Volunteers guide runners in overcoming adversity

By Xin Wen | China Daily | Updated: 2023-06-08 07:18
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A volunteer guides a visually impaired runner with a hemp rope at the park this month. WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY

Charity group assists athletes who have disabilities

Every Thursday and Sunday morning, a group of runners with impaired vision or hearing sets off from a rest area near the south gate of Beijing Olympic Forest Park.

The area, one of several established at the park last year, sits beside the running and walking track, and serves as a warm-up base for the runners, who are accompanied by volunteers as they aim to improve their fitness levels.

Running not only benefits these athletes by enhancing their physical well-being, it also has a beneficial effect on the volunteers, who are inspired by their charges' perseverance, determination and optimistic outlook.

At 8 am on a sunny morning last month, Yao Taotao, 38, who has retinitis pigmentosa — a chronic hereditary eye disease — and has been legally blind since he was 1, did some stretches before taking to the track. He followed the movements of two volunteers, who act as regular trainers.

The three runners set an impressive pace, completing the 5-kilometer lap of the southern part of the park within 40 minutes.

Yao and one of the volunteers were connected by a hemp rope as they ran at the same pace. They rarely spoke — the only sounds being the occasional summer breeze and the runners' breathing and footsteps.

"As I can no longer see, I place all my trust in the volunteers when I run," Yao said.

Even though he is not always accompanied to his local subway station, he cherishes the opportunity to run every week.

"As I'm completely blind now, when I walk from my home to take the subway to Olympic Forest Park, I have to rely on my memory of the route," said Yao, who works at a blind massage parlor in the Haidian district of Beijing.

"However, sometimes I receive help. For example, a kind couple saw me on the road this morning and offered to take me to the subway station."

Yao was one of 15 people with impaired vision or hearing who ran at Olympic Forest Park on the day, who were accompanied by more than 30 volunteers.

This activity, which has been staged for the past five years, is organized by the Beijing branch of Running in the Dark, a charity running group formed in October 2019.

The founder and organizer of the group's branch in the Chinese capital is He Xiaoyun, 52, a Beijing native. She and about five regular volunteers hold charity runs at Olympic Forest Park on Thursdays and Sundays at 7 am and 8 am.

About 1,600 volunteers have joined the Beijing branch, ranging in age from 5 to 74, and assisting more than 400 visually impaired and hearing impaired runners.

Volunteers accompanying the athletes walk or run varying distances, either walking for 3 km, or running for 5 km, 10 km or 15 km.

One or two days before a run, the volunteers post registration links on the branch's WeChat group, specifying their preferred distance and starting time. Volunteers from the logistics team, which usually comprises about 10 people, accompany visually impaired runners from the subway station and assist them during the run.

After registration, the volunteers meet up with the runners and gather at the rest area.

One of the volunteers then leads a warmup routine, which includes exercises such as turning, high-knee steps, and walking on the spot.

Experienced volunteers offer additional support by holding visually impaired participants' hands or arms.

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