Blind Ultra Running… “Don’t believe in other people’s assumptions about what is possible”.
Francesca started to lose her sight at age 39. She had two young children, had just moved hundreds of miles and faced discrimination in applying for jobs.
That was over 12 years ago now. She continues to inspire us at Henshaws with how she has approached her sight loss diagnosis (Stargardt Macular Dystrophy) and learned to adapt her live, never limiting her ambitions.
Our last blog with Fran was in 2017 when she shared her love of travel with us and how she still managed it. You can read that here. We caught up with Fran at the start of this year and found out her latest adventure involves a 50 mile ultra run across the Lake District in October. Never one to do things by halves, we’ll let her explain how she got to this point in her own words…
“One of the things that winds me up the most about my sight loss is the assumptions people make about what I can and can’t do. People are generally better at dealing with absolutes – so you are either disabled or you’re not. Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into either category is confusing. I’ve been guilty of the same myself. Before I realised I had Stargardts Macular Dystrophy I remember being very taken aback when a friend, who is registered blind, complimented me on my outfit. So I’m as guilty as the next person of trying to fit people neatly into boxes.
People are generally better at dealing with absolutes – so you are either disabled or you’re not."
Because my sight loss has been relatively gradual, I’ve had decisions to make about how much I publicise it as it deteriorates; when to start using a symbol cane and how much to say to colleagues at work about my sight, what to say to strangers to explain why I miss things. I still feel self-conscious about it, and my natural inclination is to cover it up or minimise it wherever possible.
I think one of the reasons I do this is that once you admit to an impairment people start to assume that you can’t do other things. Or they see it as their duty to tell you that it’s time to give things up. Obviously there are some things which one has to give up – my driving licence was the main one. Cycling was another, until I discovered that there’s a tandem group for VIPs (visually impaired people) locally!
There are other areas of my life where people have assumed incorrectly that I’ll gracefully step down and accept my limitations, and that is irritating. So I blame my contrariness in this respect for the fact that this year I have signed up to run 50 miles (80km) in a gruelling race over the Lakeland fells. It’s called Lakes in a Day. It’s a tough race by any standards and the very thought of the event terrifies me, but I also believe that it’s great to have a big challenge to work towards – it keeps life interesting.
Sometimes of course sight loss does limit what you can do. However, there are many ways around the issues thrown up by sight loss and you should never believe in other people’s assumptions about what is possible. In the case of this ultra run, my biggest issues are going to be map reading, finding my way in poor visibility and in the dark. The first thing I did was to contact the race organiser to discuss what might work and what support they might be able to offer.
They have been incredibly supportive and after considering the options my approach is to get out on the route a lot over the next few months and learn it as well as I can. I’ve also investigated the sat-nav aids available and these are reassuringly helpful. The route can be downloaded, and it’s even possible to get sat-navs that will vibrate if you go off course. I have a steep learning curve ahead getting to grips with new technology, but it’s fantastic that it’s available. Beyond that it’s just a case of getting out, getting fit and building up my stamina.
I only really took up running in the last few years, having hated it passionately at school. I’ve been sucked further into the running world, partly because I discovered that joining a running club gave me a whole new circle of friends and access to places I couldn’t get to without a car. It’s also a great example of something which I probably would have thought was not a suitable sport for someone losing their sight until I gave it a go… It makes me very excited about what other unsuitable activities there are out there!
I will of course be using the opportunity to squeeze as much sponsorship money as possible out of my friends and relations for Henshaws – no point in wasting a good fundraising opportunity for a great cause!”
Lakes in a Day is an inspiring feat for anyone, sighted or otherwise. We’ll catch up with Fran at the end of October after she’s completed her challenge and find out how she coped with the latest navigation technology. Good luck Fran!
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Henshaws rely on voluntary donations; our work just wouldn’t be possible without people like you. Your support empowers local people living with sight loss and a range of other disabilities to increase their independence, achieve their dreams, and go beyond expectations.