As we start a new decade I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to reflect on our amazing running group here in Tunbridge Wells and how it's changed over the years… and most importantly what people love about us and why you should give us a try this new year.
I keep track of how long we’ve been going by the age of my youngest son. He's now 17, and I started Sarah's Runners when he was 1, which means I’ve been running the group for 16 years. To begin with it was just me and a helpful friend and a handful of runners. Over the years we have grown to the point where I now have an amazing team of 15 qualified and loyal running coaches and buddies who help out and provide support and encouragement. One night in the summer a few years ago we had over 75 runners turn up! Regular numbers are somewhere between 20-35 per session. Which week-after-week for 16 years is something I’m incredibly proud of.
In that time we have had thousands of runners come through the group… it’s hard to keep track as we operate as a drop in. Some super loyal runners keep coming for years and years… others come for a while and we then see them out running alone or with a friend, which is brilliant and exactly what we want to see. It’s what we’re all about. Get people on the right track, teach them to run and how to love it.. and then set them free. There’s never an obligation to run with us forever. Others come for a bit, go away for a bit, then come back again. And I love those people too. It means they don’t feel judged and they feel confident enough to return when the time is right for them.
Sarah’s Runners really is for anyone and everyone and can be anything you want it to be. The flexible structure means people can drop in and out to suit them and there’s never any pressure. We keep the price low at £3 per session and run it as a 'non-profit' community group. Any profits go back into first aid training, kit, equipment and coach training.
But my enthusiasm and passion for what we do hasn't changed in all that time. If anything my mission is stronger than ever.
I now have a really clear vision of who we are, what we offer and why we exist. It’s hard to explain sometimes, but what we do is so very very different to the general ‘running culture’ and more traditional running clubs.
As one of our new runners recently put it ‘Coming to Sarah’s Runners is like going for a coffee, cake and chat with your friends, but without the coffee and cake’. And that’s exactly what we do. We create an amazingly unique environment where people make friends, run, jog, walk and learn how to run for life. In reality, the ‘running’ bit is only part of what we do. I’m hugely passionate about running being something that is comfortable, enjoyable and pleasurable. If it’s hard, you’re out of breath or struggling, you’re going too fast. It doesn't need to be like that.
I’ve been involved in running my entire life and I’ve seen it change hugely. And not necessarily for the better. Social media, GPS watches, online route tracking and sharing have turned running into something which is super-competitive and pressurised. And whilst on one hand it can be motivating, there’s always a feeling of not quite being fast enough or doing enough. And it’s incredibly confusing too. Forums and chatrooms now mean that everyone and anyone has an opinion and a piece of advice, and rarely is it backed up by a qualification or evidence.
I fundamentally believe that we need a different relationship with running. One where we take the pressure off and turn running into something that people do for health, enjoyment and mental well-being. Who says we always need to be making progress? Getting faster and fitter? There’s nothing wrong with running once or twice a week, doing the same distance and same pace (and not even timing yourself!) and being happy, healthy and enjoying it. Be clear about WHY you run, what you get from it and you can shut out the noise.
My mission is that running becomes something that you look forward to doing, where you can’t wait to get your trainers on, where you don’t compare yourself to anyone else, or have unrealistic expectations which you never quite achieve. Sure we occasionally take part in an event or a race, but there's never any competition between us and the focus is always on having fun, having an experience and usually having fish and chips or cake afterwards!
In the bigger scheme of things, running has so much more to offer than the obvious benefits of getting fit.
When you start to run you realise you can do so much more than you thought. That builds confidence and not just in your ability to run, your ability to overcome difficulties and challenges and learn that you can do things you set your mind to. That starts to build self-esteem, self-efficacy and belief in yourself, and that in turn helps your mental well-being and confidence. People often come to us when they’re struggling with bereavement, emotional difficulties, depression, anxiety, health problems and medical conditions and everyone is welcomed and supported.
Somehow, without even trying we have created a group which provides mental health support without intention. Some of our most amazing successes have come from people who are deeply depressed, even suicidal, going through such major trauma it brings the coaches to tears. Yet somehow the power of running, and doing it with such caring kind people, helps them overcome their challenges and provide support in the most unexpected way.
Helen's story (which was featured on BBC Radio 4) always brings me to tears. She is one of the most incredible people I've ever met and I'm so glad we were able to help her when she needed it the most. Her experience cemented our ethos and, for me, is the reason why I set up the group and turn out to coach week after week for 16 years.
The environment in which you run (and the coaching you receive) is hugely important and can make or break your relationship with running. We believe in ‘runner led’ coaching, in that we don’t set a script or plan, but instead gently guide you allowing you to work out what feels right for you. There’s a fine balance between providing structured coaching where you feel like you’re making progress, but not being pushed too hard and feel like you can’t keep up. Coaching like that is a dark art and we are very lucky to have an amazing team that share the same principles. What this does is helps build confidence from the inside out. It might take longer, but who cares? Who needs the pressure of having to reach a running target each week, on top of an already stressful life?
For that reason we don’t do weekly programmes or specific ‘couch to 5km’ plans. It’s very much a ‘week to week’ thing where we work with you, and see how you feel that particular day. I’m not a huge fan of ‘coach to 5km’.. I prefer to just call it ‘get started and let’s see where we get to’ plan. There shouldn't be a time frame, everyone is different.
We have a very strong non-competitive environment where there really is no pressure. People who join us always worry about ‘keeping up’. But honestly I can’t stress enough how this isn’t the case. As coaches and buddies, we run with you at your pace. The word ‘slow’ is banned and no-one gets left behind. The focus is never on times, performance or achievement. It's on health, happiness and well-being, making friends and having a chat.
We know how hard it is to make the first step into the group for the very first time, but once you’re through the door you can be sure of the most warm and friendly welcome. We pride ourselves on teaching you how to pace yourself, progress safely and reduce your risk of injuries. And most importantly learn to love running in a way you never thought you could. :-)
Come and join us this year and we’ll teach you a thing or two about running 😊