Barrie's Heather Morgan knows first-hand the exhilaration that can be achieved from accessible racing, so she wanted to provide a chance for more people to catch that feeling.
Morgan, who has a muscular condition and uses a wheelchair, took part in last year's Barrie Triathlon where her husband pushed her along the lakeshore course in a specially designed accessible racing chair. The able-bodied people who push the chairs are referred to as 'angels'.
In just a few months, she has helped get accessible racing onto the calendar for several other running events.
The local group is filling a need, Morgan said. Some people with certain disabilities can take part in Paralympics, while Special Olympics provides a sporting avenue for people with intellectual disabilities, but she said there's a still a segment of the special-needs community that is underserved.
"There's a whole bunch of folks with disabilities who are not able to self-propel enough to be able to do this on their own," Morgan said. "It's a huge gap. These are folks who may just have physical disabilities, they may have intellectual disabilities as well as physical disabilities, but they all benefit from inclusion, they all benefit from being part of the community. Interestingly enough, the all benefit from the experience of going at a running speed.
"Even if you can't get your heart rate going fast or even if you're not moving your muscles, the simple act of moving at a running speed is good for our brains," she said, adding participants afterwards have been calmer from being in the fresh air and sunshine. "It's good for them physically and neurologically. There's a whole host of benefits."
The local group has been working with My Team Triumph's Canadian chapter out of Toronto, which has agreed to provide the unique chairs for the Barrie events, she said.
In October, they also received help from the MEC running group for a five-kilometre trial at the Southshore Centre before deciding to expand accessible racing with more events coming this spring, summer and fall.
"We had a great turnout," Morgan said of the blustery October date. "We also had a phenomenal response to the kids and their families, as well as the runners."
The group now has four special chairs they can use heading into the 2019 season. There are also grant proposals to seek funding for 12 more chairs. The chairs each cost around $13,000, but the costs can be brought down with charitable discounts.
"The limiting factor is the number of chairs," Morgan said. "It takes time to purchase the chairs; once you get the funding in, it's another two to four months, because they are custom-made."
In the meantime, the group continues to add more dates onto the calendar.
"We now have races booked throughout Simcoe County for the spring and summer," said Morgan, who will serve as the volunteer operations director. "I'm really excited about it. I'm not good at taking 'no' for an answer."
The first race is set for April 6 at Heritage Park.
The group is now reaching out to potential captains, which are the athletes who are movement-oriented but limited or unable to self-propel, Morgan said. They also want to connect to potential angels, who are able-bodied and provide the "engines" for the captains. Volunteers and sponsors are also required.
"You have to get out there and be visible before people would want to support it and sponsor it," she added. "It's that wonderful Catch-22 we all face, but there's been an incredible response from the special needs community in Barrie. They are thrilled."
Future dates the group is aiming for also include the Rotary Fun Run on May 29, the Barrie Waterfront Half Marathon on June 2, as well as possibly the MEC Barrie Race on June 8. The Running Room also has a date on Canada Day, which Morgan said they will also be participating in.
"Looking into the fall, we still have some open spaces we're looking into," she said, including the possibility of September's Guardians Torch Run for Special Olympics in Orillia.
For more information on upcoming events, click here.