As I toe the line, I can taste the tension. It ebbs through each runner, a unique force of adrenaline which reaches its crescendo as the starter calls us to our marks.
The sharp bang of the starters gun, a sound ingrained into the reflexes of all track athletes, is the signal to commence, quite literally, coordinated mayhem.
For most runners, the ensuing moments are definitely quite an experience. It not just reminds you that distance running is undeniably a contact sport, but also (and I can attest to this) leave you with bodily scars, which in future years will be paraded proudly in the name of your favourite sport, the worlds toughest.
Yet, my racing experience is vastly different to that of the everyday runner. I have a severe vision impairment, namely Juvenile Macular Degeneration. I am legally blind, with most of my vision loss occurring within the central region of vision. And, quite proudly, I am also a para-athlete (T12 Classification) with ambitions to one day become a Paralympian. However on the national stage I still compete in able bodied competition.
This is often quite a tough endeavour, but at the recent Australian Junior Athletic Championships in Perth I proved, mainly to myself, my ability to continue to race the ‘able bods’. I claimed Bronze in the under 18 1500m and 5th in the under 20 5000m (in a time of 15:09.17), two results of which I am extremely proud of.
I know that many people often wonder at how I can cope under the conditions of intense racing. And it comes down to that strongly powerful form of human instinct. Adaptability.
Over time I have learnt and begun to understand the complexities of racing. Yet, as I said before my race experience is vastly different.
After the gun goes, I feel the bodies pressing in around me. I hear the breathing, the feet against the track. I smell the sweat mixed with the hot rubber at our feet. We run along, the athletes around me look down each straight and around each bend as they enter them. Whereas I watch the figure in front of me, because in a race that is all I see.
As we receive the bell for the last lap, a runner makes a move and gaps the field, inevitably I lose sight of him. He could be five metres ahead or fifty. So I must rely on the commentary and my willpower to hunt down the unseen, because that is exactly what it is. The Unseen. At the speed in which we traverse the track, my every step is quite definitely one into what I cannot see.
To people who have not experienced this it may seem extraordinary, maybe even incredible. To me though, it’s just normal, I know no different. What I do know however is my ability to use what I do have to my advantage. In races the facial features of my competitors are indiscernible, let alone the names on their bibs. To get around this problem, I have built, through countless races, a mental library of my opponents running styles, as well as the sound of their feet and the way they breathe. This is not always reliable, but nine times out of ten it allows me to gather an understanding of who’s around me in a race. A pivotal aspect to developing on the spot tactics during races.
One unavoidable hazard of distance running is pack running. For the fully sighted this ordeal can quite often be a tormenting one. For me it’s no different and I try to avoid this scenario as much as possible. Yet, as I said in some situations it is unavoidable. When faced with this scenario I utilise my capable senses of hearing and touch to forge a safe passage through the race.
As I enter the home straight, I still haven’t seen that elusive runner. The increasing roar of the crowd tells me I’m gaining, gaining on the unseen. I hit the finish line, with no clue of position or time but with a sense that I’ve run my absolute guts out.
Yes, my race experience is a tough one. So is everyone’s. That’s part and parcel of being an athlete in our sport, where mere milliseconds and centimetres can define so much.
I’ve written this to the curious, to those that wonder. And I want to remind my competitors of now, and of the future, that it is my pleasure to toe that start line with no special considerations. Just like everyone else, when that gun goes I want to be raced as hard as anyone else. At the end of the day we are all runners.