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Blind runner not daunted by 500km ultramarathon

Through her run, Rhonda-Marie Parke is hoping to raise awareness of the day-to-day struggles faced by people with disabilities. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

For the next several months, local resident Rhonda-Marie Parke will be preparing for the Vol-State “ultramarathon.” It’s a massive challenge for anyone: a 500km trek through the heart of America over a period of four to ten days. But that challenge is made even more profound, when, like Parke, you have to do it with just eight per cent of your vision.

More than that, Parke says she wants to attempt the marathon without the help of a guide, on whom she typically relies to provide direction while running.

“It’s not my first long-distance run,” explains Parke, saying she had previously run the 900km Bruce Trail in 2014, for example.

“So that’s great,” she says of her previous runs. “You take this thing that you want to do, that you want to show the world that you can do. And, ‘hey all you other disabled athletes, step up and try and make the world accountable for helping to create this space.’”

However, while Parke can run a massive marathon with the help of guides, manoeuvring in the public space can still be a challenge.

“My frustration is that I can do something like that – maybe not easily, because who can run 900km easily? – but I still struggle to get to the grocery store. I can’t get to the gym to do the treadmill run without thinking about how many obstacles are between my front door and the bus stop.”

In that way, through her solo run, Parke is hoping to raise the question: what does it mean for a society to be universally accessible? How can we be sure to accommodate everyone equally? What can we do to ensure that regardless of a person’s disability, she or he can participate in society, be it in playing sports, heading to the grocery store, or anything else that we take for granted?

Parke encourages people with disabilities to advocate, stridently, for themselves and their needs. And she encourages everyone else to ask themselves what they can do to help.

Parke is legally blind, and has had to grapple with that condition all her life. Her retinas, she explains, lack cones, which are the elements we rely on in brightly lit areas. By contrast our rods assist in low-light conditions, such as at night, but without providing colours and clarity.

“Basically that means I don’t have any daytime vision,” says Parke.

“So think about if you get up in the middle of the night and it’s dark and you have to make your way to kitchen to get a glass of water, you’re fine. You walk down the hall, down the stairs, you don’t trip on anything, you make it to the kitchen. You turn the light on: now you’re in cone vision.

“You have your water and turn the light back off before heading back to your room. But now you can’t find the stairs, you can’t find the railing, you trip on the shoes that are in the way, you might step on the cat. All those things, because your rod vision is so very slow to acclimatize to light perception and the difference between light and dark.”

In preparation for the Vol-State marathon in July, Parke is planning to attempt a 100km solo run later today. Weather permitting, she will begin in Kitchener in the evening (when her vision is at its peak), and follow a loop that will lead her through Elmira, Maryhill and West Montrose.

Parke is also raising money to help her get to the Vol-State run; after covering expenses, she plans to donate the rest. Those interested in donating can do so through the www.youcaring.com funding page.

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