By Jilly Walstow
My name is Jilly aka Mamma Strider. I set up a women’s running group in Hebden Bridge just over 4 years ago, I had a year where every ultra marathon I entered resulted in a 'Did Not Finish' (DNF) and I was left feeling despondent. I needed to do something - what if I couldn’t run anymore? Maybe encouraging others would be enough…
Below are the stories of 5 inspirational women I have met in the last 4 years. They span 5 decades, yet they run together every week, and they have given me so much more than they could ever know!!
"That was my sisters 'thing'. I was 'the smart one' who read books - if ready books was a sport, I would have been team captain. When I was in school, I hated sports, of any kind. I danced but I didn't consider it a sport. When I left school, my mum took up running and for years people would ask "do you run like your mum?" I would just laugh and say "not a chance!"
We had my sister, the dancer, my brother, the aspiring football player, my mum, the ultramarathoner, and me - once accused of stealing a merit sticker for PE because I was that bad at it. If I could have failed PE I would have.
Then two years ago, right before the pandemic hit, my mum convinced me to go to her new running group for beginners. I tried to get out of it pretty much every week but I went, and I kept going. Then one day I ran 5k without stopping, but I still didn't consider myself a 'runner', and I still laughed when people asked if I was like my mum.
Then the pandemic hit, and I didn't have to run any more - it was like PE was cancelled indefinitely. Until I really couldn't stand being alone at home much more, and finally we were allowed to run again. The club needed my academic, administrative brain power to organise smaller groups of runners, then to organise an entire class of Couch to 5k runners. I was getting more involved, I was even making friends, and ultimately I was running more. Then one day I said, "I didn't hate that".
Somewhere along the way I became 'Admin Strider'. I signed up for races, put together events, and my weekly mileage was creeping up and up until in January 2022 I took on 'Run Every Day' and signed up for my first marathon. At the end of February 2022, I was top of the club leaderboard for mileage - I had hit distance goals in two months that it had taken me six months to reach last year, and suddenly I also had twice as many trainers.
I might even be a runner now."
"The second time I went to a St. Pol Striders run for Couch to 5k, I cried. I ugly cried, whilst running, my face was as pink as the pink hi-vis top I was wearing. I thought, as I gasped desperately for oxygen between sobs, that 'this was for beginners!'
Like a lot of people, I gained some weight over lockdown. I was just a few pounds from being morbidly obese. That second run in August 2021 was the turning point, and I remember thinking it shuffling along Birchcliffe Road. I was either going to make some serious changes, or feel defeated forever.
Jilly stayed at the back with me far behind everyone else, for that run, and for so many others. I swore a lot, mentally - not out loud though, I didn't have the breath to spare.
By November 2021, I had completed Couch to 5k, and they gave me a medal!
With St. Pol Striders, a great gym and some dietary changes, I've now lost over 20kg / 3 stone, and I'm just a few pounds away from being a healthy BMI. Weight is by no means the only measure of health. I have more energy, focus, fitness, and a community of supportive women to cheer me on every step of the way. What I've lost is nothing compared to what I've gained."
" 4th Jan 2021: I had a decision to make. Do I spend lockdown in Scotland where I work as a mental health nurse/CBT therapist in the RAF, or do I work from the home I bought in Mytholmroyd in 2015. I chose the latter, accepting that I could be isolated but taking the chance to live at home for a time. I spotted St. Pols Striders on Facebook, already a runner, I contacted Jully and she offered me the lifeline of taking on three couch to 5k-ers. These weekly jaunts out kept me going through the winter months. I also entered the WhatsApp group of estabilshed runners - this was a funny place to be. I was totally anonymous, in an already established group. These women were an amazing support to each other, I didn't know any of them. On reflection, I was trying too hard to join in and be liked, that I may have been a little too much.
1st Feb 2021: My 40th birthday. Looking back this was a miserable day. I received bunch after bunch of flowers, but no human contact, and I was really starting to struggle now.
24th Apr 2021: Jilly's Calderdale Way. I was due to meet the pack mid-afternoon at Withins Reservoir. Luckily for me, meet time was later than planned because I couldn't get myself off the bathroom floor. Wrapped in a blanket, crying for no idea why. Ruminating on my uselessness, and zapped of energy, I received a message that they were on their way! Thankfully, I pulled on my kit and went. That afternoon Killy completed the most amazing feat, but she also brought with her a gang of exceptional women. Whilst running from Stoodley to Todmorden, I broke through the shame of being a depressed therapist for the first time. I confided in a stranger that thought I might be struggling.
Since that day I've made new friends, shared my first belly laugh in a while, and talked about my future. I came to realise that if I hadn't worked away so much, I could have had this life sooner.
1st Feb 2022: My 41st birthday. I handed in my notice to the RAF and on my 42nd birthday I will be a veteran. I know I'm in the majority when I say I struggled through lockdown, and I'm so grateful for those that I ran, confessed, laughed, and achieved with last year.
