Road races are big, loud, and (sometimes) rambunctious events. While the high-energy environment is exciting for some, others with sensory sensitivities such as PTSD, autism, or dementia might find the experience uncomfortable or overwhelming.
The nonprofit Kulture City specializes in sensory accessibility at major events. In 2019, the organization assisted in the first-ever sensory inclusive marathon in Akron, Ohio. Sensory-sensitive participants received bags filled with noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, verbal cue cards, and weighted lap pads. A sensory-relief vehicle was on-site, which provided a quiet place to step away for a break.
The upcoming Pittsburgh Kids Marathon (don’t worry, it’s only one mile long) adds to such initiatives by providing a separate heat exclusively for children with sensory sensitivities.
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“Most races are energetic and loud and can certainly cause sensory overload for some of the young participants,” Amy Scheuneman, the race organization’s youth programming director, told Runner’s World. “So in our efforts to not only have them participate, but have a good time while they participate and enjoy their experience, we wanted to give them both the opportunity to have a safe space and quiet zone prior to the race, and then be able to participate in the race with not as much stimulation.”
The Pittsburgh Kids Marathon, which is part of the greater Pittsburgh Marathon weekend, also teamed up with Kulture City to provide sensory bags, the sensory-relief vehicle, and sensitivity-trained on-site staff. But in order to accommodate those with sensory sensitivities during the actual race, the race staff will play quieter music, reduce the activity level surrounding the course, and provide runners with extra personal space.
Scheuneman expects 50 to 100 kids to compete in the event, which is set for May 6.
“We know that physical activity is so important not only for physical health, but mental health. So, we want to provide opportunities for every demographic, every scenario, every situation,” Scheuneman said. “We can take that step forward in allowing individuals with autism, PTSD, dementia, strokes—the things that may stop them from gathering in large crowds—to feel comfortable doing that and participating.”
Chris Hatler is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but before joining Runner’s World and Bicycling, he was a pro runner for Diadora, qualifying for multiple U.S. Championships in the 1500 meters. At his alma mater the University of Pennsylvania, Chris was a multiple-time Ivy League conference champion and sub-4 minute miler.