Published: 12:52, June 1, 2023 | Updated: 12:59, June 1, 2023
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No sight, no sweat for Chongqing runners
By Tan Yingzi and Deng Rui in Chongqing

Visually impaired team up with escorts on track to fulfill marathon dreams

Visually impaired people run with their escorts from the Chongqing branch of Running in the Dark at a marathon held last year in Chongqing. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Once a month, a group of runners in Chongqing hit the tracks at a local sports field. But these aren't ordinary runners.

The participants run in pairs, with each person holding a short rope between them. One person is visually impaired, while the other is an escort runner, alerting the former to turns and obstacles on the track.

"Running used to be a complicated sport for me to do," said 47-year-old local masseur Yu Chun, who was born with a congenital vision disorder but has maintained an interest in sports over the years. "Thanks to such a welcoming organization, I'm now preparing for my first half-marathon!"

The organization is the Chongqing branch of Running in the Dark, a national nonprofit charity for visually impaired runners established in Shanghai in 2016.

The Chongqing branch was set up last October. Soon, others were set up in Beijing, Nanjing in Jiangsu province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and Chengdu in Sichuan province.

"For the first time in my life, I was able to overcome my fears and run freely," Yu said, adding that the volunteers not only navigate the routes, but also teach them professional techniques, including how to breathe properly, pace themselves and push their limits.

Yu said that as a result of his impairment, he used to only do limited exercises such as pushups and standing vertical jumps, but since he joined the club, his physical capabilities have gradually increased.

At the fifth run on May 7, he completed a 10.5-kilometer run and was selected from among a dozen other group members to take part in the next marathon in Chongqing in October.

"I feel like my lifelong dream to prove that I can be like anybody else is coming true," Yu said.

Xiong Jie, who has participated in three runs with the group, said, "More than just providing physical exercise, I noticed that running has given my partner a more positive mindset and has helped him expand his social circle."

The 34-year-old works in the software industry in Chongqing. As a runner, she said she was impressed when she first saw a visually impaired runner escorted by a volunteer at a marathon in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, in 2019. This inspired her to lend a hand at home, so she signed up to volunteer with Running in the Dark in Chongqing the moment she saw the club's recruitment notice for escort runners. She has invited eight friends to join the group so far.

Members of the Chongqing branch pose for a group photo after a training. (DENG RUI / CHINA DAILY)

Forming bonds

The club soon became popular via word-of-mouth.

"It is a fast-growing group," said Lu Wei, founder of the Chongqing branch.

According to the 50-year-old, there are more than 100 runners in the group, most of whom have totally lost their eyesight and who earn a living as masseurs. There are also over 100 volunteers from all walks of life, ranging from their 20s to their 50s, who are either professional or experienced runners.

Lu, who looks younger than his age, started running full marathons in 2015. He was previously the escort for famed marathon runner Yan Wei, the first visually impaired runner from the Chinese mainland to finish the Boston Marathon, the world's oldest annual marathon and one of the six major global marathons.

"We serve as their eyes, but they help us see from our souls. Each makes the other better," Lu said, adding that there is a lot more that the sighted could learn from impaired members, who are usually simpler, happier and less vain. "By removing the obstacles they face during exercise, we hope to create a close bond."

Married couple Chen Hong, 49, and Lei Na, 39, who both lost their eyesight a few years ago from congenital glaucoma, usually show up to events accompanied by their 13-year-old son, who sometimes serves as their supplementary escort runner.

"We may not run as much as others, but it is a good opportunity for us to step outside for a workout, and to make friends," Lei said.

A visually impaired man runs with his escort during a training. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

'Festival' expansion

"Running is no big deal for a volunteer, but for the visually impaired, it is like a festival," Lu said. To join in, some runners from Chongqing's suburban districts and counties get up as early as 4 am and spend hours traveling for the runs.

Lu said that due to the current capacity and limited number of volunteers — who may not always be available for every run — he restricts the number of visually impaired runners in each session to 20. But with more volunteers joining, he is planning to expand the group and make the runs a weekly event in the future.

By 2020, approximately 85 million people in China were living with disabilities, the China Disabled Persons' Federation said.

According to the "China's Parasports: Progress and the Protection of Rights" white paper released by the State Council Information Office in March 2022, historic progress has been made in parasports since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

The report noted that participation rates in grassroots cultural and sports activities for the disabled in China have soared from 6.8 percent in 2015 to 23.9 percent in 2021.

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