I didn’t know I could ever be a runner. I didn’t think I had it in me or even looked like one. What do runners even look like? Images of the Harriers and elite runners finishing the Blaydon Races danced through my head. I’ve watched at least one running event a year, there’s a big famous one that goes through my town. We even have a song to go with it; “Gannin alang the Scotswood Road…” Yes, you know the one. And I concluded that the people I saw there, on exactly the 9th of June, weren’t and would never be me.
This year, after running regularly for just over a year, but no more than 5K’s I should add, I decided to enter the ballot for The Great North Run. One of the most famous half marathons. I got a place. At the age of 30 I took up running after years of avoiding sport and exercise as much as I could, and now I have to run all 13.1 miles of a half marathon in September. To begin to prepare and scare myself, I’ve looked up training plans, researched what I should and shouldn’t eat (being a vegetarian, my diet is apparently pretty good for a runner) and talked to friends who’ve ran this distance and further. To find out about something, I’ve always read the bones off it and really researched the new thing before actually doing it. This morning I’ve been reading about all of the varieties of sports bras one can possibly own before concluding that mine is probably adequate. A good friend recommended that I read “Running like a girl” by Alexandra Heminsley, and I absolutely devoured it, reading it in a day. It’s a cross between an advice book going through everything you need to know about running, from getting assessed for trainers and what sports bras to buy, how to deal with injury to an exploration into her own personal journey of running, as someone who like me, didn’t see she could be a runner too. I’d go as far as saying that this book completely changed my outlook on running. It made me cry, smile and nod along empathetically all at once. I’d totally recommend it to anyone who’s in a similar “What am I meant to do now?” situation, and questioning if there are runners like you. I’ve also recently started a full time job, so weaving in running and eventually half marathon training into my working day is going to be especially tricky, but something I’m sure many other people do, and I can get my head around too.
Friends have asked if I’m raising money for a charity, and I’ve wondered if this ballot place should be to support a charity, or just for me to achieve something massive. I don’t know if I’ve got it in me to handle the pressure of fundraising, full time work and training, but I’ve gone for the former and decided I’m going to give it all a go. There’s a lot of charities that mean the world to me, from youth charities, mental health charities, dyspraxia related causes, music education charities and due to recent family circumstances heart charities. I have decided after considering all of the wonderful organisations who really do deserve funds, that this place needs to support the work of Gateshead Youth Council, a local organisation who support young people to have a voice, get involved in decision making and understand their rights and the rights of others. Values that have stayed with me into adulthood. I was at age 14, a painfully shy girl, who was at the time in denial of a dyspraxia diagnosis I’d had at age 8 and certain I couldn’t fit in anywhere. I tried to get people to like me, I wrote to the headteacher complaining about litter that eventually lead to setting up an environmental club at school in the hope I’d find my people, but this fizzled out as people didn’t seem as keen as me and I worked hard to organise a ceilidh for the schools charity week, again my people were there but they were certainly the minority. I then heard a message in the school bulletin one morning asking for people to put themselves forward for a “Gateshead Youth Assembly” election. This is something I can do, I thought. I’d always been good at writing, and had no problem writing a speech about why everyone should vote for me. To a school community who I knew thought I was odd and didn’t understand me, or my awkwardness and concluded that my uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses was some kind of threat. I wrote the speech. I talked about wanting to listen to others. I talked about being able to listen. I mentioned my desire to make a difference in the world. All very hippy middle class girl stuff, that made me stand out even more than I did already. I still don’t know, why as the shy girl, I decided to put myself out there. Was it a bid to be liked? Was I beginning to accept that I was different and trying to tell the world? or was I just not thinking straight? Whatever it was, it worked and I was elected to represent my school on Gateshead Youth Assembly, which is where I stayed until I was 18.
The Youth Assembly is facilitated by the umbrella organisation Gateshead Youth Council, who at the time ran all sorts of projects, from the members action course, an online magazine and funding committees, alongside the youth assembly. They all took place under the same roof, and occasionally in the council chambers once a month. To begin with I went along once a month for full youth assembly meetings, where we discussed issues affecting young people and consulted with people in positions of power, we had a very good relationship with local councillors and MP’s, many of them knowing us by name. Eventually I was at the Youth Council three or four times a week after school, taking part in other projects they had there, and joined the editorial team of their online magazine, where I really explored my flair for writing. My confidence soared and I felt like I’d found a second home, as I went through school dramas, exam stress and eventually mental health difficulties they were always there. I was listened to, and never told I couldn’t or that something was beyond me. When I was 16 I won an essay competition to travel to Slovakia (with my very understanding youth worker I should add) with local councillors to attend a conference to develop a European wide approach to quality youth work. We met young people from France, Germany, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Italy, young people coming together to make a difference. It was hard. I had an anxiety attack on the first night and wanted to go home on the second when I discovered that vegetarianism is non existent over there, I’ll always remember: “She’s vegetarian” … “But can she have chicken?” But my youth worker was good with me and earned more than her pay that week! By the end of the week I was performing on stage with the most famous Romany Folk band in the Czech Republic. The quiet girl? Not anymore.
