Lifestyle03 Jul 2021

Yoko Aoki: widening horizons through running


Yoko Aoki training (© Yoko Aoki)


Running alone, at a time that is convenient for you, is one of the joys of this simple sport that many of us take for granted. Just putting on your shoes and getting out into the fresh air, clearing your head, running as far and fast as you like… running is a simple remedy for the stresses of modern life.

But for Yoko Aoki, one of Japan’s top runners with a visual impairment, running is not quite so simple. She always runs with a guide runner. Planning ahead and coordinating her large team of guide runners is a normal part of her running schedule, on top of the physical and mental challenges of training hard and competing at elite level. I caught up with Aoki and her team to hear about the enjoyment and challenges of running with a guide.

Aoki, 45, suffered a detached retina after leaving senior school, and competes in the T12 category. She took up marathon running in 2008 and has gone from strength-to-strength ever since, setting her personal best of 3:09:55 in December 2019. Working full-time for NTT Claruty Corporation, a special subsidiary of NTT, alongside running, Aoki is supported by the Japan Blind Marathon Association (JBMA), which has helped to make Japan a powerhouse in distance running for visually-impaired athletes.

Under the guidance of head coach Yoshihide Fukuhara, himself a visually-impaired athlete, Aoki’s team, ‘Team Oyo’, consists of around 30 guide runners in total. She runs every morning before work with guide runners who live near her home. Aoki coordinates this rota herself. On Wednesdays and Sundays, she runs speed sessions in a local park or on a running track, overseen by Fukuhara. At each of these sessions, five guide runners will accompany her, one by her side and others running in front and behind.

With Aoki’s impressive speed, it isn’t always straightforward finding enough guide runners who are fast enough to keep up with her. Her team consists of men and women of various abilities. Morning runs tend to be easier runs, but for speed sessions the number of guide runners she can call on who are fast enough is limited. Naoki Okumura is one of the faster guide runners in her team. “I can keep up in terms of speed but the height difference between me and Aoki makes it tough”, he explains. “I am about 30cm taller than her, so I have to adjust my stride length, and drop my arms to suit her running action”. Coach Fukuhara says changing your form takes time; it is easy enough for the guide runners over short distances but to run a long way with an unnatural form is tiring. This is a common challenge in Team Oyo – the faster runners who can keep up with Aoki are mostly the men, but they are, on average, taller than her. So for Fukuhara, an integral part of planning Aoki’s training menu is thinking which guide runners can complete sessions with her. As Aoki improves, so too must her guide runners. “I want her to get faster, but then it is tough for me too”, laughs Yasuhiro Ukitsu, one of the speedier men in the group.      

Aoki lives in Tokyo, but training in hot, humid Tokyo summers is tough. So Team Oyo will spend time in Hokkaido and at altitude in Nagano on training camps this summer. For marathon competitions, visually-impaired athletes use two guide runners, who exchange the running tether at the half-way point. Deciding who will fill these two crucial slots in races is something Aoki discusses at length with her team. All three of them must be on top form to ensure a successful result.      

Being a guide runner to a world-class athlete may seem like a heavy responsibility. But all of Aoki’s guide runners who I spoke with had only positive experiences to report. Safety is the top priority for all of them. Avoiding potholes, warning her about upcoming steps in the pavement, and steering clear of cars, bicycles and pedestrians is paramount. But that is only one small part of being a guide runner. “Aoki is training hard and trying her best in a stressful environment, so I often check to make sure she is not overdoing things, or suffering too much”, explains Makiko Yokoyama. In competitions, helping Aoki to beat her rivals also comes into play. “I help with pace judgement, monitor how Aoki is doing, and give her tips on how to win”, explains Hiroyuki Takada, who ran the second half of Aoki’s PB-breaking race in 2019.

But being a guide runner isn’t all about running. “I describe the scenery, identify flowers that are in bloom, and tell her the name of any restaurants we pass whose food smells delicious!” explains Ukitsu, who also ran with Aoki when she set her PB. None of the Team Oyo guide runners has formal qualifications, but they’ve learned from more experienced guide runners and training events organised by the JBMA. All of them train hard, on top of work and family commitments, to maintain their fitness so they can accompany Aoki. Running to and from work is a popular time-saving way of fitting in training for some of them.

For Aoki and her team, the running they do together builds connections, and creates so many opportunities for shared enjoyment. “Many people think guide running must be difficult” says Okumura. “But with a little care, anyone can do it. Aoki is a competitive athlete but many people with visual impairments simply want to walk or jog. Just give it a go”, he says. For Ukitsu, helping Aoki has given him more motivation for his own running. “If I tell Aoki to try her best in the last, really hard 1km of a marathon, then I must do the same. When I am in races by myself, I really give it my best at the end”.

Fukuhara sums it up: “Regardless of disability, age, or gender, simply by running together and talking, we meet new people, enjoy the same activities, and break down walls between us”. Aoki explains that by running or walking with someone who cannot see, your world expands. You can gain some sense that you did not have before, and the breadth of your life will expand. “More than accompanying another runner, it’s about enjoying something together as friends,” she says. “You might notice much more of your surroundings while running as a guide."

Aoki wants to spread awareness about the world of running for people with visual impairents, and being a guide runner. She and her team work incredibly hard together. It isn’t all about running, but about human connections, enjoying a variety of experiences together, and making friends.

Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active