For its 20th year running, the St. John Ambulance Waterloo Marathon and Ed Whitlock Half-Marathon were held on Sunday, taking participants on a lengthy tour of the Woolwich countryside. In honour of the special anniversary, two new categories were introduced to the half-marathon, one for visually impaired runners and a high school relay challenge.
The inspiration for the two new categories came from local accessibility activist Rhonda-Marie Parke, herself a visually impaired marathon runner, who acts an ambassador for the race.
“I definitely suggested it and I’m very excited that they are having one,” said Parke, noting the new category would open up the Waterloo marathon to a whole subset of people who might otherwise be excluded.
“[Parke is] such an amazing person,” added St. John Ambulance volunteer Cathy Lumb. “And she opened our eyes totally to the realization that we’re leaving out people if we don’t have a visually impaired category. There are lots of people who want to run, and just because they can’t see very well or can’t see it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there.”
Out at Sunday’s event to celebrate the new marathon division was Canadian blind athlete Jason Dunkerley from Ottawa, a five-time Paralympic medalist, and four-time World Para Athletics champion who recently competed in the Boston Marathon’s visually impaired division.
The inclusion of the visually impaired category makes the Waterloo Marathon one of the few in Ontario to offer the option. It’s also an official qualifier for the Boston Marathon, meaning those hoping to participate in the Boston run’s visually impaired division can earn their spot by taking part in the Waterloo Marathon.
To create the new division, St. John Ambulance teamed up with not-for-profits Achilles Canada, and United in Stride, which maintains an online list of accessible races in the North America for the visually impaired.
“Now we’re officially a recognized race so we’re on the [United in Stride] website,” says Lumb.
“If blind or visually impaired runners want to run, they can see on this list all the marathons that provide an entry fee that’s waved for guide runner, and that we will make we’ll announce we do have visually impaired runners on the course, where they should be starting. So basically, it’s an official way to welcome blind runners and make them know, ‘yes we want to have you here and you should be here.’”
It’s a message that Parke is eager to get out there, as a firm believer in universal accessibility in public and in sports. The avid runner, who has just eight per cent vision, will be taking her message south of the border as she prepares to run the 500km Vol-State “Ultramarathon” in July, solo. Parke plans to run the entire route without the usual assistance of a guide runner to help her navigate.
Besides helping to introduce the visually impaired division to the race, Parke was also responsible for starting up the student relay challenge. For its inaugural year, Huron Heights Secondary School, Kitchener Collegiate Institute and St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School participated.
“I brought [the visually impaired race] and the student relay because my son was running with cross-country and I wanted there to be an available outlook in the spring for students to race for,” she said.
“This year, all the proceeds are going to the homecare giver program to help people who are caring for family members or friends or whomever,” said Lumb.
The program helps care givers look after themselves and their well-being, which is sometimes overlooked. “Because people who take care of other people, they often forget about themselves,” she added.
Last year, the name for the half marathon was changed in recognition of Ed Whitlock, a regular at the annual marathon who passed away last year. In 2016, Whitlock became the first man at age 85 or older to run a marathon in under four hours, and has made strides at the International Masters racing scene. The local runner was inducted into the Milton Hall of Fame in 2016.