Denis Kelleher (51) from Midleton recently completed one of Ireland’s most scenic marathon – blindfolded!
On Sunday morning, 10 April, Denis took one last look over Lough Inagh before heading for the hills blindfolded in the Connemara International Marathon.
It was a role change for Denis who normally runs as a guide with vision impaired training partner Sinead Kane.
Denis and Sinead training in their native Cork
“I wanted to understand what it felt like to run without visual distractions,” says Denis. “No looking at birds, trees, what’s going on around the marathon course. I needed to understand the concentration required when you run for hours with no visual distractions.”
Four hours and 15 minutes later and Denis completed the blindfold challenge. “It was an eye-opener, for sure,” says Denis. “Seven miles in and we were hit with downpours of sleet and high winds. I also felt leg muscle tightness, which may have been due to changing gait while being guided.”
Denis, originally from Macroom in West Cork, loves the outdoors. He is a landscape gardener who spends his spare time hill walking, rock climbing, swimming and cycling.
Ten years ago, he took to running and has since completed 19 marathons including two ultra-marathons to date. He has completed the classic marathon distance in just under three hours and 20 minutes, which he ran in Dublin.
While out training with friends at Cork’s Mardyke running track two years ago, Denis met Sinead Kane, a fitness expert and keen ultra-runner.
“I got talking with Sinead but didn’t know she was vision impaired. She could just about see where she was going by concentrating on the white, track markings. I soon understood her issue and volunteered to assist her as running off track would not be possible for Sinead without a guide.”
Denis and Sinead began pounding the roads and trails together in preparation for the 2014 Dublin Marathon.
“I felt we were doing something positive. In the beginning, I felt very nervous and was unsure of how to describe what was ahead. Sinead was very patient and informative of what to look out for: obstacles, terrain, dogs, buggies, potholes, bollards, ramps,” Denis says “Calling directions at the right time is so important. For safety, I always lead while training, especially in tight areas such as walkways or where we might turn into tree or bush areas.”
To help create awareness of guide running with a vision impaired person, Denis ran the Connemarathon blindfolded wearing a t-shirt with the Vision Sports Ireland logo (NGB for vision impaired sportspeople).
Last Autumn, Denis decided to get a real insight into what it feels like to be guided rather than being the guide. Initially, he was planning a short race. However, he soon set his sights on the tough but beautiful hills and valleys of the Connemarathon, which he previously ran on three occasions
Finding a volunteer guide wasn’t easy. However, Tim Twomey, a very experienced marathon man from Leevale Athletics Club, stepped forward.
“Yes, Tim was very good to volunteer,” says Denis. “I have trained with Tim just twice on track, and we ran one road race together and left it at that. I decided there would be no more training until the day of the big race in Connemara.”
Before the 26.2-mile run, Denis said “I want to be nervous on race day and get the real feeling of what I might face and deal with whatever comes my way. I feel what may ultimately catch me is concentration. I just won’t have the same distraction other runners will experience as I listen and not see. I suppose I’ll just concentrate on counting down the miles.”
After the Connemarathon, we asked him how different it was to what he expected? “The big difference was cars,” recalls Denis. “I could hear cars approach, but couldn’t judge how near they were. This caused concern. Also, as a guide, I was conscious of poor roads and camber. However, when the shoe’s on the other foot, and you feel the bumps and lumps, it is different. No guide could fully prepare a blind or vision impaired runner for all camber ups and downs.
“Crossing the finish line, I received a warm greeting from Sinead. I didn’t know who she was at first as I was still blindfolded. It’s an amazing experience.”
Denis has been there, done that and worn the blindfold. Back now to guiding Sinead
“I have found guiding a wonderful and rewarding experience. I would recommend other runners to give it a try,” he concludes.