Sunday 19th May 2019. Portland Street. 0850. Ten minutes until the Great Manchester Half Marathon. Shoelaces checked. Shoelace that linked us checked. We were ready.
“Mike, I could do with a piss.”
“Again?! Bloody hell Danny! You went in Costa twenty minutes ago!”
“I know mate but can’t help it when I’m nervous.”
It was almost two years since my lowest ebb in running. In a previous blog I described how I’d been guide runner to Danny, a VI (visually impaired) runner, at the 2017 Great Manchester 10k. I had performed terribly and stopped him from fulfilling his potential. Though I later found out that chronic iron deficiency was the reason behind my poor performance it still haunted me. I had guided Danny numerous times prior to the ill-fated 10k and though my form had returned the bad memories still lingered. It led me to shy away from guiding running altogether.
This position held until a few weeks ago when Danny issued a call on the guide running messenger group I’m part of. He wanted to run the Half Marathon and was after a guide. I volunteered. I wanted to make good, to atone.
Following Danny’s last moment piss call we lined up at the rear of the red wave behind the 2:00 pacer. Danny’s half marathon PB was 1:49 however we’d settled on 1:46 as an achievable target. For a sighted runner the human traffic ahead of us would be a hassle but for a guided VI runner, for whom space is king, it would be very difficult. A tough first few miles lay ahead to even reach runners of a similar pace.
Danny’s visual impairment is known as X-linked Retinitis Pigmentosa. It’s a progressive condition that starts with night blindness moving on to tunnel vision and, like in Danny’s case, can lead to almost complete loss of sight. Danny describes his vision as being able to see objects as shadows in front of light sources but that’s about it.
The starting gun fired. After a few minutes shuffling along we passed the start and headed down Portland Street and on to Great Bridgewater Street. The route was basically a trip to two football grounds. Firstly out toward the Emptihad, sorry Etihad, Stadium via the Mancunian Way and Ashton Old Road then returning to join the 10k route to Old Trafford and back along Chester Road with the finish on Deansgate.
Those that have guided a VI runner in a busy race will know that it’s a complete headmash. Potholes, kerbs, speedbumps, bollards, cat’s eyes, discarded bottles and other runners cutting you up are all easily anticipated for a sighted runner but when guiding are all potential hazards. Your mind is in overdrive making decisions every few seconds for the person being guided. Clear communication is key and any misjudgement can lead to a fall and potential injury.
We made our way on to the traffic free Mancunian Way but there was very little space along it’s length. I tried to keep us to the right near the central reservation and at times had to mount the kerb but also shoulder into Danny to keep him on the road. The ‘visually impaired runner coming through to the left/right thank you!’ shout became almost constant. Thankfully it was heeded and other runners that shouted ahead helped also as did those that retrieved drinks at all the water stations.
The Ashton Old Road/Alan Turing Way sections were less congested and we settled into a comfortable pace but then came the Etihad Stadium, a minefield of potential hazards. Danny and I are both Reds so it isn’t our favourite place anyway, we both did an Ander Herrera, but it threw everything at us. The route narrowed significantly, there were large speed bumps every fifty metres and a tight 180 degree turnaround where I had to link arms with Danny to swing him around it Irish ceilidh style. To top it off there was a set of bollards to navigate through leading up to a pedestrian footbridge. Unlike Man Utd in recent times though we escaped the stadium unscathed and with our dignity intact.
As we approached the join up with the 10k route at Chester Rd we were ahead of his target pace (4:50 minute kms). Danny was running comfortably and his breathing was steady. I didn’t let him know our progress, I just kept reiterating that we were ahead of his PB.
Clint Boon’s stand belting out classic Manchester tracks at mile 9 gave Danny an extra spring in his step and was cheered when told that the former Inspiral Carpets man gave him a big double thumbs up as we passed.
Old Trafford, our Mecca, came and went and pretty soon after we were back on Chester Rd with only a couple of miles left. This is where Danny really dug deep. I could see that he was feeling it but he kept to pace, in fact he increased pace. I did the calculations and knew that if we kept going he was going to PB big time.
12 mile sign.
“How long’s left Mike?”
“Not far Dan.”
400 metre to go sign.
“Much further mate?”
“Nearly there Dan.”
I got ready for the anticipated Danny surge at the end like he had done in previous races. It’s so strong that I’ve often compared it to being like a water skier dragged along by an out of control boat.
200 metre to go sign.
“Right Dan let’s go. Sprint finish for the cameras.”
“No! I can’t Mike. I’ve nothing left. I’m knackered.”
We went under the Victorian railway bridge and crossed the line in 1:41:12, a whopping 8 minute PB. He’d given absolutely everything, pushed himself well beyond his comfort zone and had left nothing out there on 13.1 miles of Manchester tarmac. Danny had produced an epic personal performance.
It’s easy to be cliched about Danny. Many people along the route shouted out that he was an ‘inspiration’ however it’s important not to go overboard and sound patronising. When one guy said it I answered back:
“Yeah he may be an inspiration but he’s also an arsehole.”
This was said in jest and it got a few laughs but it also sought to underline the fact that he’s an individual that shouldn’t be treated as a special case. He doesn’t seek that. Danny doesn’t allow his visual impairment to hold him back, in fact he uses it to burst forward and achieve his goals whether that be running marathons, parachuting or playing football. In that sense then yes I suppose he is an inspiration but if I said that to him he’d probably respond “nah Mike, you’re just talking shit there mate.”