Can A Blind Man Run A Marathon?
Looking for a new way to overcome challenges? Learn to see your obstacles the way a blind man does
What does victory look like? Is it the difference in altitudes on the podium? A torso tearing through the tape at the finish line? Corner flag pile-ons? Glimmering trophies? This is victory as most of us see it – in the third person. This is victory, as seen on TV.
Victory doesn’t look like any of the above to Francois Jacobs, a 42-year-old business analyst from Centurion. Francois doesn’t know what anything looks like. He was born blind, and – to him – all the spectacles of glory, defeat, accomplishment and disappointment are all the same shade of darkness. His breakfast routine is black. His route to work is black. So, too, is his collection of medals that tell the stories of five Ironman triathlons, two Comrades Marathons, a Midmar Mile and 10 Argus Cycle Tours.
How? Is the first reaction. For the cycling legs, Jacobs rides on a tandem bicycle behind his guide. For swimming, he tethers himself to his training partner. “We tie a rope around my chest and it goes around my guide’s hips,” he says. “When I started, I tried swimming next to the guide but people invariably swim over the rope. Even with me behind the person it can be a bit of a challenge so we had adjust it until we got the perfect distance.”
When running, he and his partner hold the ends of a tie. “You hold each end in the palm of your hand so if one person falls you don’t take somebody down with you. The idea is for both of you to run as naturally as possible. You shouldn’t have to alter your technique – if the one guy wants to bring his arms in, he can.”
Jacobs only has my voice to look at, and it’s likely he’s sensing some trepidation within it as I approach his disability. It’s a difficult subject to confront. This, I am told, is textbook sighted person’s behaviour: to make a big deal of something I don’t understand, something the closest I’ve been to is fumbling to the bathroom in the early hours of the morning with the lights off. It’s clear that if you can read this, then blindness is something you cannot fully grasp. Blindness to the sighted is usually approached with plenty of sympathy and little empathy.
“Blindness is a condition of the eyes only,” Jacobs insists. “That’s really all it is. You can make it more if you want to, and people do. Some blind people do and some sighted people force them to make it more. It really doesn’t have to be an issue.”
Francois says that blindness is just one of many obstacles that prevent people from doing something they would like to do. For him, blindness is a logistical challenge that he has learned to live with. “You can’t always do what you want,” he says. “But as many times as there are limitations there are times that you manage to get it right. I would rather still keep trying and enjoy the times that it works out.”
There are times in the land of the sighted when the blind man is king. One of those occasions is when you’re on the shore of Port Elizabeth on the morning of 22 April 2012 and the howling wind is whipping the ocean into a frigid, frothing mess and, for you, it’s out of sight and out of mind. “The one time I was better off not seeing was the Ironman 6km swim. People saw the waves and the clouds and the rain, and I really enjoyed the swimming. It was fantastic because I felt seriously good. It was wonderful.” This is not the first time a disabled person has completed an Ironman, but it is probably the first time anyone has used the word wonderful to describe anything Ironman-related.
On weekdays, Jacobs is a business analyst at an insurance firm. “You can only work with what the computer tells you at a given time but I’ve learned to use formulas,” he says. “It’s a good thing that computer-assisted technology has got to this point because if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be able to buy running shoes and be out there.”
To work with numbers without seeing them, Jacobs needs a memory that’s more disciplined than most. “You have to remember things that other people don’t have to; they can see things like where the road is going and remember how many turns you have to take to go somewhere.”
The mental stamina that Francois needs to keep up with sighted competitors in the corporate world is the same source of his athletic achievements. “Physically, I’m not the most talented athlete but if you set your mind to something, you’ll succeed.”
Francois is physically unable to get intimidated by how a challenge looks, and perhaps this helps him micromanage his milestones. “I will never look the end result and say, ‘This is a huge mountain I have to climb.’ I’d rather look at the first bend and get there, and feel good that we got there. The way I do it is by taking it in manageable chunks – step by step.”
The first of which is the most difficult, he says. “People don’t think of it that way; they think of the end-goal and therefore they don’t even start. Once you take the first step and get going you’ll be surprised at what you’ll achieve at the end of it.”
Francois took his first step in 2007 after a seemingly ridiculous suggestion. At the time, he had hopes of training for the Paralympics as a tandem cyclist. “In my search for a tandem partner I came across one of the best tandem cyclists in South Africa and he said, ‘Why don’t you rather do Ironman?’”
The competition was six months away.
“I was absolutely shocked,” says Francois. “What the hell? I think I said yes from pure shock.” “It changed my life in many ways,” he says. “I got fit and active, which I never was before.”
