1991, my first blind Championships-Part 1

Starting blocks 1991

My last preparatory race before we left for the 1991 European Championships in France turned out to be a massive non-event.

The team coach left Bridlington, where both JW and I lived, at 6:00 am. I got on with my Dad and I went straight to the back of the bus where the best chat was usually to be found. We waited for the other Bridlington athletes to get on before we set off. Eventually JW rolled up grunted and slouched into one of the seats near the front. I wasn’t surprised by this behaviour as JW was notoriously bad in the mornings. After travelling down to Hull, across the M62 and up the A1, we eventually arrived at Gateshead at lunch time and we encamped in the main stand. JW, who I had not heard from on the way up to Gateshead, took himself off away from the rest of the squad to a different part of the stand. I presumed he was preparing himself for his race as it was going to be a tough one.

I had watched, i.e. had it described to me by a teammate, JW’s 400m race from the 200m start as I was warming up for my race with the help of another of our athletes. As I waited for JW to turn up so as to start the running part of my warm up another of our athletes came round with a message from JW. Apparently he was too tired after his 400m to guide me. I was extremely disappointed and shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as unlike me, JW seemed to be able to run at full pelt all day without suffering any ill effects or slowing down.

As a result of this I had to wait until all the races had finished and then do some very short sprints down the back straight running towards my dad’s voice, although I was too scared to run anywhere near flat out. JW slept all the way home at the front of the bus. It wasn’t until later that he told me the reason why he had acted the way he had throughout the day. As it turned out, he had slept so much not due to a bug or illness as I had suspected but due to the fact that when he stepped on the bus at 6:00 am he had only been home to change into his kit as he had been seriously partying all night before and had drunk his own body weight in beer!

The journey to join the rest of the GB team was convoluted. It had been arranged that JW and I would be driven to Headingley in Leeds where one of the other athlete’s guide runners would give us a lift to the team manager’s house in Manchester. From there we would travel by car to Portsmouth where we would get a 6 hour ferry to Brest and then by coach for a short drive to Caen.

We arrived in Leeds where we met MR. He was the guide of BM. He was very quietly spoken and drove a Vauxhall Chevette. From Headingley we travelled to Bingley where we were to pick up MW, who I had not yet met at that time. MW sat in the front seat and chatted to MR all the way to Manchester whilst JW and I sat silently in the back, too nervous and scared to talk. The main reason for our silence was the subject matter of their conversation. MW had told MR that he was a B2 athlete, the same as me. He had told MR that he was competing in the 200m and 400m, again the same events as me. Therefore, he was no longer a team mate he was a competitor. This made the butterflies in my stomach start fluttering around more like bees than butterflies. When they started discussing times I started to feel sick, and upon discussing it later so did JW. The times that MW said were his personal bests were much faster than I had ever run, even as a sighted athlete. There was no way on earth I was going to win a gold medal now, even if I had thought I might have done before. I remember thinking that silver was the best I could now hope for.

At that stage of my blind career I wasn’t very good at gleaning information from a person’s voice. I could tell from the way MW’s head banged on the roof of the car that he was very tall, and I could tell by the way the car sank that he was very heavy. However, I thought, from the tone of his voice, that he was a big black man with a West Yorkshire accent. Therefore all I could imagine was getting my arse kicked by a Linford Christie look alike and being made to look stupid. As it happened I was wrong about his colour, and also wrong about getting my arse kicked, well, at least by him.

We turned up at the house of KR, the team manager, in Manchester. When JW guided me into the house and then had to show me where to sit MW couldn’t believe that I was in the same category as him. MR and KR went out for fish and chips and after eating them rather embarrassingly we retired to bed. This sense of being embarrassed eating in front of others occurred at every meal time on that trip, and still occasionally happens even now, usually only at formal events in front of people I do not know now though. One of my abiding memories of the trip was trying to eat chicken off the bone using a knife and fork. I can still feel the colour filling my face as the frustration built to bursting point. Now I would leave it or just pick it up with my fingers if I was really hungry, but I wasn’t ready for that at that point in my life.