For some people St. Pols gets them running, but for me, St. Pols got me moving forward."
"It's 10 years since I started running. It was the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics, and everyone seemed to be out on the road. My friend and I would meet up after the school drop off on a Friday morning to do some form of exercise, but we soon found that the running beat everything because we could talk, laugh, and let off some steam at the same time. I ran my first Colour Run 5km in Sunderland with my children in July 2014.
Later that year, we moved to Johannesburg in South Africa, and although there was much to love about South Africa, there were many challenges that came with moving to a new country, both for my children and for my husband and I. My visa status didn't allow me to work, and since I was a 'stay-at-home' mom, I needed a way to make friends and create a life for myself.
I started to run in my local area and came across a women-only gym a few blocks away - it was a Curves franchise that was owned by South Africa's first female Navy diver, Nicky Segar. Nicky was a triathlete and had completed several Iron Man competitions, and was passionate about women's health, and engaging them with exercise in a way that wasn't just about weight loss. She was inspiring and challenging in equal measure, and for the first time exercise wasn't just something to be endured - it was FUN! I embraced it and used it to get through the stressful school run. Through Curves, I was introduced to Parkrun for the first time, and having met members of a local running/walking group, I started training with them.
Suddenly, I had a structure to my day and although this group was a mixed group, it was led by a woman and most of the group were women - of all ages and sizes. Running with other women was a revelation - I had never seen myself as an athlete before, never seen myself as 'fast enough, strong enough, good enough' to even take part, but being trained by and with other women was a real inspiration. It seemed possible that I can run further than I'd ever thought, and I discovered a competitive spirit that I hadn't had before, which was positively encouraged, in fact it was considered normal. I began to see myself as a runner.
It was my intention to be fitter in my 50s than I had been in my 30s, and being alongside others who were encouraging and supportive, this gradually became a reality.
When we returned to the UK in 2017, we moved to Todmorden. I really wanted to keep running, and I joined Tod Harriers Pack Runs on a Wednesday night. In late 2018, we moved to Hebden Bridge, I came across Hebden Ladies (St. Pols Striders) on Facebook. They described themselves as a small friendly group which met on Thursday nights. Thursday's quickly became my sanity saver, my new tribe and trail running became my new challenge. There were more challenges for my children returning to the UK than there had been in South Africa, and I would regularly pour my heart out and let off steam on our weekly trail runs.
Before the pandemic in March 2020, I hurt my hip and have only recently been able to run again, but the group developments since then have really been key in getting me through the different lockdowns.
In November 2021, I went back to the beginning and began Couch to 5k again, and even though I run alone, I keep in touch with the WhatsApp groups and I know there will always be a space for me when I'm ready to run with the group again.
When I reflect on my running journey of the last 7 years, I am hugely grateful of the groups I have been a part of, and the women who lead them. Women's running groups work because, at their heart, there is one visionary woman with a passion, willing to share her time, her expertise, her commitment, her energy , and who realised her own power and used it to inspire others alongside her.
Thanks to Nicky and Jilly for making the impossible seem possible, and for bringing us together."
"I never did any running when I was young, now even at school. I played netball, went to aerobics classes, and also did activities like aqua aerobics and yoga, but it never occurred to me to try running.
About 10 years ago I did start doing very occasional short runs on my own, but what really got me started was when I was asked to take part in a 10k run to raise money for Cancer research in memory of my cousin's wife. I managed to complete the run - it was in London, so no hills, which really helped. Even though I was slow, there were still other people who were slower, which encouraged me to keep going.
Soon after that I saw something on the local Facebook page about a running group for women, and I decided to give it a try. I turned up expecting to be running around the streets of Hebden Bridge, only to find out that the first run was from Hebden to Stoodley Pick - and back!! I managed this (with a LOT of walking included), and started attending the group. The group has grown massively since then and there is now a very successful couch to 5k group for beginners.
I still have a very stop/start relationship with running. At the beginning of lockdown, I ran nearly every day before work, and my aim is to get back to that. I can honestly say that I always feel better after I've been for a run (that's after the run, not necessarily during the run). I'm definitely not fast and I can't run long distances, but I think people of all ages and fitness levels can benefit from running, both physically and mentally.
One of the things I've been doing to try to motivate myself to run is to take part in virtual challenge, where you can upload the miles that you've run/walked and they are plotted on a map - so far I've gone from Lands End to John O'Groats and back, and now I'm part way round the South West Coast Path.
The Strider's running group is very inclusive - there are people who run 100 mile races, and there are people more like me - I move from the middle group back and forwards to the beginners group depending on how fit I'm feeling. I'm also very much a fair-weather runner, and find it hard to motivate myself to run when the weather is bad. This doesn't matter - running and the running group isn't just for people who want to run marathons or are happy to run in freezing temperatures/rain etc. It's for everyone who wants to just get out there and run.
Someone did say to me that you never regret going for a run, but you can often regret NOT trying to go for a run, and that is so true."