Blind athlete runs desert marathon unassisted using smartphone app

Fri Jul 29, 2016 11:36am EDT
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By Matthew Stock

The physical and mental endurance required to run an ultramarathon in the scorching desert is a daunting challenge for even the most accomplished athletes. But doing it unassisted without the sense of sight seems practically impossible.

Simon Wheatcroft lost his sight at the age of 17, but this hasn't stopped him from competing in some of the most extreme running events in the world. In May he attempted a 150 mile ultra-marathon across the desert in Namibia, managing 100 miles before having to pull out because of the extreme heat.

A veteran of numerous city marathons, Wheatcroft is normally accompanied by a running partner to keep him on course and stop him bumping into objects and other runners. But ahead of embarking on the desert marathon, Wheatcroft partnered with IBM to build an app that would help him navigate on his own.

According to Wheatcroft, simplicity was key.

"To run in the right direction all you need is a bearing, so it may be 40 degrees north that you need to run for a certain amount of time. So we created an app that would notify me if I deviated from the desired bearing. And the way it did that was using beeps, much like parking sensors, so the further you deviated from the bearing the higher the frequency of the beeps," Wheatcroft told Reuters.

In his day-to-day life, Wheatcroft is normally accompanied by his guide dog, Ascot. So it was fitting that the app he co-developed with IBM was named in the labrador's honor.

"We decided to name the app 'eAscot' because I do have a guide dog that helps me out on a day-to-day basis, who's named Ascot. But we felt he wouldn't really survive the heat of the desert, so he stayed at home and we took the electronic version instead," said Wheatcroft.

But developing an app that could accurately track Wheatcroft's precise position step-by-step and relay information to him via headphones was no mean feat. The app uses satellite navigation, but with a user interface more like a car's parking sensor, according to IBM.   Continued...