When she was 16, Rose Sarkany was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes a loss of peripheral vision. Since then, her sight has faded to about five degrees of peripheral vision (compared to about 170 degrees for most people). Despite her vision loss, Sarkany, who lives in Port Alberni, B.C., runs a lot, and while she used to require a guide, she can now run solo thanks to a navigation app called RunGo. Unlike other fitness apps that just track runs, RunGo’s voice navigation system guides users through every turn. Sarkany has enough vision that she can see any obstacles in her way on the road or trails, but she says it takes a lot of concentration, and RunGo helps her a lot. “It does enables me to run as if I don’t have any vision issues,” she says, “which is a great feeling.”
When she was 40, Sarkany took up running to improve her fitness. “I was a lot heavier than I am now, so I decided to run,” she says. “Running was something that I thought would be easy to do. Was I ever wrong.” Even though the sport wasn’t as easy as she expected, she stuck with it, and since then she has run 14 marathons, 12 of which were guided. Her first guided marathon was the Boston Marathon, and it was with her then-running partner and now-husband, Chris.
“There were a few of us in our training group who had qualified for Boston,” she says. “They noticed I wasn’t making plans to race there. It would have been too difficult for me to navigate on my own, so I wasn’t going to run.” Without a second thought, Chris offered to help Sarkany out.
“Chris sacrificed his time to run with me,” she says. “He would have run around a 3:45, but my time was over four hours.” Sarkany explains that Chris had experience guiding athletes, so they made a perfect match, and they’ve stayed teamed up ever since.
In 2011, they entered the Vancouver Marathon together. At the expo the day before the race, they saw a man with a dog and started to chat with him. “I’m always a sucker for dogs,” she says. The man was Craig Slagel, the founder of RunGo, and he told Sarkany about his app. She liked the sound of it, so she decided to give it a try for herself. Since then, Sarkany has used RunGo for many races, and she uses it for most of her training runs around Port Alberni.
One of Sarkany’s best experiences with RunGo came at a 10K trail race. She downloaded the route to the app and started the run on her own. With RunGo’s voice navigation and haptic alerts (vibrations from her Apple Watch to signal that a turn is coming), Sarkany says even though the route was on unfamiliar terrain, she was confident throughout the entire race.
“It was one of the best runs I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was as if I had no vision issues. It was seamless, everything was in sync. I ran with a smile on my face and I beat my projected time.” Sarkany says she doesn’t race too much any more, and her last big marathon was in 2014 in Victoria. Sometimes she participates in small local runs, but for the most part, she says she just likes to run for the joy it brings her.
Along with RunGo, Sarkany runs with her guide dog, Dudley, who is her “run partner at the moment.” With RunGo on her wrist and in her ears and Dudley by her side, she can go for runs without any worries that she might make a mistake or get lost along the way. She adds that the app “isn’t just for people with vision issues, but pretty much for anyone who gets lost easily, like I would.”
Sarkany says she relies on the app, and she notes that technology is becoming “more of a necessity rather than just an option” for many people. “I really am an advocate for accessibility, and having good companies like RunGo and Apple (which works closely with the navigation app), we all work together to make things accessible for everyone.”