No stopping this visually impaired runner

Fit To Post Sports

Text by Stefanus Ian, Video by Jeremy Ho

The next time you run a marathon, do not be surprised if you hear someone shout: “Please give way to the blind runners!”. Turn around and you might be greeted by the effervescent Chris Hortin Tan, 43, clad in her trademark white cap, who races with only 5 per cent of vision.

Tan, who has completed two full marathons and two triathlons, is the vice-chairman of the organising committee for Runninghour 2016, the first and only mass running event in Singapore where participants run alongside people with disabilities. The event will take place at East Coast Park this Sunday (10 July).

The visually impaired mother of two began losing her vision at the age of 14, when glaucoma ended her track and field school career. Almost three decades later, she is making up for lost time.

“I represented my school for track and field and I loved to play ball games like basketball and volleyball, so when I was diagnosed with glaucoma and the doctor said I couldn’t play all these sports anymore, at that time, it was the end of the world,” Tan told Yahoo Singapore.

“I didn’t know who could help me, who should I seek help from. My parents and friends were all so concerned about my welfare and safety, they didn’t want me to get hurt.”

Chris Hortin Tan, 43, stretching before joining a Runninghour training session. (Photo: Stefanus Ian/Yahoo Singapore)

For the next 25 years, Tan left her active lifestyle behind although there was always the hope of returning to sports. The chance came in 2012 when she stumbled upon a newsletter by the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, which advertised a sport for everyone – Soundball, a form of tennis adapted to the needs of the visually impaired.

“When I joined the Soundball tennis, my coaches were saying that our stamina was zero, our fitness level was zero. So they said we should do something else to improve our fitness level, so we joined Runninghour,” explained Tan.

Call me blind

Tan said she has about five to six guides who regularly take turns to train with her. She trains for her races by running with a tether – a pair of shoelaces – tied to her left arm and her guide’s right arm.

Having just 5 per cent of her vision, Tan likens it to seeing only through a bubble tea straw.

“Basically, I only have central vision. I always like to tell people, you take a bubble tea… you take the straw, you look through the straw and cover one eye, so exactly I can only see that much,” said Tan.

“For example, if I’m looking at your nose now, I won’t be able to see your eyes and your mouth, unless I move my eyes up and down then I can see it. So imagine if I do my run, that’s why I say I always like to look ahead and scan the surroundings,” she added.

Due to her visual impairment, Tan needs to run with a guide who will need to warn her about the terrain and direction of the route that she’s on. (Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore)

This also means that when she runs, her guide has to be beside her, communicating the route and any potential obstacles she might face such as a gradual slope or a hump. In crowded races, the guide also has to warn other runners and even ask for space at times.

“When we run in the race, it’s so crowded, our guide actually has to be thick-skinned and shout out for people to give way to us because we are not running in a single file, we are running side by side,” explained Tan.

“We have to shout out ‘Please give way to the blind runners’. Last time, my guide used to say ‘Please give way to the visually impaired runners’. That’s such a long phrase, people in front when they hear such a long phrase, it’s too late (and we’ll) probably bang into them.”

In such situations, Tan said political correctness should be set aside for practicality.

“When they hear the word blind they’ll actually stop and look behind because the word ‘blind’ sounds more impactful than ‘visually impaired runners’,” she explained.

Runninghour currently has about 200 members, comprising the visually challenged and the intellectually challenged. They train on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and according to Runninghour 2016 deputy chairman Ong Meng Hong, 45, there are about 30 to 40 members who actively participate in events such as the Standard Chartered races.

Members and volunteers of Runninghour ending off their training session with a two-minute long squat against the fence at the National Stadium. (Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore)

Ong said that this Sunday’s event is aimed at encouraging more people with disabilities to exercise more.

“We know that there are a lot of people with special needs out there who are not exercising enough,” Ong told Yahoo Singapore.

“We want to take this chance to tell them that even if they have some disability, there’s no obstacle stopping them to taking up a sport like walking and running.”

‘Mom, you are not blind’

Apart from the conventional races, Runninghour members, like Tan, are also participating in triathlons and Spartan Race.

For triathlons, Tan also races with a guide who will follow her through the running, swimming and cycling sections. During the swimming segment, her guide will swim beside her and communicate with Tan constantly to give her directions, while during the cycling portion of the race, Tan will use a tandem bicycle to race with her guide cycling in front.

Throughout her training and races, the one constant source of support that lifts her up is her two teenage boys.

“My family, my boys, my husband, they are all very supportive, especially my boys. They always say, ‘Mom you are not blind, you can achieve a lot of things, your goals, that any ordinary people would not be able to’,” said Tan.

“And I’ll say, ‘I am blind, if I’m not blind, I won’t be holding a tether to run, I won’t need a guide’,” she added with a laugh.

Tan uses a tether which is a pair of shoelaces tied together. (Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo SIngapore)

But Tan said she is grateful for the positive support and influence that she can give to her sons.

“Yes being disabled is not easy but try not to see your disability, try to see your ability, what you can do,” said Tan.

Tan has completed one sprint distance triathlon and one Olympic distance triathlon so far but she is already being egged on by one of her guides to her next challenge: the half-Ironman.

“I have this particular guide, he’s an Ironman so he always says ‘Come on Chris let’s train for half-Ironman’ and I always say, ‘You siao lah, you’re crazy, that’s impossible you know’. But he’ll say ‘Don’t dream, let’s do it. Let’s plan it and do the training together and achieve it’,” said Tan.

“I might, one day, I might try to do it.”

Runninghour 2016 takes place on Sunday, 10 July at East Coast Park Angsana Green. On-site registration is still open to the public. For more details, visit the event website.