The ferry crossing took 6 hours and although the sea was not very choppy at all it was still bad enough for the majority of us to feel sea sick, and for a small minority to actually be sick. The GB team must have looked a sight, crocodile chains of blind athletes staggering about a rolling boat with the effect of the rolling exaggerated by the lack of sight and the consequent diminished sense of balance. I was surprised that an accident didn’t happen.

Our home for the week was a reasonable hotel in Caen. The only problem with the hotel was the food. We sat at circular tables for eight people and had waiter service. The problems with the food were threefold. Firstly, the food, being standard French cuisine, contained very little carbohydrate content, which is not good for sprinters who rely on the energy which carbs provide for their events. Secondly, the taste of the food was not to be confused with nice, in fact, it was on the main part fairly disgusting. Even those of our team who had useful sight struggled to figure out what we were eating. Thirdly, the size of the portions was miniscule. Even though the food was not from the relevant food groups and tasted bad, athletes would sooner eat a large amount of the wrong food than none at all, and so subversive tactics had to be employed.

The man charged with sorting our food problems was one of the coaches, DH. His first tactic was to get in early and steal as much of the bread on the other tables as was possible. He also grabbed as many bananas as he could find as they are also a good source of carbs. But his most effective tactic was to sit and smile nicely whilst the waiters placed our plates on the table, and then as soon as they had turned their backs give us the order to put our plates on our knees and out of sight before attracting the attention of a different waiter in order to obtain seconds. At times it seemed that they might have cottoned on to our plans, but they still brought us our second portions. To solve the problem of them realising what we had done when they came to collect 16 plates rather than 8 we would stack them ourselves hoping that 12 plates would look very similar to 8 plates in a stack, whilst keeping some on our knees and stacking them on the table once the waiter had left. Overall our plans worked and as a result we all ate as much bad tasteless food as we required.

Our Great Britain team kit was handed out to us before the competition started. I was so excited, I had dreamed of this day all my life. I unwrapped the track suit and put it on straight away. It was certainly big enough for me, in fact, it was big enough for me and JW, and possibly a couple of friends as well. The waist band actually reached my arm pits, and the track suit top touched my knees. To make matters worse, it wasn’t the same kit as able bodied athletes wore when representing the country, it was a poor quality cheap kit. The colours were broadly red white and blue, but if the words Great Britain hadn’t been embossed on the back you would not have associated us as GB athletes.

I was entered for the 100m, 200m and 400m and I was in the squad for both the relays. The heats of the 100m were on the first morning of competition so I took the opportunity of visiting the track on the day we arrived in order to get a feel for it. While we were at the track preparing a local film crew turned up. They were interested in filming and interviewing some athletes who were taking part in the event. Apparently I stood out. Apparently it is unusual to see a blind athlete bombing around the bend of a track wearing a straw Panama hat. The result was a feature on local television and my mug being plastered across the local papers as well.

Whilst the eyes of the media were focused on me, JW’s eyes were focused on a member of the Austrian team. As she was wearing team kit and as she was present at a blind championship JW presumed it was acceptable to ogle her openly all day and to point her out to other people. It turned out that B, for that was her name, was only a helper with the Austrian team and did not have a sight problem, but as she was also taken by JW she had not minded his attentions. It would be true to say that they hit it off somewhat, so much so that the athletics were most definitely of secondary interest to JW.

Before the championship officially got under way there was the slight inconvenience of classification to go through. Blind sport is split into three separate categories in order to ensure that like competes against like. These three categories are B1, B2 and B3. When competing in Paralympic Games, these sight classifications are given the titles T11, T12 and T13 respectively.

The classification that each athlete is placed in is determined by their visual acuity. B1 athletes are totally blind, B2 athletes have a visual acuity of up to two sixtieths or a field of vision of less than five degrees, and the B3 category have visual acuity of up to six sixtieths or a field of vision of ten degrees. The best way of describing a visual acuity that I have heard is that a person with visual acuity of two sixtieths can see something at two metres distance which a person with 20/20 vision can see at sixty metres. All the visual acuities are measured at best correction, so athletes are allowed to wear any glasses they use.