The lore of athletics had been instilled in Jacobs as a child. He speaks about how he grew up watching the Comrades on TV. Again, it’s not easy for a sighted person to understand Jacobs can watch anything and be moved by it. It’s hard to see how the tides of applause and commentators’ observations through television speakers can reveal what victory looks like. Yet it does, and it inspired the blind boy sitting cross-legged on the lounge floor. “I watched TV and I thought, Wow, these people are machines! After Ironman I thought, Why not? Let’s try.”
Try. That’s Francois Jacobs’s instinctive reaction and that – beyond the obvious one – may be the difference between him and those of us with the luxury of seeing the colours on this page. We see things and then analyse them. We look at the weather and then make excuses. We’ll cook it if there’s a picture of it. We use our eyes for long-range assessments. Francois, however, has to physically immerse himself in a situation to evaluate it – and while he’s there, he might as well finish it. “Do it once at least and see where it takes you,” he says. “You don’t have to do it again, if you don’t want to.”
The mental block is the biggest hurdle for many people, he says. That’s why Comrades athletes don’t want to do Ironman because they’re scared of swimming. They don’t do it because they think it’s impossible. But if you signed up with a coach and got swimming in the gym, you’d get there.”
“I could only doggie paddle before I started out for Ironman,” he adds.
It’s the same with any challenge, Francois says. “An unfit person can start running two kilometres. You can walk it for the start if you really want to. And before you know it you’ll do five and then you’ll do ten.”
It’s hard for Francois Jacob’s efforts not to be noticed. “Even now, after four years of being in the field, people come to me and they tell me this is what made them start – that’s a really huge honour. I don’t expect people to be affected by this as much as they seem to be,” he says. “In my opinion, I’m just one of the many struggling out there. I may be struggling in a slightly different way but I’m still just one of them.”
This has taught Francois that whether he likes it or not, his efforts are sending a message. “We all think it’s only your life and it doesn’t affect other people. But it does,” he says. “People look at you without you even knowing it and it affects them, good and bad. That’s why you have to be responsible with what you do.”
What does victory feel like? It’s the invisible, seething flash flood of endorphins. It’s the unphotographable feeling of accomplishment. Enjoyment – the symptoms of which can only be seen – is the victory that Francois chases. “It’s a journey, and why would you do it if you don’t enjoy it? It should never be a grudge thing,” he says. “Enjoy the trip there. Find things to amuse yourself along the way. You shouldn’t be so fixated on a goal that your whole world comes crumbling down when things don’t happen according to the way you planned it. Because you can’t – you don’t have full control over everything.”
Get out there, he says. “I would like people to be a bit more daring. Step over your comfort zone. Take risks.”
I suggest that falling while running must surely be one of his biggest risks. “Falling down is part of life, getting back up is living,” he replies. “In the unlikely event that I trip and fall, I do what anybody else would do: get up and get on with it.”
Lately, Francois has been searching for a new challenge. And as he filters through the options, he doesn’t sum them up in the way that most of us do. Challenges, he knows, are best viewed in hindsight.
YOUR GUIDE TO GUIDING
Francois Jacobs says the biggest reason why there aren’t more disabled athletes on the road is because of the challenge of finding guides. Got vision? Partner up with a blind athlete for your next challenge
BE THE FITTEST
Jacobs makes a point of partnering up with superior athletes. “Guides need to be able to talk and run at the same time, and they need to have enough energy while running to pay attention to what’s going on around them. If you’re running at your top speed and they’re hanging on for dear life, they won’t be able to tell you much about potholes and traffic. If they are as fit as you are, you’ll probably find you’ll go slower because they’re looking out for two people.”
You’ve got to be a play-by-play announcer. “It is the guide’s responsibility to provide verbal cues to the athlete on things like upcoming hills, turns, curbs, uneven footing, times and other,” Jacobs says. “This really helps if there’re uneven bits in the road because if you don’t expect something, a very small indentation in the road can make you twist your ankle.”
TRY NEW DISCIPLINES
If running isn’t your thing, there are opportunities for guides in other sports too. Jacobs suggests being the pilot on the front of a tandem bicycle. When cycling with an athlete with a disability, you don’t necessarily need to be the stronger stoker of the two, he says, but you just need to be able to handle a bike fairly well.
GET TO THE POINT
Bring your A-game, not your manners. “The guide has to be prepared to throw polite conversation to the wind, and the runner has to be willing to obey immediately,” says Francois. “Be explicit. ‘Be careful here’ doesn’t convey any information. ‘The ground is a little rough here’ tells the runner what he or she needs to know.”
SET THE PACE
Blind people can’t predict the upcoming inclines so the guide has to keep his partner up to speed with the impending gradients. “I communicate with the guy before and I ask them to judge the distance because you need to know whether to give 100% because it’s only 50m to go or whether you have to hold back because it’s a five-kilometre stretch.”
GET IN TOUCH
People who want to get involved should contact the national office of the South African Sports Association for the Physically Disabled who will pass on their details to the relevant sports code in the region. 087 721 8262, email@example.com