Science communication comes in many shapes and sizes, but running blindfolded for 10km is a novel way of raising awareness of your research area.
PhD student and vision researcher Joshua Chu Tan wanted to highlight what life is like for people living with visual impairment (and raise funds to support research at the same time). He describes the experience as was one of the most challenging things he’s ever done.
The dreaded sound of my phone alarm went off at 6:30am. The amber orange rays of the sun were just beginning to peer over the horizon but I was up and ready to go. It was a cold morning in Canberra and the threat of rain was imminent as ominous looking clouds began to converge over the sky. Thousands of people were gathered behind a big arch with the word “START” plastered over the top of it. Smiling faces of all ages, from young children to the elderly, everyone in active wear, shivering in the cold but ready to run. As I looked around, I took it all in, full well knowing that for the next hour or so, I wouldn’t be able to see a thing.
Every year keen individuals and families gather here in the early hours of the morning to take part in the Canberra Times Fun Run, and many people do it to support a cause they believe in. The Canberra community raises thousands of dollars for various charities due to this event. My fellow PhD colleagues (Nilisha Fernando and Helen Jiao) walked the 5-kilometre course and I ran the 10-kilometre course. As we work in vision science, our lab decided to do the run differently. We did it completely blindfolded.
The conception of this idea wasn’t just in order to raise awareness for those that suffer from visual impairments such as Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the disease that our lab is interested in. It was also so that we, as young vision researchers, could gain a better understanding of what it is these people suffer and what they have to go through on a daily basis. To motivate us even further for the research that we are doing, trying to fight exactly that.
The first 20 minutes of the run was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I knew it would be difficult, of course I did, but I didn’t expect it to be as challenging as it was, particularly at the beginning. As I lined up at the start line, I took a good look at my surroundings before putting my blindfold on. As soon as my vision went black, every one of my other senses became heightened, particularly my hearing. With 1000 people around me, the anxiety set in quick. This was before I had even taken the first step.
When the gun sounded, we were off. I could hear footsteps moving very quickly past me. I suddenly became very conscious of every step that I was taking, trying my best to run in what I thought was a straight line. However, with every step I felt as though my chances of tripping and falling over was increasing. My balance and perception was completely thrown off. The road was wide but it couldn’t have felt narrower to me. Every small pebble, every uneven bit of pavement that I stepped on I could feel perfectly under my shoes. Despite nobody being within ten metres of me (as my wonderful guide, Jordan, pointed out) I could hear their every movement, their footsteps, the swishing of their rain jacket, as if they were right next to me. It was disorienting. It was frightening. For millions of people around the world, it was their reality. That’s what scared me the most.
All of this fear and anxiety stemmed from a simple blindfold covering my eyes. That’s what really hit me afterwards upon an emotional reflection of the experience. Nothing had altered from a normal run I’d go on apart from having lost one sense, which is why perhaps I assumed it wouldn’t be as hard as it was. To have everything changed by simply losing the gift of sight allowed me to realise how this sense really is exactly that…a gift. It is so important in how we perceive the world around us the way we do as human beings. All of this sounds somewhat obvious but it’s not clear just how obvious until it’s taken away from you.
I thought back to the morning, of how I was looking out over my deck into the horizon as I ate my breakfast. The subtle hints of steam rising from my cup of coffee. The little droplets of dew covering every blade of grass. The seemingly snail paced movements of the clouds as they hovered over the waking sun. All of these small things that we currently take for granted are lost for those who are visually impaired. It was hard for me to run 10 km blind on a single Sunday in spring. To have to live the rest of one’s life like that? I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
You can still donate to vision research here: gofundme.com/runningblind
Joshua Chu-Tan is a 3rd year PhD student with the Provis Group at The Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, Canberra, investigating gene therapies for age related macular degeneration. He loves writing whilst sipping espressos in the finest hipster cafes. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @joshchutan.