'I Ran 22 Miles In A Mask To Show They Are Safe'

My enduring memories of the pandemic in 2020 will be centered around one thing: masks. They have been central to my work over the past five months— but I never expected that I would become a target for internet trolls after trying to prove how safe it is to wear a mask.

I am a doctor working in intensive care at Bradford Royal Infirmary, England, so in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak here I wanted to know how we could safely use and clean industrial masks on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to save on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

In the middle I was focused on using tight-fitting masks for breathing support to keep patients off ventilators. Now, as the first wave of the virus wanes in the U.K. the question has become—"how can we encourage the public use of face masks to keep the virus under control?"

Until the early phases of the pandemic I was also training as a triathlete—but as stress and clinical workload ramped up from February, this became increasingly difficult.

During March and April I worked long days every day as we prepared to hit the peak of COVID-19 cases. I only managed two days off during the period and the work was hard. I was stuck in PPE for long periods—though my nursing colleagues managed even longer—with a strange disease we still don't fully understand.

It was with disappointment, but not surprise, that I started to see the misinformation coming out.

I became more interested in epidemiology and public health, keen to understand what we could do to keep this virus under control. It's becoming clear that there is no "magic bullet"—we need to socially distance, wash hands, test, trace and isolate, and to wear masks. But as the evidence for masks has only become clearer more recently, it feels like just one more thing pushed onto a weary public desperate for everything to just go back to the way it was.

So it was with disappointment, but not surprise, that I started to see the misinformation coming out: masks are dangerous, they drop your oxygen levels, or claims they're part of a government control scheme. The final straw for me was seeing a post on Twitter "proving" with an oxygen sats meter that blood oxygen levels became low even sitting at a desk with a mask on.

I know masks can be uncomfortable when you're not used to them. They can provoke anxiety—even panic—and when you start to breathe fast they can make breathing feel harder and limit performance if you try to exercise hard.

Masks, Pandemic, Running, Coronavirus
Tom Lawton ran 22 miles in one day to prove that masks to not affect oxygen levels in the blood. Though his oxygen levels remained at 98 percent during his run, he says he received online abuse after his story went viral. Dr. Tom Lawton

But it upset me to see the mistruths, because masks aren't dangerous and won't limit oxygen. Though I understand it's difficult to appreciate that without the benefits of a sats meter. These are meters that measure oxygen saturation in the blood—getting a reading of 95 to 99 percent or more shows that the levels of oxygen in your blood are completely normal.

At a medium run pace I can use enough oxygen for at least ten resting people, so I thought showing this by running in a mask might reassure people—as well as being an excuse to start training again. Having seen reports of massive food bank usage in the pandemic I thought I should take the opportunity to raise some money for a good cause in case the run itself achieved nothing. As the U.K. guidance was for the public to use cloth masks, I decided on that and the run was set.

Early on Monday morning on July 20, I set out from home for the eight hilly miles to work. My sats meter reading remained stubbornly at 98 percent even after the first half hour when the combination of humidity and respiratory secretions transformed my mask into an unpleasant wet slap with each breath.

The few people out at that time clearly viewed me with some trepidation—was I a germaphobe, paranoid or one of the infected? I'm not sure whether the "nana's curtains" mask design helped clarify the issue either.

However I made it to the hospital in good time and spent the day on the wards. I had foolishly committed to running a half marathon on the way home if I reached my fundraising target of £500 ($645).

It had, but it was a sunny evening and this gave me the chance to run along the canal. The first part of the run now took me past quite a few shops, and I couldn't resist peeking in as I went past. I felt annoyed that I was outside in a mask despite probably minimal transmission outdoors, whereas I saw only one mask in my whole "survey". However, as I came onto the canal that annoyance vanished. I saw families out enjoying the sun, ducks paddling in the water, and rediscovered a love of running instantly.

The run finished uneventfully, with sats still at 98 percent on every check, and I made it home at a bit over 14 miles for some food and drink.

PPE, masks, Coronavirus, pandemic
Coronavirus, masks, COVID-19, Pandemic, running

Afterwards, a friend messaged me to let me know that the story had been shared on Facebook by LADbible, who have around 40million followers.

It was quite exciting initially. I was having my 15 minutes of internet fame and seeing genuine reach for the mask message—and it was entertaining to boot as some commenters suggested I had died after the run, that running doesn't need oxygen anyway, or that I was somehow getting oxygen from elsewhere.

Comments supporting me would often poke fun at the anti-maskers—my favourite one pointing out that the cartoon character Shredder fought four teenage mutant ninja turtles in a metal mask.

It's amazing how words on a screen can provoke exactly the same "fight or flight" response as a sabre tooth tiger growling at a caveman.

But as more stories about my run appeared on social media, the murkier side of the internet started to show. It was almost like a switch had been flicked—I was accused of being a government shill, deliberately using a substandard mask with breathing gaps, and it was said that I was not a doctor but a professional athlete brought in to encourage "compliance" from the public.

It's amazing how words on a screen can provoke exactly the same "fight or flight" response as a sabre tooth tiger growling at a caveman. As a straight white male I was woefully unprepared for online abuse. It has given me a new appreciation and respect for people—mostly women—who can't just rely on the mob moving on. I realize now that the only safe response is to walk away the moment your heart rate starts to rise.

On Friday morning, four days after my run, mask use in shops became English law. Having been the only masked person in my local shop the previous night it was with some nervousness that I walked in that morning.

But as I walked in, I could see the public were once again "doing their bit" against the virus. I was just one masked person in the distanced crowd, and happy to blend back into anonymity.

In the end, the story of COVID-19 is, for the most part, one of people working together and putting the needs of society and the most vulnerable above their own comforts and concerns. Despite the enormous changes people have been asked to make to their lives there is clearly still appetite to do the "right thing" where government advice is clear on the topic.

Masks play one small part of that—my mask protects you, your mask protects me—and if even one frightened person is reassured by my run, I will feel I have done my bit.

Tom Lawton is an intensive care doctor dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in Bradford, U.K. He lives in Bradford and is a keen triathlete. Tom is fundraising for The Trussell Trust, you can donate to his GoFundMe here.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.