if such a legend is pacing me on my first run, who knows what will happen if I keep at it,” he says. And kept at it he did. In May, he ran from Mumbai to Pune, a distance of 160 kilometres, in 33 hours. The one thing that keeps him motivated he says, is the knowledge that he is inspiring many others, both visually impaired and sighted.

At the other end of the age spectrum is 23-year-old Penav Mota, from Mumbai, who will be taking part in the Airtel Delhi half marathon later this month. “I started last year, when there was a run organised by people in my community. My mother was to take part in it, but she dropped out, and I decided to go instead of her,” he says. With a taste of what running could do to his fitness levels — Penav started playing blind cricket too, last year — he has been undertaking professional running training this year.

In Delhi, he was paced by runner Dr Sangeeta Saikia. “I was not going to take part in the Delhi half marathon, but when I heard that Penav was looking for a guide, I decided to run with him,” she says.

No challenge too big for India’s community of runners with visual impairment

Better together

Amarjeet, who ran with his 100th pacer recently in the IIT-Bombay marathon, stresses how important it is for a marathoner to build a level of comfort with the pacer. “Escorts are basically running for two. They have to be aware of the obstacles in both of our ways: potholes, traffic, crowds and so on,” he says.

Generally, a visually-impaired marathoner either holds the escort’s palm or elbow, or is connected to them through the walking stick. Sometimes, a rope or lace is tied to the hands of the pacer and the marathoner. “This way, if I am moving away from the line I’m supposed to be running in, the tension will tell me to come back on track,” explains Penav.

Bengaluru-based Pinkathon ambassador Bhumika Patel says she has been working with runners with visual impairments for four years now. “We also train guides who will run with them.” It’s not just about how to run, but also about sensitisation. Bhumika has also been the official guide to Erich Manser, a runner with a visual-impairment, who completed the Boston Marathon this year.

She explains how technology can help solo runners with visual impairments. “We train them to use apps like RunKeeper and Runtastic on known roads. They have audio cues which prompt runners about their distance, time, and speed. They can tell you where you are, where the obstacles or speed-breakers are, which turn to make and so on,” she says.

Why they run

Despite running with guides, the journey is not easy — there are always chances of injury and accidents. “Once at a 21K, I fell down two kilometres in and scraped my knees so badly that they were bleeding. But after some first aid, I went ahead and completed the 19 kilometres,” Amarjeet says. “A similar thing happened in Mangaluru, but when I completed the marathon and entered a stadium, everyone started clapping,” he recalls.

No challenge too big for India’s community of runners with visual impairment

In part, it is this adoration that keeps him going. “In Hyderabad, they call me the dancing sardar,” he laughs. This name comes from a reputation for stopping to dance at every pitstop where the dhol and DJ play. To commit to his fitness, he has taken to spot jogging and yoga every day.

It is hard to believe that before 48, Amarjeet never ran a day in his life — “unless I was late to an appointment!” Amarjeet’s vision, much like Penav’s, had been steadily degrading since he was 13. “So before, it would all be about this treatment, that treatment, and taking all precautions,” he says.

“There’s this saying… Can I share it with you?” Amarjeet asks, with a hint of shyness. “Chaand sitaron ke jo khud ho mohtaj, bheek na maango un ujalo ki, band aankhon se karo woh kaam, aankh khul jaaye aankh walon ki [Don’t seek those who themselves are dependent on the light from the stars, be that person who without vision is an eye-opener for the sighted].”

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 11:28:33 AM |

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