In 2015, Shanghai-based husband and wife team Lu Xiangdong and Li Jiyuan launched Be Your Eyes, a charity committed to helping runners who are blind or visually impaired to train for long-distance running events. They pair young runners with experienced runners to work out and train for competitions. So far they’ve participated in more than 100 activities in and around Shanghai.
In June 2017, Be Your Eyes held a marathon for children who are blind with the support of a special guest runner, Liu Xiang. Under his leadership, the school children all crossed the finish line and each personally experienced the power of running. “Whilst most of the parents flocked towards the starting line to take pictures of their own child, one father of a visually-impaired child who was also blind silently positioned himself near the finish line and used his ears to concentrate so he’d know when his child crossed the finish line,” said Xiangdong, adding, “Those who are visually impaired are now free to run, which in the past I could not dare to think would ever happen—letting the visually impaired participate in movement sports without any barriers. This is what the Be Your Eyes campaign always had in mind.”
Be Your Eyes
Can a person who is blind or has low vision run unimpeded? For most people who are visually impaired, running is a questionable sport and can pose serious risks. For example, how are they supposed to move without safety barriers in place?
The answer would come in December 2012 during the Shanghai International Marathon. Two runners stood out from the throng of athletes; one wore a sign on his back that read “visually impaired,” while the other wore a sign that read “hearing problem”. The duo ran side by side until they reached the finish line, which shocked spectators. But they inspired other experienced runners to accompany runners who are disabled.
Although the idea of low vision and blind runners being accompanied by an experienced runner wasn’t new on the international stage, it was new to China. Xiangdong and his wife were sports enthusiasts and had participated
in many local and international marathons, including various triathlons. They knew the London Marathon had a special charity category. Any charity involved had the opportunity to reach more than 38,000 people. “It was my first full marathon running on behalf of a public charity specializing in helping children with visual impairments,” explained Xiangdong. “I had never seen any local people in Shanghai with visual impairments participate in sporting events, nor had I come across any organization that helps with accompanying them to take part in various sporting activities. If I am blind and want to be a runner or go running, whom do I contact? If there’s no one I can contact for help, then what do I do?” These impediments had been an issue in China for a while.
But in early 2015, during a charity event, Xiangdong and his wife began to discuss the idea of creating an organization that would escort runners who are blind or visually impaired. They did not, however, expect the organization to become such a huge hit.
Some of the volunteers are responsible for looking after those who are visually impaired, and others are there to help recruit volunteers. Be Your Eyes is very much a group effort. They held their first run in Shanghai’s Century Park.
Xiangdong and Jiyuan are dedicated to making these events a success. What they didn’t expect were so many willing and enthusiastic volunteers. Those with visual impairments experienced what it was like to run for the first time—the freedom, the challenge, and the fun. For many, it was also their first time being escorted while running. “When we saw the smiles on everyone ‘s faces, especially those who had never truly experienced sports before, we were even more determined to continue these events,” said Xiangdong. He jokingly said to Jiyuan: “In the blink of an eye, we’ve completed 100 sporting events. In just two years time, we’ve managed to find and talk about love along the way, get married, and have a child.” For both of them, their energy and dedication have focused on making “Be Your Eyes” a success, thus leaving little to no time for their personal lives.
“Blue is the main color of our logo and slogan, and it represents freedom and equality. Like Smurfs, the popular Belgian cartoon characters who are blue, we are free, running spirits who reflect our own special characteristics. Whether it’s those who are blind, the volunteers, the runners or the escorts, we all affectionately call one another “blue Smurfs,” explained Xiangdong.
The 34-year-old Chen Xiaobin is a veteran Smurf. In 2014, the singing teacher from Taiwan who is blind said he wanted to return to Taiwan to participate in a running event. “Xiangdong’s words really sparked my interest,” he said. Since he’s had congenital glaucoma since childhood, back then he didn’t want to participate in any movement activities and sports, but his physical health was deteriorating, and his heart longed for physical movement and exercise. He learned from his classmates who are blind that Jiyuan and Xiangdong were holding a running event for the blind. So Xiaobin told himself, “No matter what, I am going to go and try.”
He did not expect the personal goal he set for himself to last more than two years. He has now become a professional teacher for Be Your Eyes, and can teach others how to become qualified runners, while also teaching them how to befriend and become a competent companion.
Although Xiaobin is unable to participate in activities that involve strenuous exercise, slow, long-distance running events are still within his capability. “Compared to before, I feel like I’ve been reborn,” he says. Through Be Your Eyes, he has made many friends, felt encouraged, but also encourages others to be excited about going outside and participating. His most fundamental change was not physical but mental.
