17 May 2023

Spirit of teamwork runs deep as Achilles Canberra turns 10

| James Day
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runners with dog

Achilles Canberra members at a regular parkrun. Photo: James Day.

Every Saturday across the ACT, hundreds of people take part in parkrun, a sport that has boomed in popularity over the past 18 years since its creation in the UK.

The Canberra chapter of Achilles International helps all members of the community get involved and the group is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Region was recently fortunate enough to speak with members of the group and president Peter Ralston at the end of one of their weekly runs around Lake Ginninderra.

Parkrun is a five-kilometre community event that gets volunteer walkers and runners outside every Saturday all over the world. In the ACT, there are nine parkrun events that muster about 2000 people every week.

Chris, who is one of the coordinators, says: “I know doctors who actually prescribe parkrun to their patients because it’s great on so many different levels.

“You can do it at any pace or distance you’d like and there’s a lot of community out there as well.”

One running group that helps involve the less-abled members of the community is Achilles International’s Canberra chapter. The organisation was started in 1983 by Dick Traum, a New York amputee who wanted to attract more disabled people to sport.

Sydney became the first chapter in Australia during the late 1990s, with Canberra following in 2013. Now there are chapters all over the country, with members often running with each other throughout the year.

Founding member John Barlow says the group means a lot to him.

“Visually impaired people like myself generally don’t have as many sporting or recreational opportunities to engage with,” he says.

”So these runs give us a chance to participate in these activities as a normal part of the community.”

runners with dog

(From left) Lindy Hou, parkrun coordinator Chris, Peter Ralston and John Barlow. Photo: James Day.

Achilles provides members such as John with a volunteer running partner to guide them every Saturday for parkrun and every second Sunday for training. Peter says that many of their guides are now qualified sports instructors, which the organisation helps facilitate.

“A lot of guides don’t know much about visual impairment when they first join, so you have to educate them a bit,” he says.

”For example, putting blindfolds on and then making them walk up and down stairs to get an idea of what it’s like.”

Another early member of the group who is visually impaired, Liz McLarnen, could not do run metres when she first joined but has now completed four half-marathons.

“The guides are very good at managing the obstacles ahead while maintaining good chat. It’s a delicate art,” she says.

“I can’t relate to swimmers because you can’t talk at the same time. Any runners I’ve met have been really friendly and encouraging, they don’t pass judgment on your abilities.”

Liz often does the Lake Ginninderra parkrun by herself. She no longer needs help from her daughter, who says her mum’s muscle memory is now so developed that “when we do the run from home she turns without anyone telling her”.

Achilles has 20 athletes and 40 volunteers, but Peter says more are needed to keep running these events.

Lindy Hou, a former Paralympian and founding member of the group, says: “I want to thank all the wonderful volunteers who help us, as well as the participants who are very considerate of us by giving room for when we pass.”

runners with dog

Much-loved guide dog Comet is a regular on the parkrun circuit. Photo: James Day.

You can learn more about the Canberra chapter of Achilles on its website and Facebook and Instagram pages.

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