x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Henry Wanyoike: the Dubai Marathon runner who goes the extra mile

Visually-impaired world record holder now helps other blind Kenyans to be self-sufficient.

Henry Wanyoike, right, with his guide races to win the 5,000m silver medal at the ninth All-Africa Games in 2007.
Henry Wanyoike, right, with his guide races to win the 5,000m silver medal at the ninth All-Africa Games in 2007.

May Day is celebrated across the world by millions of working-class people, but for Henry Wanyoike it brings back dark memories.

On May 1, 1995, the Kenyan woke up in complete darkness and started arguing with his mother that it was not daytime yet. Wanyoike, 21 then, did not realise an overnight stroke had damaged his optic nerves and cost him 95 per cent of his sight.

As realisation gradually dawned, he went into a depression.

"When I lost my eyesight, I was in so much despair," said Wanyoike, who is an inspiration to millions around the world now and will be running the 10km at the Dubai Marathon tomorrow.

"I went to bed a normal person, the following day I found myself in darkness. I thought my life had come to an end."

His mother took Wanyoike to the Kikuyu Eye Clinic, a nearby hospital supported by the Christian Blind Mission International (CBMI), for counselling and therapy. Later, he joined a rehabilitation programme at the Machakos Technical Institute for the Blind and it is here that the athletes bug bit him again.

Wanyoike, 37 now, had been a promising distance runner at school and was being groomed to join the country's elite corps of athletes until the stroke left him sight impaired. While at Machakos, he took part in an Olympic Day run and that reignited his passion for the sport.

"When I was a young boy, I was always dreaming of becoming one of the leading athletes of Kenya," Wanyoike said. "At the schools level, I was very good before I lost my eyesight. But then I heard that people with visual impairment can also run. So I started running gradually and in the year 2000, I went to Sydney and won my first gold medal. I hold three world records now. All the distance records belong to me."

The Kenyan took part in the national trials for the Sydney 2000 Paralympics in Australia, where he was a comfortable winner in the 5,000 metres. He went on to claim a second gold medal four years later in Athens and has taken part in a number of marathons and half-marathons around the globe.

He holds the visually-impaired world record for both the half-marathon and the marathon, with a personal best of two hours, 31 minutes, 31 seconds. He also set the 5,000m and 10,000m world records at Athens.

"In Beijing we won a bronze because I had an accident," he said regretfully. "In London I will run the 5,000m and the full marathon.

"Next week, I will be running the 21km half-marathon in Hong Kong. These competitions are very important for us as they will help us prepare for London."

He runs alongside his good friend and guide Joseph Kibunja. They are tethered together at the wrists and Wanyoike said he found it difficult at first as his guides were not able to keep up with his pace.

"It took me four years before I was able to run properly with Joseph; to know how to swing our arms properly, how to synchronise our steps," he said. "If you see, my hands keep falling down all the time. So in the beginning it was not very easy.

"But now we swing our arms together and we run at the same speed. I am able to run with him and he is able to run with me. It is important to know when he is slowing down or when he is speeding up.

"He keeps telling me 'in a few metres we are turning, so we have to slow down'. We keep talking through the race, about how the race is going, what is the reaction of the fans and many other things. He keeps telling me everything."

When he suffered the stroke, Wanyoike was working as the village cobbler. Petra Verweyen, the chief of the Low Vision Project at the Kikuyu Eye Clinic, helped him learn how to knit pullovers.

In gratitude for the support he received, Wanyoike promised himself to help other blind people and teach them to be self-sufficient. He now employs other blind Kenyans and teaches them how to knit, buying knitting machines for them through his prize money and charitable donations.

He has started the Henry Wanyoike Foundation to work for the betterment of people with disabilities and is a global ambassador for Standard Chartered Bank's "Seeing is Believing" programme.

"I have lost my sight but not my vision," Wanyoike said when asked about his inspiration. "I love to demonstrate what we people with disabilities are able to do. We have abilities. If we are given opportunities and chances, we can do it.

"I have been able to show the world that disability is not inability. We have different talents."