I’ve decided to run the Great North Run for Gateshead Youth Council because they gave me a chance when few people would, a place to belong and made me feel accepted for being Alice. The opportunities; attending a Downing Street reception, Slovakia, being sent up into the air in a glider, speaking at and leading conferences and giving me someone I could ring when it all felt like it was all going wrong. And it did several times, I wasn’t always the easiest teenager to support. I nominated my youth worker of the time, Valerie, for a National Diversity Award a few years ago, and she made the shortlist. I wrote that nomination for similar reasons I’m running this half marathon, to give her and the Youth Council recognition for the work they do and the impact they make to young peoples lives. Reaching the shortlist for such a prestigious award says it all. Running isn’t a natural thing to make my body do, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m dyspraxic and with a statement for special educational needs to boot, wasn’t given the opportunity to have a go. I remember PE lessons being a form of ridicule, I wished I could find a way not to be noticed, as I tried to take a serve in badminton or stay in the middle of the little X during trampolining. I was naturally tall and athletic looking for a netball player, but in practice this didn’t amount to much. My school was a sports college, so celebrated sports like most schools do, but gave little attention to those of us who probably wanted to have a go, but didn’t realise it yet or have anyone to tell us we could. “If I run it’ll make me ill” I said, which I now realise was an anxiety reaction to something I found frustrating and difficult.
I’m not just running as a thanks to what I achieved because of and sometimes entirely down to Gateshead Youth Council, but also for all of the young people in Gateshead, the North East and beyond, to demonstrate that youth services really really do matter and change peoples lives. In recent years we’ve experienced huge cuts to services for young people, and the North East has been significantly affected, the Youth Council has drastically decreased in size, and many other services I knew growing up are now non-existent. Places to go, things to do and people to tell a young person on a bad day that “they’re doing alright really” are disappearing. And this austerity and destroying services we all loved so much growing up is set to continue. I trained as a youth worker to have an impact on young peoples lives just as my youth workers did for me, to listen and try to understand. Yet now, I wouldn’t advise new graduates to go into youth work, simply because there isn’t the jobs to go to. It’s especially difficult if you add in the ingredient of being neurodivese. And years on sessional contracts isn’t great for mental health and continuity for young people you work with. I know, I’ve been there.
This run is going to be tough. I joined a running club almost a year ago, completing their couch to 5k programme and being awarded an “inspirational female runner” award at their recent award ceremony. So I know, I have something in me to do it. I have the emotional reasons to run and maybe more ability than I first realised. My next plan is my running clubs annual 10K race in April, that I hope will ease me in gently, and give me something realistic to aim for. Joining a running club has completely changed my outlook on running, and gave me a group of people who ask where you are if you don’t turn up to a Sunday morning run, or indeed a club award ceremony where you’ve won a bloody award. They made me realise that anyone can run if you want to, it’s not about the time or being the fastest, it’s about completing the distance. Words that I’m sure will stick with me as I drag myself around the Great North Run, and consider giving up when I see the beer tent at mile 10.
If you’d like to support me to achieve this goal and say thank you to Gateshead Youth Council in the most emotive way I know possible, you can do some of the following:
- It would mean the world to me if you could consider sponsoring me here, I struggled deciding on a target, but concluded that anything is better than the lack of recognition youth services are getting at the moment. If you’re unable to, please do share the sponsor page and my story with people who can. I’d love to be able to fund a residential for the young people or something equally memorable, similar to the opportunities I had as a teenager that are now hard to come by these days.
- If you run or do run, this distance or more, any tips you can pass on I’d really appreciate. There’s so much information floating around on the internet, that can at times be overwhelming and sometimes it’s better talking to actual people who’ve been there.
- I need to make a running playlist, and I need your suggestions to make this the best thing to run to.
- And finally if you know (and like) me, a gentle nudge to remind me to keep up with the training or to look after myself, as I have a tendency to get absorbed into things would be useful. And anything you can think of to encourage me to keep going will be very very helpful indeed.
- And if you’d like to be there on the day on September 13th 2020, we can certainly talk about that.
I’m very excited but extremely terrified too. This couldn’t be anymore poignant; being able to run a half marathon in my home region, and doing it for a local charity who did so much for me when I was growing up. They allowed me to learn that “I can” just as much as the next person. And now I want to show todays young people that they can too.
Do consider sponsoring me.