by Deborah Collins
Last night, on a pretty grim, dark Wednesday October evening I joined a group of fabulous ladies for a 5k social run around Roath Park Lake. We waved farewell to the “hills” group and set off in biblical rain which didn’t let up the whole way, and in the latter stages were running in ankle deep water and the torrent of a river that Penylan Hill had become. We waded across a now completely flooded car park to do our cool down and paddled back to our cars, laughing and chatting happily despite being soaked to the skin.
Last Sunday at the age of 57¾, I completed the Swansea Bay Half Marathon. It was my first Half race and I was delighted to squeak in at just under two and a half hours. I shall long remember my name being cheered as fellow She Runners urged me on and celebrated with me as I rounded the the final corner.
The previous Friday I joined a very excited group of She Runners as we responded to a plea from the national treasure that is Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach (Swoon, Swoon!) to keep him company on his morning 5k around Cardiff Bay. We laughed and joked, took selfies and group photos with our hero and I carried on to run another 7 miles on a cloud and grinning from ear to ear.
Had you told me two years ago that I had written those three paragraphs I’d have split my sides laughing, before telling you to go and have a lie down and get a grip.
You see I wasn’t built to run. I couldn’t run. As a very keen gymnast in my youth (I had a hankering to be the Welsh Olga Korbut… the younger of you amongst us might need to google her!) but too many wonky, rather heavy landings and crashes off the beam left me with a rather grumpy right knee that simply wouldn’t have wanted to play ball. I wasn’t blessed with long, lean legs and could never have graced the pavements with the gazelle like running I had seen other women achieve… blimey, at times they even seemed to be enjoying themselves!
But life often throws curve balls, and after losing 3.5 stone and getting fitter at the gym through 2019, lockdown 1 suddenly left me working permanently from home and high and dry with the gyms closed. I was acutely aware of the need to stop myself sliding back down the slippery slope to being a sloth and simply had to find a Plan B.
Having worked previously in a public health environment I was aware of the “Couch to 5k” programme, so downloaded the app to my phone. The idea is that with coached running sessions you progress from very short walking and jogging intervals to running non stop for 30 minutes at the end of 9 weeks. How hard could that be? With no other flashes of inspiration on the horizon, I set off for my “Week 1, Run 1” session dressed head to toe in black (it makes you invisible you know) and headed for a lane on the outskirts of the village we live in. The grand plan was to complete the task out of sight and sound of any other human beings. Bad plan. The whole village was out, running, walking dogs or supervising children on scooters and bikes as they took their local daily exercise in compliance with the COVID regulations at the time. Epic fail. So I walked until there was a lull in the human traffic and hit “play” on the programme. My coach guided me through the first session, which left me gasping on a grass verge, wondering what would happen if my lungs burst in a country lane and turning a very strange and unflattering shade of vermillion. I wandered home feeling like a total failure; dejected, embarrassed and massively disappointed in myself, but strangely determined that this running lark would not defeat me. I simply had to make it past the “walk for 30 seconds, jog for 30 seconds” challenge or forever carry the shame!
9 weeks later a very different me, dressed in my new, coloured running gear, headed off to the far end of the village on my warm up walk. I hit “play” and 30 minutes later had run a shade under 5k across the beautiful Gwent Levels. More importantly I had graduated the programme, learned lots and been seriously bitten by the running bug. A week later I ran my 5k in 30 minutes for the first time and a few weeks later a Personal Best of 28 minutes 30. I had done it…. But I still couldn’t think of my self as a runner; I was somebody who jogged out of necessity to keep the weight off and to stay sane during lockdown.
My life had been pretty challenging during this time; my Husband was very ill and our lives had changed massively. I struggled to deal with his illness, disabilities and prognosis, but had found that running gave me headspace; an opportunity to have those serious conversations I had to have with myself at times and a new found appreciation of being out in the air, in nature and just focussing on me for a time. I felt like I was giving myself a gift by taking time out for me, to run, to listen to a podcast or music, to decompress and appreciate the precious opportunity to do so.
Regular runs followed, and I invested in my first very pretty pair of very pink running shoes. It felt like quite a lot of money for fancy daps, but the baggy t-shirts soon got swapped for vests and I was slowly acquiring a running wardrobe! By now I was mixing my runs with workouts in my garage with the lovely and aforementioned Joe Wicks and Zoom classes with one of the Personal Trainers from my gym. I was becoming fitter, stronger, more confident and found myself looking forward to my runs more and more. Not only was I seeing and feeling the physical benefit of running, but perhaps more importantly I felt more positive, energised, calmer and almost indestructible when those fabulous endorphins kicked in after a run. It was addictive, magical, and I was falling under it’s spell!
