Completing the world’s biggest marathon is an impressive achievement in its own right but for Michael Smith, who ran in the 2015 TCS New York Marathon in November, it represented an even greater challenge.
Michael was in his first term as a medical student at Barts in London in 2009 when he suddenly lost his sight to a very rare condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy - and, not long after, his twin brother Daniel was diagnosed with the same condition.
After being left with just 7% vision, Michael started to take up running seriously as a coping mechanism, telling us: “I had a very charismatic and inspirational teacher at school called Ali who is now my running guide and she said not being able to see doesn’t mean you can’t get out there.
"I decided that sport really can be the main recovery when you come up against very difficult periods in your life. This was my entry back into sports and it rebuilt my confidence in navigation.
"I started running and Ali was great. We used to go up and down the South Bank in London on a weekly basis and it was such a therapeutic activity in which you are getting the same experience running as a blind person as a sighted person does. It gives you great rhythm in life just being able to do those runs and obviously keeps you fit.
"The more confident you are through being outside and being able to navigate your surroundings can be translated into every area of life being a visually impaired person."
Michael went back to university and took a geography degree at King’s College London, graduating in 2013. He was then taken on by a law firm, went off to a law school for a two years and has now just started working for them as a trainee lawyer.
All the while he’s taken his running to another level, or as he puts it: "I’ve started this little habit of running marathons!"
"The goal of running in them as a visually impaired athlete kept me motivated and made me enjoy it even more."
Amsterdam, Dublin and London came first but the one he most wanted to experience was New York, run in late autumn each year and finishing in the spectacular surroundings of Central Park.
And the chance to make that dream a reality came courtesy of his twin brother and a television show, with Daniel nominating Michael on ITV’s ‘Surprise Surprise’ in 2015 as a thank you for the way he'd supported him when he lost his own sight, 18 months after Michael.
The bond between the two could clearly hardly be stronger, with Michael saying: “Daniel has been great because he understands the limitations but is also on the same wavelength in terms of the ways we try and push ourselves. He hasn’t gone down the same sort of sporting route as I have but he understands the benefit of it.
“It was his idea to nominate me and very kindly the show and travel group Sports Tours International gave me the opportunity for an all-expenses paid trip to New York to run the marathon which was my sporting dream basically.
"I’d heard from a lot of marathon runners that it was the pinnacle in terms of the amount of support, the course and how difficult it is. The whole city shuts down on marathon weekend – they are really captivated by the race."
Band on the run
But running on unfamiliar terrain and with 50,000 others meant additional hurdles to overcome, as well as all the training required for what is acknowledged as one of the toughest marathons around.
"Being visually impaired means you don’t have as much independence and freedom as other people can for training - you can’t just head out on a run, it needs much more planning," explained Michael.
"I try to do my long runs at the weekend, with Ali coming down to London or me going up to Cambridge. We started on eight miles and we added two miles to that every week, probably doing 10 long runs in total and a couple of small half marathons which were great practice in terms of working on the communication between us.
"We hold a band together and that firstly helps me navigate but is also symbolic in nature - it’s an indication to other runners that they might need to just keep a couple of steps back. And also the tension of that little band tells me when we’re running to speed up, when we’re slowing down, the gradient, the direction and so on.
"I would call a marathon much more of a mental discipline rather than a physical one. And not being able to see very well is quite interesting.
"The amount of trust and the constant relationship I’ve got with Ali means that it’s very easy for us. She’ll describe the gradient we’re running up, she’ll tell me about the people, she’ll read out the signs people are holding up on the side of the street to encourage us. And by her just telling me, I actually forget sometimes that I can’t see because it’s such a complete picture."
And with a million people lining the streets of New York and iconic sights and landmarks around every corner, Ali had her work cut out in the Big Apple as the experience more than lived up to expectations.
"It was absolutely incredible," revealed Michael, who crossed the line in under four hours and 20 minutes and also raised lots of money in the process for the Royal London Society for Blind People, a charity that raises money for young people affected by sight loss.
"It was a very special atmosphere throughout - a coming together of 50,000 people of different ages from all around the world. We got to see New York in all its splendour in marathon season - it really is the best in the world.
"There’s not a single quiet place - which really brings its own difficulties being visually impaired, because communication has to be incredibly strong. And I think the last six miles were nearly all uphill and very difficult - by far the hardest marathon I’ve run.
"But it all went to plan. My quickest marathon time had been Dublin with a 3:36 but you’ve got to put it in context of the course and I think New York is probably my best run because I just couldn’t believe how uphill the last six miles were. You keep thinking you must go downhill but it didn’t happen and that’s very difficult when you’ve already got 20+ miles in your legs so I was absolutely delighted."
Time for reflection
Now back in the UK after his trip to the States, Michael is looking for his next physical challenge - and this time it might involve two wheels rather than two feet.
"New York has really encouraged me to do more and I initially set myself the task of running five big marathons so I’d love to reach that. But I think the dream now is a huge endurance cycle across many countries. I’ve done London to Amsterdam on a tandem with my brother so I’ll have to see what we can come up with.
"I guess the slightly sad thing is that it took something like me losing my sight to really start finding my [endurance] limits. I’m almost a bit frustrated at myself that the going had to get tough for me to get going. I was a social cricketer and a social footballer and did some running and cycling but I never really pushed myself. Not pushing yourself over your optimum but finding your optimum.
"And when you find it, you feel like you can get the most out of yourself and have a real sense of achievement, which is what I felt when I crossed the line on Sunday. It’s unrivalled.
"I’m still only 24 and it’s so rewarding when you can say ‘yes’ to all these experiences - life is all about experiences, putting yourself out there."
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