I had been classified at home by an ophthalmologist. I went out to the championships as a B2 athlete, as when I stood up and looked straight ahead I could see a patch of the track, probably about a square metre, that’s all. This was enough sight to make me enter the B2 class as I thought I would have been cheating going into the B1 class, despite the team management trying to convince me that I should be in that category. They were probably right, the sight I had was no use to me what so ever, especially as once I started running this bit of sight stopped working as well once my pulse quickened.

All first time competitors are required to attend classification. When I entered the room I was guided to a chair by JW. I sat down and the classifier looked into my eyes and examined both. He then started the sophisticated high technology tests that had been developed over several decades in order to assess my visual acuity.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather; that was it?! That was the entire essence of the test?! As it happened, the room was dimly lit and I couldn’t see any people never mind fingers, and I told him so.

“B1” was all he said.

I immediately stated that he was mistaken and that I was a B2 athlete. He replied that I couldn’t see his fingers. I asked if I could have another go. Although medals would be easier to win as a B1 I felt I would be cheating. He held up his fingers again. Whilst we were arguing my classification I could see wall lights in the tiny area of sight that I had left. So, when he gave me my second chance, I moved my head about and counted how many times the light went out. It worked and I received my B2 classification.

Knowing what I know now, the classifiers must have thought they were in back to front world, as people more often than not try to get themselves classified in the lowest category possible in order to make it easier to win medals. They must have thought I was mad begging to be classified in a category where I would stand little chance of winning any medals. I didn’t care though, my integrity was intact and I would deserve whatever I went home with.

The first event I competed in was the 100m. I was so nervous before the race, it was so different from anything else I had ever competed in. The pre-race call up procedure was somewhat unnerving. It was nothing compared to what we would face at the Paralympics, but having to report 15 minutes before my event and then stay within the confines of the designated area was quite terrifying. Having to stand around in the company of your opponents was something that I had only experienced at the English Schools when I was 14, but this was a much bigger event than that. What did help me was that I was the only athlete in the B2 category with a guide runner. Although this made the call up procedure more bearable it did have the slight disadvantage of making it harder to win medals. Running with a guide runner, holding on to a guide rope and the associated loss of bio-mechanical efficiency makes a massive difference to the speed that you can run. So, although I had JW to keep me company and literally hold my hand throughout this stressful experience, my attempts to get myself classified as a B2 had the unfortunate effects of leaving me running against people who could see better than me and who weren’t tied to a guide.

I ran quite well as it happened, 11.8 secs and I qualified for the semi-final. When the semi-final came around I tried too hard and as a result didn’t manage to improve, running11.8 secs again. I missed out on a place in the final but did finish sixth overall in my first championships. Not bad I thought, but I knew that I would have to improve if I was going to achieve my ambitions of winning medals.

The 200m was a similar story. Again I made it through to the semi-final. I ran 24.6 secs but just missed out on the final, finishing sixth overall again, and I was very satisfied with my time. If I had been running in the B1 category I would have won a medal with this time, but at least I could live with myself as I had not cheated.

JW’s guiding skills were called on by a fellow athlete during the championships. BM, the world record holder at the B1 800m and 1500m required a guide runner for his 800m final. His guide, MR had injured himself in the 5000m. A collision with another athlete at the starting line had ripped MR’s shoe from his foot. As a result, he had to run 12 and a half laps with only one shoe on. The resulting lack of skin on his foot had left it bloodied and made it somewhat sore, so he asked if BM would kindly release him from his guiding duties for a day or too.

JW kindly stepped forward. He did a good job, but guiding is about teamwork, and this takes time to develop. About 2 and a bit minutes after the race started JW had the unenviable pleasure of being able to call himself the only guide runner who had guided BM to a defeat in 11 years of international competition, BM crossing the line in third place.

Having guided a Rolls Royce athlete, JW had to return to his Fiat Panda athlete for the 400m. In every race that I did I was always trying to set a personal best time, which in itself leads to nerves. As my training had all been targeted in order for me to peak during the week of the championships, nothing less than a personal best, or at least a season’s best, would suffice. However, a 400m added extra pressure and nerves. The pressure was to go out hard enough in order to bring it home in a sufficiently fast time. The problem with this was that go too fast and death is almost certainly imminent. Go out too slow and death again is imminent, but this time from the coaches and team management! Good 400m running depends on excellent pace judgment.

