Meet the Deaf Ultra Racer Fuelled By Music

Runner Tim Stones can't hear a starting gun, but absolutely loves the Chariots of Fire theme.

Matthew Huff |

South African runner Tim Stones has been deaf since birth, and yet Stones learned to play the piano and sing in the choir when he was a child. Today, with the help of hearing aids and a cochlear implant, he composes music and can play by ear. He has also completed 25 marathons and 25 ultras, all without being able to hear the starting gun, the crowds, or the runners around him. That might seem to make for a bleak race, but Stones insists that it gives him room to hear his own thoughts, and that he runs to a never-ending stream of internal tunes. Here, Stones, 42, discusses how music became one of the greatest forces for good in his running life.

RW: Why did you start running?

TS: I went for my first proper run at the age of 11 or 12, on the spur of the moment, initially to stamp the anger I felt through my feet. I was on my high school cross-country team. In 1999, when I was 20, I ran my first marathon, quickly followed by my first 100km race. Recently, I completed my 50th marathon or ultra race. Running has become my primary form of emotional release. It is how I process life and make peace with it.

RW: How do you experience your runs?

TS: I run without my hearing devices on, as I find the cacophony of sounds overwhelming when I am feeling the rhythm of my feet. Silence helps me keep my rhythm and find my pace. As my vision is also compromised [Stones’ vision deteriorated in recent years to the point that he can’t drive], I have to focus intensely on the actual act of running, to avoid obstructions and potential mishaps the best I can.

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RW: Are there differences in the way you compete?

TS: I cannot hear the gun, so usually the starter holds a flag or drops an arm, and off I go. It’s not ideal, and at shorter distances, it is a definite disadvantage. But in longer races my deafness can be an advantage in a way, as I am not distracted by noise. Deafness forces me into myself. I am especially fond of multiday circuit racing: I have competed in events ranging from 24 hours through to 10 days. A highlight was breaking the South African age-group record for the latter, with 886 kilometres in 2017.

RW: What can you hear with and without your hearing aids?

TS: When I was 5 years old, I received my first pair of hearing aids and learned to read and to speak clearly with my voice. Over the years my hearing has further deteriorated. I received a cochlear implant for my left ear and wear a super-power hearing aid in my other ear. Without them, I hear nothing in my left ear, and in my right ear I can pick up some sound, but rely on lip-reading to communicate. With my devices on, I can pick up a wide range of sounds, but still need to see someone’s face for speech.

RW: How does that impact your musical experience?

TS: I cannot grasp music without my devices on. But it may surprise readers to know that there are many deaf and deaf-blind musicians who have found ways to feel the music and understand rhythm despite having no hearing at all. Some, like Beethoven, even composed songs. With the cochlear implant, music sounds a bit different, clearer, to me. The best part has been being able to hear the actual lyrics to songs for the first time. I was shocked to discover I had been singing completely alternative lyrics to my favourite songs since childhood!

@Sam Clark

RW: When did you develop your passion for music?

TS: I was introduced to music at the age of 6, starting piano lessons soon after acquiring my first pair of hearing aids. My mom hoped that by learning to understand the rhythm of music I would be able to grasp the nuances of speech more quickly. Now I play the piano and sing. Being able to enjoy music with my sons is food for the soul.

RW: How has your musical life impacted your running?

TS: Music plays a cru­cial part in my running journey. Even though I can’t hear or listen to music when I run, I hear music within. When I find myself getting tired, especially in the longer ultras, I find I can push through by thinking of a song that speaks to me in that moment, and I sing it, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud. It gets me back into a rhythm, and my feet respond to the sustained beat. More broadly, music helps me navigate the myriad experiences of a complex life. Running does exactly the same.

RW: Are there certain songs you come back to again and again?

TS: My heart goes into overdrive whenever I hear “Chariots of Fire.” Sometimes I ask my sons to play it just before I go out for a longer training run. It gets me into the groove like nothing else can. I am also a huge fan of ’60s music. Mostly, though, I opt for songs of faith that uplift and inspire me to keep on keeping on.

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