At around this time a former work colleague of mine suggested that I join She Runs: Cardiff. I had actually been secretly “stalking” the group for a while and was totally in awe of the achievements of this wonderfully diverse group of women; women of all abilities, shapes, sizes, ages and all with their own reasons for running. But running alone felt safe; I wasn’t accountable to anyone but me. If I wasn’t doing it quite right nobody would find out. The fact that we had to run alone at that time was my safety blanket, but in a rush of blood to the head one day, I finally hit the “join” button. I started posting nervously about my runs, successes and struggles and received such lovely feedback and responses that felt like a giant hug and immediately felt so welcome. I learned so much from other members. I was inspired by their running journeys and achievements, motivated by the challenges they set themselves or had overcome to run, and the loved the fun, friendly, non-competitive, non-judgemental nature of their group.
It’s difficult to explain the confidence that joining this community gave me. This once anonymity seeking jogger even ordered a She Runs T-shirt with her name emblazoned on it loud and proud, and somehow these women, none of whom I had ever met, helped me to start to believe and accept that I fitted in.
My 5k runs had progressed to 6 or 7 and once even 8k. An easing of restrictions even meant that I finally made it to the hallowed She Runs: Cardiff Turf and finally ran happy laps of Roath Park Lake! I began to wonder…. Could I? Should I? Might I actually be able to manage to hit the dizzy heights of a 10k? I figured that if I didn’t try I’d never know, so I took what felt like a massive step and signed up for the Virtual Cardiff Bay 10k, safe in the knowledge that as a virtual run I could run alone at a time when there were as few people around as possible to witness the attempt. On a very cold November morning at dark o’clock I set off from my office and headed through Bute Park before following the Taff to the Bay then out across the barrage and back before sprinting up the Oval Basin to finish with a flourish at the Wales Millennium Centre. The winds were biting, and having always wished I’d been blessed with cheekbones I now knew that I had them, as they hurt like crazy from the cold. But I had run 10k and thoroughly enjoyed every stride. I even managed a sort of “Rosie Jump” from a concrete bollard…. It was like a rite of passage and a very clumsy and totally inelegant celebration of what felt like an Olympian achievement.
Over the winter I continued to run alone, now confident enough to wave at other runners on laps around the lake and even recognising some of them from the group. One of the wonderful Run Buddies who lived fairly locally suggested that we might run together one day and I eagerly agreed, before crashing waves of nerves washed over me at the realisation of what I’d just committed to. I wasn’t ready to run with a real runner. I’d be found out as some kind of fraud. They’d realise I wasn’t doing it properly. Imposter syndrome hit me big time. However soon after I set off from home, my stomach literally doing triple somersaults and feeling sick with nerves to meet the lovely Ann Lawson-Jones nearby. My husband was undergoing surgery that morning and as soon as we set off, I started blabbering away ninety to the dozen, now realising how hard it was to run, breathe, talk and somehow manage not fall over my feet all at the same time. Ann was warm, patient, encouraging, friendly and frankly flipping wonderful. We discovered some uncanny similarities in our lives and I knew I’d found a very special friend. We ran a lovely 5k which whizzed by, said our farewells I headed home grinning from ear to ear. I had run with another human being and it been fine!
I still struggled massively with the idea of running with others and realised that lockdown and self isolating with my then shielding husband had made me quite socially anxious, something I’d never experienced before my husband’s illness and COVID. But I realised how I’d missed adult conversation, laughing and joking with others and sharing a love of running with kindred spirits.
As COVID regulations eased the She Runs social runs started up and I looked forward to my Sunday morning runs with “The Heath Park Posse”. The run buddies led a warm up and the run fitted everyone; quicker runners headed off on the lap and a half route whilst a fabulous “party at the back” was taking place for those enjoying a slower paced run. A warm down and chat rounded the session off perfectly and I so enjoyed meeting, running with chatting with my fellow She Runners. I’d blabber on nervously about heaven knows what at every run…. But nobody seemed to mind. Nobody seemed to find it strange or if they did they didn’t let it show. I felt I was amongst friends and that it was ok to simply be me. It was wonderful.
