Athletics: 'Running is like a safety valve. It helped keep me sane and it gave me a goal'

Blind runner Bob Matthews goes to Paralympics to honour his late wife. <i><b>Mike Rowbottom</b></i> reports
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The Independent Online

As a blind runner, Bob Matthews will be accompanied by a guide when he defends his Paralympic 10,000 metres title in Athens tomorrow night. But he will sense the presence of someone else - his wife, Kath, who died suddenly last November, and to whom he has dedicated his performances in what will be the seventh Paralympics of an unparalleled career.

As a blind runner, Bob Matthews will be accompanied by a guide when he defends his Paralympic 10,000 metres title in Athens tomorrow night. But he will sense the presence of someone else - his wife, Kath, who died suddenly last November, and to whom he has dedicated his performances in what will be the seventh Paralympics of an unparalleled career.

At 43, Matthews has 22 world records to his credit, eight Paralympic golds, four silvers and a bronze, not to mention an MBE and an honorary degree from Warwick University. And yet he is determined to gain further reward from both the 10,000 and 5,000m events in the wake of the trauma he endured after discovering that the woman whom he had married nine years earlier had died in her sleep at the house they shared in Leamington. Although she was a 38-year-old who appeared to be in perfect health, she had developed a cyst on her brain stem.

"My wife was incredibly supportive," Matthews said. "She always understood about the training, and she would often come out on her bike with me. She made me feel I could carry on improving. Even now, I feel I can.

"After she died, my immediate reaction was: 'What's the point in anything? What's the point in living?' All of that stuff. But after a while I thought: 'What would Kath have wanted me to do?' And obviously that was to carry on running."

Assisting him in that ambition is the guide to whom Kath introduced him nine years ago, Paul Harwood, a former Army PT instructor who now works as a specialist trainer at Ryton Police College.

The 33-year-old father of two, who completed the 150-mile Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert last year, races alongside Matthews connected at the wrist by an eight-inch cord. But the bond between the two men goes far beyond.

"I was in a state of shock for three or four days after Kath died," Matthews recalled. "But then Paul persuaded me to go out for our first run. Running is like a safety valve. It's helped me keep a measure of sanity over the last nine months and most importantly it has given me a goal. I have to find another one after the Paralympics are over, but right now I have something to aim at."

Harwood, too, has had his year shaped by Matthews' renewed ambition. "What happened with Kath was a bolt from the blue," Harwood recalled. "I couldn't believe it. When I met up with Bob, I thought it was important that we went out running again, because that's what we do. How else do you get over something like that? I've always found running is the best thing when I'm feeling stressed.

"My aim has been to get Bob here in the best shape I could, if possible in shape to get a medal. But as long as he does his best, that's fine by me."

Matthews will be supported in his efforts by a group of 14 friends and family who have travelled to Athens with specially printed T-shirts that bear Kath's name and dates on the front, and a braille version of her name on the left breast. Each one also proclaims on its back: Team Kath.

The two men will compete wearing pink ribbons attached to their vests. "It's a dusky pink," Matthews said. "It's the colour of our bridesmaids' dresses, and of the cravat that she chose for me."

When it comes to the racing, however, Matthews will try to put thoughts of his late wife out of his mind. "I will be switching into running mode," he said. "I can't really focus on anything else. When I used to think about her while I was running, I would get these emotional attacks and find it hard to breathe. I've sorted it out since with the help of a sports psychologist."

He will need to call upon all his experience as he faces Henry Wanyoike, the Kenyan who beat him to the 5,000m title in Sydney, and who is clear favourite for both races in Athens despite the fact that some have questioned whether he has useful vision.

Matthews, who was born with a degenerative eye condition, took up running shortly after losing his sight 24 years ago. He competes in the T11 category for the totally blind - those who can see no shapes but have some perception of light.

"I was able to read a car number plate from 25 yards when I was eight," he said. "But by the time I was 20 I had no useful sight. In some ways it's got to be a good thing I wasn't born blind, because I can visualise things such as the track, or the kerb. When Paul and I are out training, he will describe the cornfields we are running past, how the wind is blowing across them and rippling the wheat. I am able to see that kind of stuff in my mind's eye."

For now, however, his mind's eye is focused on the track at the Olympic Stadium, where he competes tomorrow and again on Friday.

"Kath would have been in Athens, just like she was in Sydney," he said. "It seemed an obvious thing to do to run in honour of her. I feel she's still helping me."

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