This blind ultra marathon runner is on a mission to change lives

By Kitty Knowles 20 June 2016
Simon Wheatcroft. Pic: Facebook.

Simon Wheatcroft has named his high-tech running kit after his guide dog - Ascot.

All too often we take life for granted: the ability to walk, or to see, or to experience life to the fullest.

This week, we learned about a truly inspiring blind athlete Simon Wheatcroft.

Not only does the ultra marathon runner not let disability hold him back, but its driven him to change the world for the better.

Today he’s working with IBM Watson to develop an app for blind runners.

“I’m motivated by possibilities,” he explained at an event in Bangalore.

Adversity in the face of hardship

Diagnosed with a genetic disorder as a teenager, Wheatcroft was blind by 17.

He decided to start running, doing laps across an empty football ground at night.

As his confidence grew, he eventually hit the pavement, using Runkeeper – a GPS fitness app capable of giving audio directions – to guide him.

This didn’t however, map lamp posts, bins or benches, and he had to memorise how to avoid them.

“Pain is a great teacher,” he recalled.

The athlete was soon completing 10km runs, and progressed to sign up for an 102-mile (164-km) ultra marathon in the British Cotswolds.

Without a tracker, he relied on strangers to assist him on the run, but was hooked.

He later ran 221 miles from Boston to New York, and completed the New York marathon.

Joining the IBM team

After hearing about his efforts, Wheatcroft was invited to work with IBM to build an app specifically for blind runners.

He’s called it eAscot – after his guide dog Ascot.

This lets any runner tag obstacles like trees or lamp posts on a map.

Wheatcroft’s feedback is also shaping the different ways the app can be used.

For example, he finds audio cues distracting and so has helped implement a ‘beep’ alert system.

He hopes that in the future motion sensor technology will help him avoid moving objects – like other pedestrians.

Technology to help a man take on the desert

This year Wheatcroft tested the app by taking on the 250km Sahara desert ultra marathon alone.

Despite a painful collision with a flagpole, and an early exit (the ground became too rocky for Wheatcroft to complete the course) the trial was a success.

“I never thought I could run solo. But technology allowed me do something never done before,” said Wheatcroft.

He’s now preparing for his first solo city marathon – never let obstacles stand in your way.

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