SAPPORO – The current marathon boom in Japan has brought into focus the men and women who accompany visually impaired runners, facilitating their participation in such events.
The escorts, who require no specific qualifications, are organized into nine groups throughout the country and regularly hold training sessions, according to the Japan Blind Marathon Association.
Blind runners and their escorts “can share the joy of having managed to finish a marathon. That is appealing,” said Masayoshi Ono, who organizes one of the groups in Sapporo.
Ono, 72, and his friends launched the group in 2005 and it now has 44 members, including 18 visually disabled people. They train every Saturday, running for one or two hours at a park in Sapporo.
Ono, who lives in the city, began marathon training and cross-country skiing in his 40s to keep fit when he was still a company worker.
He began volunteering as an escort runner after being impressed by a blind skier at a skiing competition in 2003, at a time when he was pondering what to do with his life after his impending retirement.
“I thought I could help out,” Ono said.
One day in mid-November, Ono took part in the group’s training, running along with Keiichi Ikeda, 68, who has run marathons for nearly 10 years.
Holding a 70-cm-long loop of rope that connects them, the two athletes began running side by side, mindful of each other’s pace. Both wore bibs identifying them as blind runner and escort.
Ono constantly spoke to Ikeda as they ran, warning of uneven patches of road or guiding him if he veered off course. They also chatted from time to time.
“Visually impaired people tend to avoid going outside and shut themselves up at home,” Ikeda said. “I appreciate groups like this. It’s encouraging.”
Kunio Suzuki, director of the association, said that above all, “consideration for others” is required of escort runners.
Escort runners must always be aware of many factors, from running speed to the condition of the road, he said.
For those who take up the challenge, Suzuki recommends running with eyes covered while being guided by someone else, in order to experience what it feels like for blind people to run.
Most members of Ono’s group range between their 50s and 70s.
“The pace of running differs from one person to another. It is better if we have more escort runners. I hope young people, like those in their 20s and 30s, will join us,” he said.
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