For Sinead Kane, the hard part was not the race, a 24-hour test of endurance in the south of France. It was in getting there. Because for the Youghal woman to take her place on that start line in Albi in October 2019, standing proudly in the Irish vest, she had to go to war with the organisers, writes Cathal Dennehy
For more than a year, Kane had been preparing for the World 24-Hour Championships, and her place looked assured when she achieved the qualifying standard in Crawley, England last April, covering 204.5km in 24 hours.
But as a blind runner who requires the use of a guide, her entry was blocked by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), which cited an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule that forbids the use of guide runners in such races.
Athletics Ireland was informed in July about the rule and as a result, it did not select Kane for the event. But she refused to take no for an answer, with the IAU’s former executive director, Irishman Richard Donovan, backing her campaign to compete.
“I went through so many different emotions – disappointment, sadness, anger – and there was a point where I hit a very, very low place mentally,” Kane says. “Thankfully I had the support of people around me. I got extremely badly bullied in school because of my disability and it felt like I was back there again. I felt adults should know better.
“Here I was, having got the standard, and this organisation was telling me I had an unfair advantage over other fully-sighted runners. In 2019, I expected better from an international body, especially when the Paralympics had stated that using a guide is not considered assistance.”
She kept training on the build-up to the event, hoping for a chink of light. Kane logged over 100 miles most weeks, racking up 50km runs on a treadmill on many occasions. “I find it boring but if you’ve a target, you have to keep that in mind,” she says.
She never allowed herself to lose track of the goal even if, as time went on, it looked a more distant possibility. “I was sad because of all the effort and work I’d put in,” she says. “All that work felt like it was being taken away because I’d visualised my name on the selection list and that was taken away from me by the IAU.”
Kane, a solicitor by trade, set about launching a legal challenge in Monaco using Article 14 of the European Convention for Protection of Human Rights. As someone who is classified in the T12 category for Paralympic events, she was able to demonstrate that, given her level of blindness, the guides did not constitute an advantage. Just days before the championships, a judgment ruled in her favour and the IAU was forced to allow her participation.
Kane heard the news on a Wednesday afternoon and the Irish team flew to France the following morning. Her coach, John O’Regan, travelled as team manager so he was unable to serve as her guide, as he often had in the past. Kane was instead assisted in rotating shifts by Gillian Connolly and Ed McGroarty, who recently broke Eoin Keith’s Irish 24-hour record.
“It was quite hot and the heat did affect me a small bit but I feel I performed quite well under the circumstances,” says Kane, who came home 67th in the women’s field of 147. That helped the Irish team to 10th place, with Kane their third and final scorer. She completed a total of 185.8km in 24 hours.
It was an achievement that ranked up there with any of her previous feats, which include becoming the first blind woman in history to complete the World Marathon Challenge – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days – and the 12-hour female world record on a treadmill at 130.5km (81.09 miles).
Never give up
Growing up, Kane had always felt too hindered by her disability to compete in sport, but at 37 she continues to make up for lost time. She credits the influence of John O’Regan for helping her on the current path. “Sometimes when you don’t believe in yourself, it takes other people to believe in you,” she says.
She also receives support from Revive Active, which she credits as a major help. In recent years, Kane took time out of her career as a solicitor and focused on motivational speaking, and she’s never far from planning the next adventure.
In 2020 she had hoped to qualify for the Paralympics in Tokyo, which would require her to run a 3:10-3:15 marathon, though those plans are obviously now on ice with few – if any – such racing opportunities likely available this year in mass-participation races. Nonetheless she’s still running, and she’ll be ready to take her place on the start line again when it’s safe to do so. As far as she’s come, her race is only just beginning.