By Rebecca E. Jones
When doctoral student Freddy Derenthal is not in the lab, you may find him training alongside an athlete with visual impairments. As a guide runner, Derenthal helps runners with disabilities compete at their highest level. Guide running, which he started a year ago, has expanded him as an athlete — and inspired him as an engineer.
Derenthal ran track and played rugby as an undergrad at Virginia Military Institute and continued running when he came to VCU to start his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He heard about Sportable Adaptive Sports and Recreation Inc., a Richmond-based nonprofit specializing in programs for athletes with impairments, and was immediately interested.
“I showed up at Sportable and I was asked what my best times were,” he recalled. “Fool that I am, I gave my best high school time for the mile.” As a result, Derenthal was paired with Antoine Craig, a highly dedicated runner whose vision is rated T11, the highest level of impairment.
Craig had been running in distance events and was interested in competing as a sprinter. “It took a while for Sportable to find someone who could keep up with me, so it was lucky that Freddy and I connected,” Craig said. The two began running together four times a week. During training, they were connected by a shoestring tied between their fingers so Craig would know where Derenthal was at all times.
“Freddy was all-in, every day, through every grueling, hot practice. We grew together — literally tied to each other,” Craig said.
Keeping up with Craig, whose goal is to sprint at an Olympic performance level, challenged Derenthal.
“To be a guide runner, you have to be as fast as the athlete you’re working with because you are their eyes,” he said. “As we ran, I would say, ‘Okay, turn right in three, two, one.’ It takes a lot of synchronization and coordination. We started out much slower than normal, then built up speed.”
As they improved, Craig and Derenthal set their sights on a high-profile race, ultimately qualifying for the 2017 Desert Challenge Games in Phoenix, Arizona. The event is one of nine World Para Athletics Grand Prix races and the only one in North America. With support from friends and family, they got to Phoenix and competed in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints. Craig got national championship qualifying times in all events and a world championship qualifying time in the 400-meter race, for which he also won the Desert Challenge gold medal.
“They announced that our heat included a T11 runner who had a 400-meter world record and got the gold medal, and I knew it was Antoine,” Derenthal said. “The feeling was indescribable. I know I’ll tell my grandkids about it.”
Derenthal said training with an athlete of Craig’s caliber boosted his own focus and self-discipline. It also made him aware of challenges people with disabilities face — and engineers could help with.
“Guide running opened my eyes to accessibility — really ‘inaccessibility’ — issues people with disabilities are tasked with,” he said. He sees a need for a system that alerts runners to obstacles so runners with visual impairments can train independently. He would also like to see an improvement to the clunky pole-based wheelchair steering mechanisms. “There could be a much more efficient means of movement, perhaps weight-based, so the athlete could turn hands-free, which would save energy and let the athlete maintain momentum,” he said.
Derenthal also thinks engineers can help athletes with disabilities overcome another barrier: cost. “There’s a lot out there already — for millionaires. I’d love to see engineers take an expensive gadget for athletes with disabilities and make it cost-effective,” he said. “That would make a great capstone.”
UPDATE: When wheelchair athlete Crystal Jordan was in need of a guide runner for the Anthem Richmond Marathon, Derenthal volunteered less than two days before the November 11 race. “We didn’t have time to do any workouts in advance,” he said. “We just did it ‘live.’” Jordan had completed 5K races before, but this was her first time doing a half marathon. They went into the just-over-13-mile race hoping to complete it in three hours and 30 minutes or less. They met the goal with five minutes to spare.