There will be many tales of heroism, triumph and endurance after this weekend’s Great North Run, but among the almost 60,000 finishers, few can match the remarkable story of blind runner Dave Williams.
Dave got a last minute place in the race when the RNIB charity – for whom he works as customer experience manager - asked if he wanted to raise money for them. He’s an experienced runner, and earlier this year took part in the Boston marathon, but he can’t see where he’s going. He was born with Leber Congenital Amaurosis, which causes sight loss at birth, so he needs a guide runner.
He put out a call and was contacted by Runcorn-based Rachael Burns. She was keen and willing to help, but she’d not done any racing for a few years, and she’d not actually guided anyone in a race before.
“She just seemed like she knew what she was doing, and I knew I could trust her,” said Dave. “So we met for the first time on the morning of the Great North Run.”
And with Rachael’s guiding hand, literally, Dave finished first Visually Impaired runner in a new personal best time of 1.39.15, knocking six minutes off his previous best.
“I’d done a course on guiding, and joined a few online groups, then I saw Dave’s request,” said Rachael, who’s working in a pre-school while doing a degree in speech and language therapy at Manchester University. “I’d done the GNR a few times in the past, but I’ve not done any racing for three years. Dave and I talked on the phone a few times but we didn’t actually meet till the morning of the race. He put all his trust in me. He’s a legend, and it was a privilege to guide him!”
Dave, born in Blackburn and now based in Worcester, had taken part in the GNR last year when, post-pandemic, the course was changed to an out and back, to and from Newcastle. “But I always wanted to do the original route with the iconic finish on the seafront at South Shields,” said Dave. “It’s a classic event, and the crowds along the way were amazing, especially when you cross the Tyne Bridge over into Gateshead.”
It wasn’t a technically difficult course to guide, according to Rachael, “apart from the roundabouts. And we had lots to talk about... I’m from Merseyside where Dave went to school.”
The start was more sombre than usual, with a minute’s respectful silence following the death of the Queen, and instead of the usual high-octane warm-up music, “there was Elgar, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It was appropriate,” said Dave.
Dave praised the organisers for arranging a dedicated start for VI runners, directly after the elite women had set off. “It meant that we had the road to ourselves for the first few miles. The Great North Run company provide a fantastic experience for blind and partially sighted runners. The dedicated start helps a lot with guiding as you have more space and it's less busy. And they officially recognise guide runners in results and give them an official chip time medal and T-shirt. Guides are recognised for the Rockstar's they are.”
He and Rachael were going at such a pace that it was the eight mile mark before the elite men caught up and passed them. “I kept thinking, where are they? But we just kept going. And when we got to ten miles, and Rachael said, it’s only a parkrun to go, I thought, surely I can do a 24-minute parkrun!”
At the end of the race Rachael said: “It was a really emotional experience. But I really enjoyed it and I’ll definitely do it again.” It’s put Dave in confident mood for the Berlin marathon which he’s running at the end of this month, and hopes to get sub-four hours (he ran 4.05 in Boston).
But there were more immediate pressures after the celebrations at South Shields. After being in Scotland for work the previous week – Dave ran the parkrun at Dunfermline the day before the GNR - he had to dash to Birmingham where he was taking son Arlo to a lecture by Professor Brian Cox, a belated Christmas present postponed since before the pandemic. “We made it! In fact, we were first to take our seats.”
Dave is one of the most positive and life-affirming people you could wish to meet. We met for the first time last summer though I came across him originally when researching a book about parkrun. I loved his story, his enthusiasm and self-deprecation (his regular guide runner, Bex, is dyspraxic and can’t always tell right from left “so between us, we manage somehow!”) and when the book came out Dave bought a copy for his family. But he couldn’t read it himself, of course, and asked if there was an audio version.
That was something I’d not considered, so I arranged for a friend, Wayne Singleton – who has the know-how and access to the technical kit – to read the book, record it, and supply the audio files to the RNIB library. From where Dave subsequently borrowed it and listened to the whole book.
Then Dave said that he and his family were coming on holiday to Coniston and asked if I knew anybody who could take him for a guided run as he’d always wanted to try trail-running. The multi-talented Wayne (who also has a business, The Running Concierge, arranging trail and fell-running mini-breaks and holidays in the Lakes) is also a qualified running coach, and has experience of guide-running. So Dave had his first taste of trail-running in the heart of Lakeland mountain country, with the man who had read the parkrun book to him. He and Wayne ran (and, wisely, sometimes walked) up the side of Church Beck, past the Coppermines Youth Hostel, and into the wilderness of Boulder Valley.
He saw nothing of it, of course, but heard the beck and the waterfalls and the cry of the buzzard overhead. He heard – from the best of all guides – the history of copper-mining in the area, and how in recent times water-power has been harnessed to create electricity, and how the top fell-runners come tumbling down these hillsides at break-neck speed.
For Dave it was a morning he’ll never forget. “I’m a road runner, I’m used to listening out for traffic, and being told where there’s a pavement step. I thought the hardest part would be the heat, and the steepness of the hills, but it was the terrain under foot that was the toughest.”
Dave told Wayne: "You can take what you’re given, and survive, and be happy with that, or you can work at it. There are blind lawyers and doctors. Don’t let it be a barrier.”
For Wayne it was a humbling experience. “It’s amazing to be trusted to guide someone with a visual impairment, and presents all sorts of challenges that I wouldn’t normally think of. There’s a constant commentary to ensure that Dave didn’t trip or stumble, as well as making sure he didn’t get branches in his face. It’s awesome to be able to try and describe our scenery to someone, in an appropriate richness, to enable them to ‘see’ through words. It’s also interesting to learn about vertigo from the perception of a person who can’t see the drop. It presented me with equal amounts of joy, terror and glee to have the responsibility of guiding Dave.”