By now running had become such an important part of my life, and a part of me. It was a wonderful coping mechanisms and had opened up a completely new social network to me. I had started to feel like the “old” me. I got so much out of the group but also enjoyed and felt confident enough to post regularly on the forum and to “pay back” some of the support, motivation and encouragement I had received and been so grateful for.
And then the “moment of madness” as my dear Husband calls it happened. I finally felt I had the confidence to challenge myself with “real running” and real races. With a few swift clicks of the mouse I had entered the Severn Bridge 10k as a stepping stone to “The Main Event”…..the Cardiff Half Marathon in October 2021. I devised my bespoke 12 week training plan; blending a beginners intermediate plans I found online which suited me running 3 times a week; a fartlek/hill/intervals session for one, a longer run on a Friday and a recovery run at the Social Run on a Sunday, along with a cross training session once a week, which for me was a Spin class, a totally new experience I’d never had the confidence to try previously, and one I really enjoyed.
On a gorgeous August Bank Holiday Monday I and a fabulous group of She Runs members gathered at the event village for the Severn Bridge run, all nervous and most of us running our first “real” race. The buzz was incredible and I felt extremely emotional as we walked to the start together, supporting and willing each other on. The atmosphere was wonderful. The route was blooming hard. If anyone ever tells you the Severn Bridge is flat, it is absolutely, most definitely not. That long drag incline is never ending…. Then you run downhill and have to run back up it again, though I have to say, running on a closed motorway is pretty unique and very cool indeed! The sound of bagpipes played as we turned in England to run back into Wales and I had a moment of overwhelming pride and happy tears that simply would not stop and sheer joy at what I was doing. We all finished and had a celebratory photo and group hug. I was very happy indeed with my time but it wasn’t about time. I had crossed the finish line and run a real race. I will always remember sharing that experience with people I had never met before, but who like me had been a part of something pretty wonderful that morning.
This run was a big boost on my training plan and built my confidence hugely. I was running the Half Marathon for Team Alzheimer’s Society in honour of my dear Dad who has this cruel illness. Sadly, soon after the Cardiff event was postponed to March 2022, but undeterred and having raised almost £700 for the cause felt I was ready for the test and signed up for the Swansea Half Marathon which took place last weekend.
What a journey it’s been! There have been so many highs in the last 20 months; some fabulous challenges, treasure hunts, bingo cards to fill, the Kidney Wales relay, charity runs and distance challenges and medals. There have been tough times too; a knee injury from putting my foot in a rabbit hole on a walk which kept me out for 5 weeks in March, more health challenges and hospitalisations for Hubby and difficult news about about his prognosis. But sitting here today writing this blog I can honestly say it’s been fabulous. I have so many people in the group to thank for that; too many to mention by name but all deserving of a huge and heartfelt “Thank You”. I’m so incredibly proud to be a member of this wonderful community and so thankful for the positive impact it’s had on me and my life. I’m a happier, healthier, more fulfilled person with a more positive outlook and an energy and zest for life that I had feared I had lost forever.
So where might will the journey take me next? Well I’m signed up for the Pudding Run at Merthyr Mawr in December… a 10k run for which I have promised to try to overcome my “issues” with fancy dress… then the rearranged Cardiff Half in March and hopefully another half and a perhaps a bit of trail running in between. The RIDUM Ultra Marathon in September sparked an interest that is gnawing away in me, but I think helping at our awesome checkpoints might have to be as far as that whacky plan goes! Registration for next year’s Swansea Half has opened today…. and it looks like I have a hot date on my wedding anniversary on 12 June 2022 …..just don’t tell my husband!
I hope to be able to continue to contribute to the group by posting and taking part in our runs and challenges, and to return some of the support, love and “purple power” that I have enjoyed to others, wherever they are on their running journey.
So, that’s my story so far…. From slouch to 5k, 10k, a Half Marathon and hopefully to infinity and beyond! If you made it to this far, thank you for sticking with me. If you’re dithering about joining us I hope I’ve given you a gentle nudge in the right direction. If my experience encourages just one person to come along to a social run, to join me for a run one day or to sign up for their first challenge or race then that would be simply wonderful; I hope you enjoy your journey with this wonderful group of women as much as I have.
Thank you She Runs: Cardiff for carrying me along with you on such a wonderful wave of, friendship, fun and support in running and in life. I’m hugely proud to be a part of this fabulous community of women supporting women; for the love of running.
My name is Deborah… and I am a runner!