Mikail Huggins talks to Alex Ferguson about being a guide runner to Paralympian Libby Clegg
The classic trust exercise in which one person falls backwards with their eyes closed, praying that their partner catches them, is effectively what Libby Clegg and her guide runner Mikail Huggins face every day, whether it is on the training track or in competitions across the world.
The 29-year-old’s journey into guide running began in 2010 when he took over the reins from his stepfather, Lincoln Asquith, to run alongside Paralympic silver medallist Clegg.
An 11.3-second 100m sprinter in his own right, Huggins says: “It is that family connection that I believe has been the key to the strong bond between myself and Libby which has flourished over the last four years.
“I first got into guide running through my step dad, who was guiding Libby for around about three years and I ended up going to a coaching and development day, which he was guiding at. I watched what he was doing and I thought I could try that and do it. I think it was that element of two people running together side by side that made it look like a three-legged race. It was his influence, but I’ve always had a love for athletics competing at club level.”
Just a few months before the IPC World Athletics Championships in New Zealand, in mid-2010, Huggins recalls how he took a step into the unknown. “I remember that Libby and I had the World Championships in Christchurch coming up in January. They usually have the championships in the July, so we only had three or four months to prepare.”
The Birchfield Harrier continues: “It’s not necessarily adapting to the change of pace that’s difficult, it’s getting the timing right. For every step she takes, I have to take the same step at the same time. Because I can run quicker than her, it’s easier for me to adjust.
“However, adjusting strides can cause implications in respect of hamstring pulls, which I did suffer from in the earlier days. Training with her now, the timing comes like second nature because I know how she’s running and if she does fatigue, I can adjust my running style to suit hers.”
The magnitude of what Clegg accomplishes every time they head out on to the track is something quite incredible given her deteriorating sight, meaning she places a lot of trust in Huggins. “Libby’s got a degenerative eye condition called Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy disease, so at one stage she could see but by the age of nine she started to lose vision,” Huggins explains.
“As it stands now, as a T12 athlete, Libby has no central vision, no peripheral vision in her right eye, but some in her left. However, the quicker she runs, the less peripheral vision she has. She can see my shadow on her left side, but on her right where her competitors are she can’t see at all, so that’s where she relies on me to communicate with her effectively.
“I had a head start really,” he adds, “because before guiding Libby I was introduced to her and got to know her beforehand. There has to be a level of similarity both on and off the track because if she doesn’t trust me off the track, she’s not going to trust me on it. I have to help control her nerves when she’s under pressure. If I’m nervous, she can sense that and it makes it worse for her. It’s all about maintaining a level of trust, commitment and motivation.”
Huggins explains the difficulties the pair face when running the 100m and 200m. “If we take the 200m for example, the bend is crucial,” he says. “Because I’m running on the inside of Libby, she’s in effect running a longer bend so she has to lean on me. We’re running at speed and I’m managing her weight on me while keeping that synchronisation going.
“In the 100m it’s slightly different because you haven’t got the bend to worry about. Coming out of the blocks when the gun goes, when she reacts I’ve got to react, so it’s training yourself to react to her and not necessarily reacting to the gun, which I’m used to doing as an athlete.”
There are also added complications at the finish of a race and Huggins says: “The last part of the race, ‘the dip’, I’ve got to make sure that even though I’m guiding her, I’ve got to hold back before crossing the line. If I cross the line before her, we would get disqualified and that would cost her a medal and funding. Going back to the start, if I false start, we’re both out, which shows how crucial timing is.”
So what does Huggins say to Clegg during the race to keep her on track? He says coyly: “Some of it I can’t actually say, but each athlete and their guide have certain secrets, game plans and cues. What I give to Libby makes her respond, not necessarily verbally, but the way she runs. For example, I will say, ‘Libby you’re down, get a move on’ or ‘Your left arm is low, you need to bring it up.’ It’s quite difficult to get in those pointers while concentrating on a race that could last just 12 seconds.”
The London 2012 Paralympic Games was a massive breakthrough for Huggins in terms of recognition. For the first time, guide runners were awarded medals, meaning he had the chance to stand alongside Clegg after winning T12 100m silver.
“I think that signified how important guides are, and how much of an integral part of Libby I am,” he says. “For me it was those two years of hard training because at the time, I wasn’t getting paid for it and it was something that I volunteered to do. It was a token really of my commitment – if you work at something and put your all in, this is what can come of it.”
» Libby Clegg is supported by the National Lottery, and Libby and Mikail were part of the GB & NI team at the recent IPC World Athletics Championships, supported by Sainsbury’s