Thursday, February 25, 2016

Simon Wheatcroft: the simplicity of ultra and blind running

The amazing appeal of ultra running (or ultra marathon) is that it doesn't have any limit...

First, there is the distance of course. Ultra marathon running is defined as any distance longer than a marathon, that is farther than 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers. Quite a simple definition. Can be one any surface (trail, road, track), flat or super hilly, a few hours or over multiple days, it's all ultra marathon as long as you passed the marathon mark.

Then there is the personal challenges such as the fatigue, worn out joints, non-neutral stride, weight, whose impact is amplified by the number of miles you put into racing and training. Or work and life priorities. This too has hardly any limit.

And then... there is Simon...
I had heard and twitted about Simon Wheatcroft before when IBM advertised his amazing story in connection with one of our cloud hosting offerings, Softlayer. As a kid, Simon has been affected by Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic degenerative disease which left him legally blind by the age of 17. Yet, Simon decided that wouldn't prevent him from taking on running! Well, not just running but trail running and even ultra marathon! For that, in addition to an exceptional will and mental, he is leveraging technology and an actually very common and widely spread mobile app: Runkeeper. Among a myriad of other features, Runkeeper translates distance into audio messages which allow Simon to keep track of obstacles on the routes he learned by heart.
It was so moving to see Simon live yesterday, sharing his incredible story, live, during one of our main keynotes. Simon was joined on stage by the Founder and CEO of Runkeeper who announced the acquisition of his company by Asics (darn, I would have rather be it Brooks...), and, of course, talked about the very special relationship with Simon through this unique use of the mobile app.
This Thursday morning, our colleague Scott Knaffla organized the 8th edition of a group run at Red Rock Canyon Park on the last day of the conference.

I was able to participate to it 6 years ago but have had to miss the following years because of early customer meetings and breakfasts (we leave the hotel by 5 am and are back by 8:30).
This year worked out and I'm so glad because that gave us the opportunity to run with... Simon!

After completing a challenging 100-mile trail race in the UK last year, Simon is preparing for a 60-mile solo run through the desert in Namibia. Because there is no trail to follow in the desert, Simon wants to experience running free of any human guidance, just with the help of another mobile we (IBM) will develop to provide some direction/bearing. The event is on May 1st, so we are going to leverage our IBM Design and Bluemix Garage methods to not only get the Minimal Viable Product ready by then, but the app which Simon needs to succeed in this new challenge!

Because of the proximity of this event, Simon didn't want to take the risk of twisting an ankle in the bottom of the rocky canyon and he ran on the park road. I ran the first 3 miles with him and his friend, Paul.

Poor Paul, he had never run more than 3 miles at once before coming to Vegas this week and Simon got him to run/jog 9 miles on the Strip earlier this week and, this morning, we were getting on a 6-mile run while climbing 1,000 feet. Not to mention that Simon and Paul didn't get any sleep at all as they had spent the night with a few of our colleagues! (I only had 2 hours of sleep myself after the amazing performance of Elton John followed by a reunion of the ex-ILOGers present at InterConnect.)

We had a large group with us this morning, almost 30, and 5 had decided to go farther into the canyon than we had originally planned for.

We waited for a while then I decided to chase them to make sure they'd be back on time to the bus. However, I quickly got to a fork in the trail and, per the famous quote of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!", I picked one direction first, didn't find the missing runners after going over slippery sandy rocks, came back to the fork and tried the other branch to no availability. But at least I discovered areas of the park and canyon which I didn't know yet, including a few puddles amid this super dry area!

With the clock ticking, I rushed down the road to the entrance of the park, getting the pace under 5:30 min/mile, and got to the bus just before the 8 am limit, only to find out that we were missing 12 runners! Long story short, everybody made it back but I was a few minutes late to my first customer meeting of the day, oops! The conference is over now, time to fly back home after 10 days in this crazy and insane city.

I have a few follow-ups with Simon, both on the professional and running sides, I'm so glad we had this opportunity to meet. The power of...! I also met other remarkable colleagues, partners and customers, from all running backgrounds. Starting with our inimitable Fellow, Chief Scientist and innovation disrupter, John Cohn (first time I meet him in person after seeing dozens of his super engaging videos):
Very special social run then, especially this opportunity to experience the simplicity which characterizes Simon's approach to the goals and challenges he is setting for himself. So inspirational...

It was also a nice break from my rectangular loop around the LAS airport these past 8 days...! ;-)

I need to close this post before I fall asleep while typing but you can read more about Simon's amazing journey to change the world by making it more inclusive for vision-impaired persons, both at work and in the outdoors:

  1. Simon's bio on his website (&
  2.'s article about Simon's carrying of the Olympic torch in 2012
  3.'s article on Simon's determination
  4. Simon's interview by The Guardian
  5.'s coverage of Simon's run from Boston to New York's marathon

And after that, nobody can make excuses not to... Outthink limits (the tagline of our IBM Cognitive Computing business)!

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