The real reason for the extra nerves before the 400m was the little monsters which laid in wait for me at various places around the latter stages of the race. Their aim was simple – to cause me pain. The first little monster would hide behind the water jump barrier at 150m to go. This monster was the first line of attack. Having sprinted for 250m everything would be going smoothly. A target time of somewhere in the region of 31 secs would hopefully have been achieved, and everything would be going to plan. Then the little monster would strike. His weapon of choice was lactic acid, presumably administered by a blow dart. Although the dart was never felt and left no external marks on my body, I would immediately feel the slight heaviness in my legs. To give the little monster credit, he was a fast little bugger as he followed me all the way down the track topping up the levels my legs were having to deal with.

Upon entering the home straight, with about 80m to go, the second little monster would strike. His weapon of choice was an odourless, tasteless gas attack. The effect was to cause my lungs to burn and breathing to become nearly impossible due to the tightness of my chest. To give this little monster credit, he was very good at administering it as my guide runners were never affected by it to the same extent as I was.

Meanwhile, the first little monsters constant attacks had now started to reach my arms. Rather than pumping up and down, backwards and forwards providing forward propulsion they were now heavy and difficult to move. The effect resembled someone twisting their shoulders from side to side whilst cupping their breasts.

With about 40m to go the last line of defence struck. This time two little monsters worked as a team. The first little monster managed to tie my shoe laces together with the effect that my stride length shortened drastically. At the same time his partner in crime was coating the soles of my spikes in glue which resulted in super human efforts just to lift my feet from the floor. The end result was a bald man clad in lycra, with no knee lift or stride length, cupping his breasts and gasping for breath, serenely watched by his slightly out of breath guide runner who was busy pleading me to run faster. Throughout the whole of my career, my speed never picked up despite all their urgings. As a result of this my forays into 400m running were quite spasmodic. There was no way I could cope with that happening in training every day for the whole of my career. I had to take breaks from it for my mental wellbeing.

One of JW’s most important jobs prior to competing in a 400m was to identify a place suitable for me to lie down in and be sick after the race. We spotted a grassed area at the end of the home straight. That would do nicely. In the heats I was supposed to run against two opponents, with the first two to qualify automatically for the semi-final with two fastest losers to join them. But when we turned up on the start line one had failed to turn up. Therefore, whatever happened we would qualify for the semi-final as long as we finished the race. As I had already done four races in a couple of days I told JW I was going to just jog around and save my energy. But JW was having none of it.

JW, in his wisdom, thought that my medal chances would be improved if I ran at least the first part of the race as if it was the real thing as it was a while since I had run a 400m at race pace. This he informed me, was the professional thing to do, the kind of thing that he would do. As he could run a 400m faster than I could it had to be the right decision, didn’t it?

But I wasn’t, and thankfully I still am not, JW. I could see the sense in what he was saying, but given my tiredness and suspect hamstrings, I said I was going to run it steadily and save my aching legs for the semi when I would really need them. However, as JW informed me, he was holding the rope and he would make me run at race pace if I wanted him to guide me. I’m sure JW in his own way had my best interests at heart, but I certainly didn’t feel like that after the heat. Although I only ran something in the low 60 second range this could not be described as a jog as it was based on a fast first part of the race which left my legs even more tired than before.

When the semi-finals came around an extra bit of intrigue was added. MW had qualified for the other semi and we were told that whichever one ran the fastest time overall would get a place in the 4 x 400m relay team, a team which was almost guaranteed a gold or silver medal. As if any more pressure was required!

JW’s plans may have worked as I ran a stormer in the semi to scrape into the final as the slowest qualifier. To make me even happier I had run faster than MW by a couple of tenths of a second, so the relay berth was mine. We returned to the hotel in good spirits. My medal prospects had increased greatly. I had a shot at the 400m individual and an even better chance of winning a medal in the relay.

Everything was going to plan ……

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