Running blind: How Simon Wheatcroft uses his iPhone to see
When Simon Wheatcroft says to his wife that he is going for a run, it's not the kind of run that you or I would take lightly. Blind by the age of 17, the 29-year-old student who classes himself an ultra-runner, trains solo with only the help of his iPhone to guide him, but how? Pocket-lint went to Doncaster, where he lives, to run with Wheatcroft to find out how he uses his iPhone to see.
Wheatcroft is able to achieve this feat by using Runkeeper, a popular iPhone running app that lets him gauge where he is on his route. The app itself isn't designed specifically for blind people, but has a feature that allows runners to set it to give pace details every minute. Wheatcroft uses that feature combined with sensory clues in the camber of the path to determine instantly where he is on the route without anyone's help.
"And here we are at the first turn," says Wheatcroft, confirming what we already know at the point of our first turn about a mile into the run. Considering he can only just about make out shadows, we are impressed. We turn the corner and carry on at a pace. Wheatcroft explains that he uses a number of clues to plot his course learning through practice where and where not to run. On our outing with him and it's clear that he doesn't need any help, even though he can't see where he's going.
Wheatcroft has been running this route for more than two years but not without the odd mishap, including running into road signs and falling into bushes.
He first started running on a nearby football pitch but tells us he found it too crowded with dog walkers believing he would step out of the way - he didn't.
"It sounded like a really safe idea," explains the runner. "But unfortunately people didn't realise I couldn't see them so it became unsafe for me and them."
When it was clear that wasn't going to work, he moved on to a piece of disused road by Robin Hood airport in Doncaster. Three loops equalled a mile, but doing 30 laps a time soon became incredibly boring.
"Around the same time, I started using Runkeeper and its audio distance makers and I thought, 'Maybe I can pair all the elements of the technology, learning the road and route together?' So that's what I did. I stepped out on to the dual carriageway and started running."
The Runkeeper app might give him pacing details but he still has to navigate the road in front of him including cars when he comes to crossing the road - frightening we know.
That's where the app serves another function too, allowing his wife and friends to track him via the Runkeeper Live service. A subscription based add-on to the app, it means anyone can track where our athlete is running in real-time. Handy, Wheatcroft admits, if people are worried about him.
But it's not just about using Runkeeper. Wheatcroft uses the iPhone, iPad, and iMac in his daily life too allowing him to complete tasks that most of us take for granted.
"I love that the accessibility tools are the same across the entire line of the hardware. So, something that I've learnt on my iPad translates to the iPhone," says Wheatcroft and, ultimately, that means less for him to learn.
A self-confessed Apple fan, Siri - Apple's personal assistant feature on the iPhone and iPad - is also a favourite. It helps him when it comes to writing and reading his emails, although Wheatcroft admits it's not really of much use when it has to read out messages from friends who can't spell.
"Siri is great because there have been a few occasions where something has gone wrong on a run and I wanted to quickly call my wife, I was able to do that. It meant I wasn't panicking trying to search through the phone book to find the number. I understand why it can be seen as very gimmicky. For most people it might make a tiny difference in everyday use, in my situation it makes a huge difference."
Other iPhone features utilised include Find my iPhone; not to find his phone, mind you, but for people to find him.
On the iPhone there are other apps that he and his friends use to help them turn the iPhone from a phone into a useful seeing tool.
Apps include a lux meter to work out if the lights in the room are on or off, or a colour-identifying app (color identifier) that lets his blind friends know what colour clothes they are wearing - for the record Wheatcroft says he doesn't care what colour his T-shirt is.
On the Mac, Wheatcroft uses Apple's built-in contrast tool to help him see things on screen. The feature turns black to white and means that if a website or an application uses contrasting colours already, he can just about see it. If the site uses muted shades, it's no good.
"I used to use Facebook a lot, but they've broken voice-over with it, which is really frustrating," Wheatcroft remarks, before pointing out that the social networks' constant urge to change the user interfaces mean he can't learn where features are on their apps either.
To help him find the mouse he uses Mouse Expose, originally designed as a presentation aid to show where on the screen the mouse pointer is for audiences watching, but Wheatcroft has adapted it to suit his needs.
But it's not Apple devices that givesWheatcroft a sense of freedom from a life that he admits can be "very boring" at times. Another gadget that gives Wheatcroft freedom is his Nordic treadmill with iFit.
By connecting it to his Wi-Fi network, managed by an accompanying website, our runner is able to load pre-programmed running routes from around the world into the treadmill to then be able to run in real-life with the treadmill replicating the incline of the chosen route, so it feels like you are actually running up that tough hill, for example.
When we visited, the ultra-marathon runner - who incidentally runs between 50 and 70 miles a week - was doing hill training in San Francisco. The system can even be plugged into a monitor so you get a Street View of the route as well, not that he needs it, Wheatcroft jokes.
The next race? A marathon sandwich on 27 May in Sheffield.
The race will see Wheatcroft run a 13-mile half-marathon, followed by a full marathon, followed by another half-marathon all back to back and all for charity.
For this race, he will have a guide but still plans to use the Runkeeper app to track his performance.
Two and half miles into our run and we come to the airport. Wheatcroft knows exactly where we are.
"I've run around 2000 miles on this piece of road," he tell us. You can see the memories of all those miles filling his mind. The endless loops that eventually became boring enough to push him on to the road. We stop and chat. Chat about his studies - he is doing psychology - about how he wants to complete his degree and then help other people in similar situations, about a life beyond being just another blind man with a guide dog - he is just about to get his first dog but has been told he isn't allowed to take it running.
Wheatcroft isn't one to give up easily it seems. Some photos of where it all began done, we get back on the road. We've still another four miles to go.
We carry on talking, running at a fairly brisk pace of around 9-minute miles - a speed even Wheatcroft is pleasantly surprised by.
So how does the blind community take to his efforts?
"It shows that anything is possible," says Wheatcroft. "And some don't like that."
As we near the end of our run, we both go silent, finishing off the long straight final mile towards the end. The run hasn't been the most picturesque. Yes, there are some green fields to look at and the airport that looms up in the distance getting ever closer gives you a midway focus but, for Wheatcroft, that doesn't matter. This is his little bit of escapism, his feeling "normal" as he puts it.
Do you ever get the urge to just keep going, we ask? The response from such an impulsive man is perhaps to be expected.
"I did once," Wheatcroft starts to explain before telling us how he wondered whether he could read the road as he ran it. Half a mile later and he quickly realised that it wasn't such a good idea. He didn't have Siri or Find my iPhone at that point and, without a way of contacting support, realised that he was very much alone on a road with no help at all.
Luckily, he was able to make it back to where he started, and now realises more than ever before the dangers that he takes every time he puts his trainers on and steps out for a run on his own.
With many more races planned, Wheatcroft's ultimate goal is to be the fastest blind man to finish Badwater - a 135-mile non-stop race from Death Valley to Mount. Whitney, in California, in temperatures up to 55C.
For us, our run is over. Runkeeper tells us we've done six miles in just under an hour. We've stopped and chatted, snapped a few photos, and Wheatcroft is happy with the time.
As we cool down, we ask him what gadget he wants most of all that he doesn't currently have.
"A driverless car," is the response; not so he can be lazy and never have to run again but so he can be driven to the next race without having to bother his friends and family.