How UAE-based guides and pacers help the visually impaired run marathons

With marathon season kicking off soon, guides and pacers recall their experience of running alongside blind runners

By Anu Prabhakar

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James Gibb and Maekele Asfha run as pacer and guide with blind runner Hasan Tayem at the 2019 Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon
James Gibb and Maekele Asfha run as pacer and guide with blind runner Hasan Tayem at the 2019 Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon

Published: Thu 15 Dec 2022, 9:45 PM

Nasar Husain thrives on challenges. When we speak via Google Meet, he talks about how he finished the 42 km race at the 2020 ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon in 3 hours 27 minutes, his personal best. And in August 2020, he sprinted up Jebel Jais as one of five runners to raise funds for Al Jalila Foundation and spread awareness about mental health.

There was one other memorable challenge. “Jordanian runner Suhail Al Nashash, who is blind, had reached out to Dubai Creek Striders for a guide to help him run the 10k race at the 2020 Dubai Marathon,” he recalls. In a race, a guide helps blind and partially sighted runners to navigate their way through the crowd safely, while also helping them to achieve their target. Suhail who is a professional athlete, for instance, wanted to run 10k in under 45 minutes. It was a formidable challenge so Nasar, naturally, just had to take it up. Another runner, Andrea Mascolo, joined in as the pacer.

Running as a guide

Nasar took up running after he moved to Dubai from Kerala in 2013 as a way to combat the feelings of boredom and loneliness that had begun to suffocate him. He bought a pair of running shoes and joined running clubs like Dubai Creek Striders and the Nike Run Club.

Talking about the event, Nasar recalls that the trio couldn’t train together as Suhail was based in Jordan and he and Andrea were in Dubai. “So we created a group on WhatsApp to discuss our strategy. We decided that Suhail will hold my hand while running and that Andrea will run ahead of us to set the pace and pave the way for us as it can get extremely crowded.”

The three met on the day of the event. “Suhail was so focused, confident, polite and energetic,” says Nasar. But much to their disappointment, they missed their chance to start the race early and got stranded in the crowd. “Running the first 6 km was the most challenging bit for us,” he says.

“I was worried that our legs might collide since we were running so close to each other but that never happened. His stride length was a bit longer than mine, so I adjusted accordingly,” he continues. While running, Nasar also gave verbal instructions to Suhail by gauging the space between runners. “Instructions like ‘two steps, take left’ and ‘three steps, take right’ while maintaining our speed,” he explains.

“More than the pace, making way for the guys behind me was more challenging because of the crowd. I was just screaming, ‘Give way’,” remembers Andrea. “We were so worried, but Suhail was super cool.” It took the other runners some time to figure out what was going on but once they did, they were very cooperative and made way for the team.

They completed the run in 45 minutes seven seconds as onlookers and other runners cheered them on and although they missed their target by a few seconds, the team was euphoric. “It was such a memorable experience,” says Nasar.

Servee Palmans, president of the Desert Road Runners, too, had once trained a blind runner along the Kite Beach for the Dubai Marathon. “He was an experienced runner and was fully prepared for the training session, heavily relying on the functions for the visually impaired on his Apple Watch,” he says, adding that the session was held around three years ago. He, however, doesn’t recall the name of the runner but says that he lived in Jeddah. “The training session was a last minute request directed to the Desert Road Runners. So, there wasn’t a lot of time for preparation and we just had a short instruction session.”

Setting the pace

James Gibb, who hails from the market town Dumfries in Scotland, comes from a family of sportsmen. Like his grandfather, who was a professional footballer and played for Leicester City, he too loved playing football.

James moved to Dubai in 2012. “I played football for two or three years but got a bit frustrated because people wouldn’t turn up for matches. Also, football has a big impact on your knees, so I started to look at running.” He began participating in obstacle course races and went on to join Dubai Creek Striders (where he coached as well) and became a FrontRunner for ASICS.

Like Nasar, James got to know about Hasan Tayem, a blind runner from Jordan, when he reached out to the Dubai Creek Striders for a guide and pacer to help him participate in the 10k race at the 2019 Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon. James decided to help Hasan as a pacer and fellow Dubai Creek Striders runner Maekele Asfha, who is now in the US, got on board as the guide.

They created a group on WhatsApp and communicated via voice messages. “We discussed logistics and shared a bit about our stories. Hasan was extremely humble, polite and positive. He didn’t look at himself as a blind runner — he looked at himself as a runner. We got a sense of what Hasan was looking for in terms of pacing targets and watched videos, because people have different preferences for how they want to be guided — the two most common ways are verbal direction and with a tether, or linking arms but it’s very situation- and individual-specific. Finally, we decided that Maekele will link arms with Hasan and I’ll run ahead by a metre and set the pace, take care of hydration and also act as a sort of motivation coach for Hasan.”

But running is as much about the arms as it is about the legs — arm swings, after all, help to maintain form, power, balance and speed. “I knew it was going to be hard,” says James. Initially, Hasan wanted to complete the run in 40 minutes as his personal best, but they agreed on a more realistic goal of under 45 minutes.

James and Maekele were in top physical form, but training and participating in a race when you are not exactly doing it for yourself has its own set of mental challenges. “Pacers typically set and maintain a comfortable pace for the run. You need to be good enough to do that or else you’re going to let someone down. And that’s when you have to let ego sit at the door,” he says.

There were other challenges too — for instance, there was a huge crowd at the event. Many participants were not serious runners and James and Maekele wanted to keep Hasan safe. “So I said to Maekele, ‘Look, I’m going to start a little faster than normal even though I wouldn’t normally do that because I want to get away from this crowd of 10,000 people. I think we were a little nervous in that first 500 meters, but we managed to get our space on the road.”

“The other challenge was monitoring Hasan and setting, controlling the pace and rhythm,” he continues. “There’s a lot of adrenaline in any race and there’s always that danger of getting a bit caught up. Just after halfway, Hasan did feel the pace a bit because I could hear his breathing which was a bit ragged. So I eased it back, got him some water and encouraged him. I had many friends there so I introduced Hasan to them very briefly as they were running past and they shouted words of encouragement too, which was great. And when he got more comfortable, we were able to pick up the pace at the end.”

They finished the race ahead of time, with 21 seconds to spare. “I think running is such a powerful thing that brings people together for this common goal of self-improvement,” he says. “It strips away gender, race and backgrounds and makes us all part of something bigger.”

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