After Xiaobin joined, Di Xuehui followed. She is currently the leader of the runners who are blind. She ran in Beijing Bird’s Nest Half-Marathon and performed better than many of the athletes. Now part of Be Your Eyes, she coordinates training activities and events. The activities are improving and becoming more and more well known. Word is spreading in the visually-impaired community, and many are joining. A man named Ji Xiangzhou, who is a blind masseur, resigned from his work in Jiangsu and moved to Shanghai, just to make sure he could participate in all of the weekly activities.
The Challenges of Companion Runners
“Accompanying others while running has its difficulties, and you have to be cautious when part of a team,” says Xiangdong. Although he always warns them, there are still many runners who are eager to join the volunteer team. These runners come from all over the world and all walks of life, including doctors, students, and blue and white-collar workers. One of the oldest has already retired, and the youngest is still just in high school.
The volunteers who put in the most time are the companion runners—the people who run beside and guide the runners with visual impairments. Xiangdong and Jiyuan have learned from other international groups how to keep their events safe and secure. Over the past several years, they’ve established a few mandatory rules to help minimize problems and accidents.
To be a companion runner requires training and the right mindset. They have to wear goggles or blindfolds while running in order to truly experience what running in the dark feels like so they understand what it’s like for the runner who is blind or visually impaired. They are then screened and given a written test and a running test before they can be a qualified volunteer and companion runner. They must continue to learn, run and update their skill set. For Xiangdong and Jiyuan, this is the best way to ensure the safety of both runners and volunteers, while also providing experienced companions and volunteers with strong skills.
Hóng Ji? is known as the “older sister Smurf,” even though she is more than 60 years old. She still manages to maintain endless vitality and enthusiasm, just like Bao Shu. They each do a daily morning run and put younger people to shame. And they are both qualified to accompany athletes and runners. “Whenever we organize a variety of activities, they are always particularly positive, even if no one asks, they will take the initiative to help,” says Jìyuán, adding that it is because there are so many volunteers like Hong Jie and Bao Shu who are such enthusiastic people, that all these different events can happen again and again. As Xiangdong says, when everyone runs together, eventually the escort or companion becomes like family. “What brings everyone together is not just one string that attaches the runner to the escort, but they’re linked by an emotional connection. “
Visual Barrier Running Includes Many Doorways
“Most people find it difficult to imagine how people who are blind can run, even though they might’ve heard of it, many think it’s just someone running next to someone else,” says Xiangdong. “In fact,” he adds, “there are many doorways inside to navigate. We have changed our rope lines more that four times.”
In order to make runners who are visually impaired feel assured and that everyone is headed along the right track, Xiangdong and Jiyuan sought resources from foreign countries and guidance from a professional Hong Kong-based runner. “The first rope used by a companion runner was one that Jiyuan herself had woven by hand. Later, with the help of volunteer sponsors, they made numerous adjustments to the ropes, so now they’re bright blue and have become a symbol of Be Your Eyes.
“We have been trained in how to run fast and how to monitor our breathing rate and rhythm,” explains Dí Xu?. “Our blind runners can even pass some of the companion runners on the track.” Xiangdong says that during large sporting events, runners who are blind or visually impaired should be accompanied by three people—two companion runners and one leader. “In the course of the run, the leader is out in front, whereas the second runner accompanies the athlete and the third runner accompanies by holding on to the rope. In addition, there are also volunteers standing by the side, in case of accidents or collisions, so they can step in to help, if needed,” he says.
It has been nearly three years since the “Smurfs” have participated in large and small multi-sporting events and weekly public events. Some spectators will stay to become volunteer companions and participate in organized activities. Even though some people no long participate in the events, there is still a certain awareness of it in their hearts. “We actually want more people to realize that these runners who are visually impaired exist and live in our communities. We also want the participants to realize that there is equality for all of them, and that they are able to access the same things as others,” says Xiangdong. As long as someone has done it at least once, then we can promote this idea. What we are doing will truly make a difference.”
“This is not about forcing everyone to focus only on people who are blind and to ostracize them, but to help others be able to face them normally, if seen on the street, so they don’t feel weird about it. If they see someone who is blind experiencing difficulties, such as crossing the road, they can choose to provide the right kind of help for them. This is what we want to achieve,” says Jiyuan with a smile.
Over the years many people have changed through this organization. Some went from only being able to run a hundred meters, to being able to run an entire marathon. Others went from being shy to projecting their voices and ideas confidently. And one young man who is visually impaired and his running companion recently tied the knot. At their honeymoon, their smiles made everyone smile, too.” Xiangdong and Jiyuan said, “We may not be able to change the world, but we are happy and will continue to run with our Smurfs, running together down the path.”
by Zhang Simon
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.