What does it take to vault a personal obstacle? This is part of a collection of stories in which five Canadians reflect on leaping over the barrier that was holding them back. Read the other stories here.
Their hands tethered tightly with string, visually impaired distance runners and their guides need to function as a single organism, running in synchronized rhythm. Guides like Joshua Karanja serve as blind runners' eyes. Karanja has spent four years racing alongside Jason Dunkerley, who was born blind with the rare inherited eye condition Leber's congenital amaurosis. Together, the distance runners won gold in the 5,000-metre event at this year's Parapan American Games in Toronto. In October, they faced a more gruelling challenge at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar. As temperatures soared to 40 degrees, half of the runners dropped out, battling violent heat exhaustion.
It was oppressively hot that night. It was a track in the desert – no trees. Even the tap water was warm. There was no escaping it.
I was telling Jay where we were and what position we were in, just as teams started dropping out. There was a Spanish guy, Manuel Garnica; he dropped out. The Turkish guy, Hasan Huseyin Kacar, who was in front of us and then behind us, he dropped out as well.
When you see people in front of you, you can sense if they're hurting or not just by their body or facial expression. You can understand when it's time to start pushing hard or waiting a little bit. For Jay, it's very hard. All of that detail, I have to make sure Jay knows.
We usually have a plan and we don't deviate, but sometimes the plan goes out the door because things change. We changed the plan when we had 250 metres to go. The guy set to be the winner, Brazilian Odair Santos, fell. I thought he tripped but then he fell again and I figured, that's not normal. As soon as he fell, we picked it up and pushed harder. It was an opportunity. With about 100 metres to go, the Brazilian collapsed with heat exhaustion and couldn't finish. We ended up second.
After the race, we were drenched, completely drenched in sweat. That's when we realized, holy, it was hot. You're so into the zone of trying – what's in front of us, what's behind us, are we hitting the right splits, are we secure and safe in where we're going – that you don't think of certain things until the end. That was good for us. If you start thinking about that heat, it's one more thing that can make you lose your ability to do your job.
When you are having a great race, you're occupied with the task at hand of maintaining pace, calculating your next move, watching the discomfort or comfort of your opponents, executing your plan or trying to adjust your plan. We are always thinking four or five steps ahead. You never have time to really think of how uncomfortable you are when you're having a good race.
But when a race is not going your way, you'll feel the discomfort the whole time. You have to figure out ways to fight through it, whether that's lying to yourself, breaking the race into phases or sometimes, just willing yourself through it. In the end, after a bad race you learn from it and remember that feeling for next time because it will serve you well.
We had a tough beginning of the season but things seemed to have come around six weeks before the Parapan games in Toronto. Jay runs on my outside, but a couple of years ago we decided to move him on the inside so he did not have to run further. He was never comfortable on the inside and after a couple of months of subpar races we switched to him running on the outside. With the switch he was back to his old self: The times he was running were the fastest times since he donated a kidney a few years back, to his wife.
Jason Dunkerley is one of the greatest people I've ever met: no ego, very diplomatic. I don't think he's ever gotten mad. We're good friends. We understand the sport. We both are ambitious guys. We spend a lot of time together. Someone was making fun of me saying I'm his mistress: Jay spends probably as much time with me as he does with his wife. We're always training and travelling. We talk at least once a day.
I probably have my own selfish reasons for doing guide running. It was another opportunity for me to keep running on a competitive level, to travel and race in big races. I love running and I've been doing it for a very long time. And it was an opportunity to help somebody in the process. Like I always tell Jay, he's probably one of the greatest human beings you'll ever meet. That helps.
The next challenge is Rio. That's what we're gearing up for. We were silver medalists in London in the 5,000 metre so we're hoping we can change the colour of that to gold. It's going to be tough but we know what it takes to realize that goal. The top guys are the Brazilians, the Kenyans and the Chileans. We have to figure out a way to beat those guys. We've been doing this for a long time so it should be fun for us.
This interview has been condensed and edited.