I’m a Running Researcher: Ben Powis and Jess Macbeth

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

Hello! I’m Ben Powis, course leader in Social Sciences at Solent University, Southampton.

Hi, I’m Jess Macbeth, senior lecturer and research degree tutor in the School of Sport & Health Sciences, University of Central Lancashire.

What is your background?

BP: My academic life began at the University of Brighton  – and continued there for almost a decade. Through BA, MA and PhD, my immersion in the Chelsea School’s critical sociology of sport shaped the academic I am today. I am a sociologist who researches disability sport and physical activity, with a specific focus upon visual impairment (VI). My PhD study examined the embodied experiences of elite VI cricket players, which I have since published as a monograph: Embodiment, Identity and Disability Sport.

JM: After completing my undergraduate degree in Economics with Sports Studies, I stayed at Stirling University to do my PhD on women’s football in Scotland. I then moved to UCLan where I teach the sociology of sport and physical education and supervise a number of postgraduate research students. Over the last few decades, my research has focused primarily on visually impaired people and their lived experiences of sport and physical activity.

How long have you been researching running?

BP: Not very long at all! My interest in running always revolved around getting fit for the cricket season: it was never an enjoyable activity, just a utilitarian practice. In the summer of 2018, my body – well, my back – had enough of cricket and I entered a prolonged retirement. My physiotherapist suggested running as a way of getting moving again after my back injury, and I haven’t looked back since. And, as I discuss below, it took a global pandemic to begin my running researcher journey.

JM: About as long as Ben! Running has featured in my life for as long as I can remember and I’ve always been interested in why people run recreationally. I doubt our first research project on running will be my last!

How did you get into researching running?

BP: In May 2020, Jess and I were interested in the impact of COVID-19 on exercise experiences of VI people in the UK and, building upon our own experiences of lockdown exercise, decided to focus our study upon outdoor VI runners. At the time, the UK’s deputy chief medical officer claimed that lockdown offered the public a great opportunity to get fit and find relief by jogging along the street. However, through our previous research and VI networks, we were aware that these ‘opportunities’ were not available to all.

JM: Our project emerged during a Teams meeting in the first lockdown. We were interested in running specifically because of our own experiences of adapting running practices in the context of Covid restrictions. We had read reports of the considerable challenges that the early months of the pandemic posed for VI people. It became clear to us that social distancing restrictions would have a significant impact on visually impaired runners, whether they run with guides or not, and this motivated us to explore their lived experiences.

What running research have you done?

BP: Our COVID-19 study is our only running research to date. Drawing upon the concepts of ableism and ocularcentrism, our study explored VI peoples’ lived experiences of outdoor running (or not) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eight VI runners participated in two semi-structured interviews during the pandemic. This longitudinal approach captured the impact of changing restrictions, personal circumstances, and seasons. Their running practices were shaped in complex and varied ways depending on impairment and impairment effects, local running environment, and support networks.

JM: Our first paper from this project – Navigating a Sighted World: Visually Impaired Runners’ experiences of the COVID-19 Pandemic (currently under review) – focuses specifically on VI runners’ lived experiences during COVID. In addition to this, we also used the interviews as an opportunity to explore the VI runners’: 1) experiences of becoming and being runners; and 2) sensory experiences of running both prior to and during the pandemic. We’re currently writing papers on these two themes.

How do you research running?

BP: As sociologists and qualitative researchers, we want our research to be a platform for marginalised voices. Our longitudinal, in-depth interviews provided a space for participants to discuss their lived experiences and share their running stories.

JM: We adopted a joint interviewing approach for this project and all of the interviews were conducted over Teams. The joint interviews enabled us to ask questions relating to our own specific interests and areas of expertise. This strategy provided a collaborative space to develop rapport with the participants and allow them to share their stories in a conversational way. COVID restrictions prevented us from researching ‘on the run’, but this is an approach we would be interested in developing in the future.

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

BP: For me, our participants’ discussions of their sensory experiences of running were fascinating. The sensorial and spatial agency of VI runners is a previously unexplored phenomenon. Being a blind or partially sighted runner does not equate with being passively dragged around a route by a guide, having superhero-like compensatory sensory skills or running without the use of vision. However, our participants do establish unique conceptions of running and ways of creating and negotiating running routes.

JM: The most interesting finding for me was how diverse our participants’ experiences were. For example, one participant went from being at the height of marathon training, to being afraid to leave the house for a run for several months. In contrast, another participant with severe sight loss who usually ran with a guide, taught herself to run an 8km route independently around her local park. Our longitudinal approach also gave us a fascinating insight into the impact of changing restrictions and changing seasons on our participants’ running practices throughout the pandemic.

Do you run?

BP: I try to run three times a week, although life can get in the way. I have recently started buggy running with my two-year-old son, which is fantastic fun. We mainly run to a local café and back, so everyone is a winner! My solo run on a Sunday morning is my favourite run of the week – it’s a great chance to plod along listening to a podcast and enjoy the coastal beauty of Bournemouth and the surrounding area.

JM: Since cross country on frosty autumn mornings at primary school, running has been a constant part of my life. That said, I’ve only ever been a very average recreational runner who has had phases of really being quite obsessed, and times when I’ve struggled to get out of the door! The meaning of running for me has morphed over time, and now I enjoy my solitary early morning run for different reasons to the regular social runs with female friends. I’m a member of a brilliantly supportive local online running group and I’ve also recently started guide running.

Where can I find out more?

You can follow us on Twitter – @DrBenPowis and @Macbeth_Jess – for updates on our running research.

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