“When I finished my first Parkrun with Mike, I thought, ‘I do quite like him,’ so I showed my friends a photo of him on my phone and asked, ‘What does he look like then?’”
Kelly Barton is explaining how she and her new husband met at a Parkrun event in 2016. They are speaking to me over Zoom from their home in Southport, Merseyside, huddled up next to one another so they can both fit in the frame. There was an “instant spark” between the two of them, declares Kelly. “You fell dead in love straight away, didn’t you?” she teases her husband – she’s the feisty one, he’s more reserved. “Very deep down, I know there was something there,” admits Mike. “I think I was just scared to let it show.”
That mysterious phone photo is key to understanding Kelly: without it, you would never guess, neither from her exuberant personality nor her sporting prowess, that Kelly, 46, is almost completely blind and seven years ago had never regularly participated in any form of sport before, let alone running.
“I was heading towards being 40 at that point and I just wanted to get fitter,” explains Kelly, who excitedly announced their wedding on social media earlier this month. Kelly’s GP recommended that she attend a Parkrun – community fun runs of 5km – and introduced her to Mike Leatherbarrow, who had recently trained as a guide runner.
Mike, a 49-year-old IT salesman, says that as part of his training, he had to wear sight-loss simulation glasses to experience what it’s like to run with a guide. “Starting out, you tend to do non-stop description to explain what’s going on, if you’re running past a tree or stepping on to a path,” he explains.
He helped Kelly to navigate her first race, and they soon began competing together in Parkruns on a weekly basis. As time went on, he’d learn to think even more non-visually, describing the things Kelly could only hear, such as fountains, naming the voices of the bystanders shouting hello, and telling her about the fancy-dress costumes that would jolly up some of the routes. He’d also become mindful of runners close behind her, breathing down her neck (“I can’t stand it,” she says) – but would push her too.
“Sometimes guides can be quite tentative with you, whereas Mike is quite robust,” says Kelly. “If there’s an overhanging bush, Mike will be like, ‘Right, we’re running through rather than running around.’”
Eventually, what began as a running partnership blossomed into a relationship as the couple “fell madly in love over the miles”.
They have since run two London Marathons together, raising around £5,000 for The Salvation Army and guide dog charities in the process. Kelly loves running because it makes her feel “free”. “Sometimes when you’ve got a disability, people talk to you as if you’re a bit stupid. But I’ve always been brought up to think, ‘I may not be able to see, but it doesn’t matter.’ Mike understood that straight away.”
Kelly, who works as an engagement manager for the Thomas Pocklington Trust – a charity that supports blind and partially sighted people – was born with underdeveloped eyes, leaving her completely blind in her right eye and with just 2 per cent vision in her left.
As a result, she reads Braille and uses a long cane to get around. When it comes to sport, she says there was a dearth of options for her when she was growing up. “I was a bit disillusioned with it all,” she admits. “I tried joining a CrossFit gym as an adult, but I’d always be put to one side to keep me safe. I just didn’t feel like part of it, so I gave up in the end.”
Indeed, partially sighted people are twice as likely to be inactive as people without sight loss, according to research from the Royal National Institute for Blind People.
For Kelly, the very idea of running felt like an alien concept when she first turned up at Parkrun. “When you can’t see, you can’t look at other people and go, ‘I’ll run like that,’” she says.
She also felt uneasy about the prospect of jogging with a guide. “I wouldn’t normally trust someone easily enough to go running with them, but me and Mike just got on really well,” she says. “He was really patient and checked if I was OK when I was running – I didn’t feel under any pressure.”
In the early days, Kelly would hold Mike’s arm above the right elbow, allowing him to lead the way. Nowadays, he wears a baby-pink tether on his arm for her to grip. This gives her more freedom of movement and has the added benefit of matching her running outfit – ”very important”, explains Mike.
Although she walked for the majority of their first run together, the pair were soon bounding along and breaking personal records on a weekly basis. Kelly explains that their time spent running built up trust between them very quickly. “As we started running longer distances, we spent hours chatting to each other,” she says. “When you’re running those distances, you can cry, you can be happy and you can sometimes feel very angry.
“We got to know each other on a level that you probably wouldn’t so quickly in a normal relationship.”
Mike was inspired to take up running after volunteering at the London 2012 Paralympics and decided to become a guide runner in 2016. He had been taking part in the Parkrun at Southport’s Hesketh Park for seven months before Kelly joined.
Both of them have children from previous marriages: Mike has two grown-up daughters aged 29 and 26, while Kelly has a 17-year-old son called Olly, and neither considered that sweatily trundling around the park would be the place to meet their future spouse.
“When I went to Parkrun, I thought running 5km would be a miracle. I never dreamed I’d meet someone,” says Kelly.
“I thought I’d never meet anyone again,” adds Mike, nodding in agreement, “so it was a nice surprise.”
After the pair began running together on weekends, they gradually started spending more and more time together on the days in between.
“At first it was Parkruns, then we might go for breakfast together afterwards, and if I needed some new running trainers Mike would come and help me find some nice ones that coordinated with my running outfit,” says Kelly.
But it was not until two-and-a-half years later that they went from being running partners to romantic partners. “Eventually I got to the point where I decided that either we get together or I probably couldn’t be friends with him any more, so I just told him,” says Kelly. Fortunately, Mike agreed.
Far from being a hindrance to their relationship, Mike says Kelly’s blindness “has given me a lot more confidence and belief in myself”.
The pair own a bright-pink tandem bike for trips out cycling together and enjoy going on walks – though Kelly insists on standing on the opposite side of Mike for these. “I like to lead the way,” she quips. They also go rock climbing – which Kelly says involves feeling around for the holds while Mike barks instructions from below – while Mike helps out with her visually impaired baseball team (like regular baseball, but the batter hits the ball out of their own hand and the bases each emit a different noise).
“I love that because you get to run without holding on to anyone. You do crash a few times, but it’s good fun,” says Kelly.
When it comes to day-to-day life, there are practical tasks that Mike helps Kelly out with: inevitably, he does all the driving, and he’s upped his cleaning game. “He just can’t leave junk lying around the house because I’ll trip on it,” says Kelly.
But Kelly is largely self-sufficient, using talking appliances – including a microwave and scales – to help her navigate in the home. Mike’s most important duties, she assures me, are making sure her make-up is not smudged and that her outfits are colour-coordinated. “I’ve been well trained,” he chimes in.
Over the years at Parkrun, they have developed a “slick” operation, and Kelly now averages a speedy 22-and-a-half minutes for the 5km route. Her husband, who has run all six major world marathons, completed this year’s Tokyo event in 3 hours and 17 minutes.
The pair even scheduled their wedding on a Friday to ensure they could take part in Parkrun the next day. “I was a bit the worse for wear but it was brilliant – everyone lined up for us,” says Kelly. “If it wasn’t for Parkrun, I wouldn’t be doing any sport, we wouldn’t have met and we wouldn’t be married.
“I am always telling other visually impaired people to give it a go, even if they just walk it – just give it a try.”
So what’s next for the two of them? “I would like to run another marathon,” says Kelly. “We’re waiting to see if I get into the Berlin Marathon next September – the ballot is next month.” How about raising a family? “Oh my god, no, I’m too old,” cackles Kelly. “You agree, right?” Mike laughs, then agrees. Of course he does – on the track and off, this dynamic duo are entirely in sync.