Outside of his day job here at Liberate I.T. as a Senior NetSuite Consultant, Simon Bernard has a voluntary role you may not have suspected.

Simon’s a keen runner who’s been part of a few running clubs over the years. As a trust building exercise with one club, the runners paired off, one was blindfolded, and the other guided them through a running trail.

Simon soon realised how much a person living with vision impairment could be missing out on if they didn’t have a running partner.

Around 168,000 New Zealanders and about half a million Australians have a visual impairment that can’t be corrected by glasses or contact lenses – and they are a diverse group that includes some avid runners. But running outdoors on trails or the road can be difficult or impossible for the visually impaired.

Simon soon joined the Achilles Melbourne club, and could turn his love of running into an opportunity to give back to those who live with a visual impairment and help them participate in the sport too. The Achilles groups support those with disabilities to enjoy the social, recreational and health benefits of active lifestyles. The Melbourne club has happened to focus on supporting those with visual impairments.

“We use tethers – about a metre of cord with handles on both sides – to guide the runners. At the start, we’ll talk about the kind of pace they want to set, what terrain they’d prefer, what kind of assistance they might need that day. From there it’s about telling them to count them down to lift their feet at a set of stairs or duck because of a low-lying branch. And alerting other park users that there’s a blind runner approaching.”

Simon explains that he doesn’t always run with the same person, or that it could be six months or so between shared runs – so communicating and understanding the runner’s needs is key. But between the guided style and often smartwatch-voiced pace and distance notifications, athletes of all abilities feel empowered to complete big running milestones.

Simon was amazed to hear the resilient stories amongst his network of Achilles Melbourne runners, all of which have had to adapt their lives to accommodate their visual impairment, and not let it stop them from doing what they love to do. The most rewarding experience of the voluntary role isn’t getting athletes across the finish line per se. It’s all the stuff that happens in the lead-up, in exchanging stories and building friendships.

While he’s running every weekend, it’s an upcoming event that’s got Simon especially excited.

NYC marathon 2022 - Simon Bernard

“One of my Achilles Melbourne buddies posted on the Facebook group that he was looking for a guide to help him run the New York Marathon in November this year. He’d missed the chance in 2020 because of the pandemic. I said yes in a flash. I didn’t even think about the logistics or how I’d get there. I had to say yes.”

For Simon, being a running guide for the visually impaired is a fantastic way to connect with others, get to know their stories, and share in their love for the sport of running – and raising awareness of a good cause supporting keen athletes. Saying yes to the Melbourne runner meant the opportunity for them to achieve their goal – and a chance for Simon to support a friend.

Achilles guides runners with a range of disabilities with a club in cities across the globe, giving people an opportunity to stay fit, healthy and connected with their sporting community. It’s also encouraging runners to smash their big goals, regardless of impairment.

One day, Simon would love to guide an impaired runner through a race that they didn’t think was possible to finish. Seeing others train up, overcome their barriers, and cross the finish line, for Simon, is what running communities are really all about.

“I’d love to see more people supporting Achilles and other inclusive clubs, too. At any event or group run, you see people out and about, supporting their physical health, and share stories. It’s not just about the running. It’s about a different opportunity.”