Why you should care
Because she’s broken through barriers and is still being hit with obstacles.
Imagine running seven marathons in seven days. Now imagine doing it on seven continents on a trip spanning more than 30,000 miles. Then think about pulling this off without being able to see the spectators cheering you on or the route markers helping you count down the miles. Imagine trying to achieve this if you’d been born with a genetic disease that left you with just 5 percent vision.
Last year, Sinead Kane from Cork, Ireland, entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the first visually impaired (VI) athlete to complete the World Marathon Challenge. The feat is all the more improbable as Kane, 35, took up running just seven years ago. But it begins to make sense when you learn that before becoming a long-distance runner, drawn to disability advocacy work, she qualified as Ireland’s first blind lawyer, and her unbending drive has now propelled her onto the national stage. She’s appeared on major Irish talk shows and built a public-speaking career to share her experiences with huge audiences. Kane says she wants to meet Oprah and, one day, be president of Ireland — because, after running 26 miles across Antarctica’s Union Glacier, the sky’s the limit, right?
To meet Kane is to observe her single-minded tenacity … but is there a point where tenacity becomes imprudence?
Not exactly. Despite the enormous physical and mental barriers Kane has broken through — from bullying at school so relentless it landed her in the hospital to disparaging remarks from family and friends when she decided to became a serious athlete — life is anything but straightforward.
Take, for example, the time Kane was told she couldn’t enter the 2015 Dublin Women’s Mini-Marathon because her running guide was a man, a ruling she later succeeded in overturning. In 2016, she missed out on the Lakes of Killarney Marathon because she refused to pay the entrance fee for her guide. “It is days like this I just think I should give up running. Why bother if race organizers aren’t going to be inclusive!” she tweeted at the time. The race organizer responded that Kane took “what was a small problem [that] could have been resolved in minutes and made more of it.”
VI athletes around the world face similar discriminatory obstacles. When Seattle-based, multi–world champion triathlete Aaron Scheidies was forced to wear “blackout” glasses to take part in the 2011 New York City Triathlon (the idea being they would create a “level playing field” among completely and partially blind competitors), he was stripped of his 20 percent vision. Scheidies’ race was a disaster, as he soon found himself crashing into volunteers. He later filed, and won, a legal case against three athletics authorities that had been enforcing the blackout rule. “Many people do not understand blindness, and it is unfortunate that these people still make judgments and have authoritative positions to make rules that impact blind/VI athletes,” Scheidies says. The fact that he is usually restricted to competing in categories specified for disabled athletes also makes his blood boil.
It’s a sentiment Kane shares. She feels she could make Ireland’s national ultra-running team, but to compete internationally means having to find a way to pay for both her and her guide’s expenses. She relied on a $50,000 sponsorship deal to compete in the World Marathon Challenge, and even then, her historic run was made possible only after the event organizer stepped in to pay the way for Kane’s guide. Securing sponsorship continues to consume more of her time than it should, considering what she’s achieved over the past 12 months — plus there are everyday challenges. “Something as simple as getting someone to drive me from home to a track where I can train can be a major obstacle,” she says.
To meet Kane is to observe the single-minded tenacity that propelled her to win two awards the same week we sat down for an interview. But is there a point where tenacity becomes imprudence? When it has her descending sections of a 14,000-foot mountain in Chile’s Atacama Desert, unable to see where to place her next step? Or running 26 miles a day for seven consecutive days in temperatures ranging from -22 (-30 Celsius) to 90 (32 Celsius) degrees? Scheidies says he is all too aware of the potential for physical injury out on the trail — in fact, he’s rolled his ankles so many times he’s torn a main ligament.
“Sinead is a very strong athlete and, in my opinion, has the mindset of an Olympian,” says ultra-marathon runner John O’Regan, who has run in tandem with Kane on numerous long-distance races, including the World Marathon Challenge. “For that reason, I think she needs to have coaching guidance, as she is too focused and driven. Sinead needs someone to tell her when she needs to be resting and taking it easy.” Kane says she’s only participated in one event she considered dangerous: the grueling Volcano Marathon in the Atacama Desert three years ago. But she adds that doctors have never recommended she stop or alter her running activities for reasons attributable to her visual impairment.
Kane’s fight for equal treatment will go on; other members of her family are visually impaired too. “I feel I am constantly trying to prove to people that I can achieve,” she says. “It stems back to the culture and society believing that people with disabilities can’t meaningfully contribute to society in any area.”
Forget the heat, the cold or not being able to see, for a moment — it’s society’s preconceptions that Kane is determined to overcome, even if she can’t see that finish line in the near distance.