For most people, running presented itself last spring as the perfect pandemic pursuit.
With gyms closed and fitness classes cancelled, the sport brought many people to the streets, sidewalks and trails, where they were able to keep their distance from others and breathe fresh air while getting a good workout.
But for Peter Field, a 59-year-old runner living in Vancouver, the pandemic made running nearly impossible.
Field is blind and needs a guide to join him on his runs.
The pair are connected by a 30-centimetre tether connected to their waists, which puts them far closer than the two-metre or six-feet distance recommended by health officials since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘My sanity, my health’
Field became blind when he was a teenager, and has been running seriously for the past five years. He competes in road races from five kilometres in length up to the marathon, which is 42.2 kilometres long, with the goal of trying to improve his time over the distances.
He runs four times a week: once alone on a treadmill, and three times outside with a guide doing routes in and around his home in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood or in Stanley Park.
“It helps me keep my sanity, my health,” he said about his running. “It’s probably one of the prime motivating things in my life.”
But Field couldn’t run for almost six weeks when no guide would train with him out of concern that the coronavirus made the endeavour unsafe.
“I was just completely frustrated that something that should be so simple and so accessible was not,” he said. “Having a disability or being blind, I’ve dealt with inequities all my life … it really got under my skin. It just seemed so unfair that people could just go out their door and run and I was totally cut off.”
As cases mounted, Field’s guide at the time was not comfortable continuing, which resulted in a scramble to find new partners. He posted messages on two Facebook pages dedicated to running, but those garnered responses saying what he was trying to do was unsafe.
Things were also compounded by research from engineers in Europe who used modelling to argue that droplets from people running or cycling could carry extended distances beyond the two metres health officials asked people to maintain.
“People were really quite hot under the collar that I would ask for a guide runner. We’re not even six feet apart never mind 30 feet apart. So the post got taken down,” said Field. “I was pretty upset.”
Finally as the science began to show that outdoor activities were not a significant source of transmission, Field’s guide at the time agreed to pick up running with him again.
He also found a new guide to share the training and even completed a virtual version of Vancouver’s BMO marathon in May.
‘Hey it’s not six feet!’
But resuming his running came with increased public scrutiny.
“Lots of people said things like, ‘Hey it’s not six feet!’ or were upset if we ran by them or would turn away,” he said.
Then in the fall as the second wave hit B.C., both his guides decided to stop running with him again. Luckily, he gained another two, Sam O’Shea and John Ball, through the B.C. Blind Sports and Recreation Association (BCBSRA) which vets guides for blind runners..
O’Shea actually saw Field running with a guide one day in his neighbourhood and thought it was the type of volunteering he wanted to do.
The 36-year-old has been a lifelong runner and moved from London to Vancouver two years ago with his wife and is now the father of a young son.
After reaching out to the BCBSRA, it didn’t take long before he and Field met to talk through a possible partnership and how they would stay safe by keeping their bubbles small and being honest with each other if any hint of illness developed.
Both runners said their concern about becoming infected with the coronavirus was low despite running close together and not wearing masks because of the exertion required in the sport.
“It just seemed like a non-issue to be honest,” said Field. “We trusted each other.”
O’Shea had never guided before and had to literally learn on the run, but the pair came together seamlessly because of their shared passion for running.
“Immediately I just realized if I lost my vision and was unable to run … that would be … huge because running is quite a big part of my life,” he said. “I was pleased to be able to help him at the time when he needed it quite a lot. I think for both of us it was surprisingly good.”
76.3K of racing in 19 days
On Saturday, Field culminated his year of pandemic running by completing the “dynasty club” event as part of the virtual BMO Vancouver marathon, which entails running a five-kilometre, eight-kilometre, half-marathon and marathon distance over the course of one month.
Field completed the marathon in four hours and 23 minutes Saturday, giving him more than 76 kilometres of racing in just a 19 day period.
Field gave much of the credit for the accomplishment to his guides.
“If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“Simply by chance they came on board in November, you know had the time, had the energy and had no COVID worries and … we had that trust factor between us, so that made the difference.”