I can’t believe last week marked week 7 of consistent running (I’m actually now almost through week 8 but more on that later…), after barely being able to walk to the end of my road without panicking during this pandemic, running this regularly seems like a massive achievement. Actually IT IS, sod this “seems like” nonsense. I’ve started to notice myself getting better at it too, as I told one of the run leaders at my running club, “I’m getting slowly faster,” “I like your phrasing”, he said. I’m definitely much fitter than I was a few weeks ago, but I’m also more motivated. Running has given me something to focus on, when everything else surrounding us is just exhausting. Week 7 work week ended in the most stressful way which is part of the reason I’m later then I would like writing this, for reasons I can’t go into here, but I wanted to cry and literally run away by last Friday, until I took myself out for a run. So I did literally run away for a moment. Running away from it all. I was very pleased I am a runner and could deal with my frustrations by pounding the pavements and listening to she’ll be coming round the mountain. I mean, it won’t do it every time I’m sure, but right now I feel like a boss. Young people I work with laughed when I told them I was singing along as I ran, I really didn’t care in that moment.
I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about what brought me to running, why I’m so determined to run this half marathon and how much raising money for Gateshead Youth Council means to me. There have been moments on runs recently when I literally can’t believe I’m doing it, putting one foot in front of the other, because there was once a time when I believed running, let alone running 13.1 miles, was impossible. There is still a tiny kernel in me (occasionally) still wondering if this is just a step too far. Is it just too much? Should I focus on something more achievable? I mostly tell that voice to bugger off these days. I don’t remember specifically the moment when I fell in love with running and came to the realisation that I could do it, but I do remember lots of tried and failed attempts at group or public exercise. Running that harped as far back as Y7 cross country and feeling lost but not really understanding why. Wanting to take up trampolining and being told by a PE teacher I’d be “better off” joining the club in the special school across the road. Never doing my DofE because the teachers who ran it made it as difficult as they could for me to access. I remember for years being terrified I was going to be ill if I ran, later realising this was anxiety, and that if I started to believe running was something I could do, it would begin to do the opposite. The turning point in my life has certainly been seeing other people, like me, enjoying running, who weren’t encouraged when they were younger. Think pieces about people who run a silly amount of marathons or hold a record for the fastest 5K, never do it for me. But pieces about people like me, or my friends, or anyone who’s ever conquered adversity to achieve something, do. I’m all for reading those kind of stories, because it makes what I’m trying to do feel normal. Not “inspirational”. I have never been that for anyone. My running club helps keep me going too, they help to make me and everyone else believe that anyone can be a runner. There isn’t an ability that isn’t catered for or type of person who is turned away, everyone is made to feel welcome. I’ve written before about my background in youth work, and why supporting young people matters. This run matters to me as much as starting ADHD medication next week. I need the dopamine, and I need to run. As a young person, I wanted to be listened to, for someone to look past my dyspraxia and (then) undiagnosed ADHD to encourage me to do things that at the time felt impossible. Gateshead Youth Council and more specifically the youth workers I met there who took me under their wing gave me that feeling of empowerment. A sense of belonging, that given the last year we’ve all had, matters to young people now more than ever. Just last week a young person I work with told me that some work I did with them during a social action project made them feel empowered, and that is all I ever wanted to achieve when I trained as a youth worker. I didn’t discover running until my 30’s, but meeting the youth workers at the youth council at a time in my life when I really needed someone to encourage me to just have a go, very much sent me down this path to conquering a half marathon.
Since qualifying as a youth worker in 2013, youth work has become more and more devalued, where underpaid positions are the norm and not the exception, and volunteers are used in the place of paid workers. We are in a world where our profession really isn’t being recognised for the lives it can change. During my MA, I had the pleasure of studying with a pretty musical bunch, and when we realised we had fiddlers, pianists, singers and guitarists between us, we wrote a campaigning song against the cuts to the youth services, as we saw so much provision we all treasured in a not too distant past as mostly women in our 20’s and 30’s at the time, being ripped away before our eyes. We were going into a profession with the feeling of being surrounded by politicians telling us that our jobs didn’t matter. What we were training for wasn’t important. And most devastating of all that the development of young people through lifelong relationships built through youth work wasn’t high on the political agenda. This was of course before more Tory years, before Corbyn tried to carve a better world, before Brexit and long before a pandemic became our reality.
I trained as a face to face worker, it’s what I’m good at. Talking to young people. Listening to their stories. And learning. Young people are constantly teaching me, and that’s what I love so much about my job. I am not the teacher, I am the facilitator. We studied group work, informal education and participation models. I had ingrained in me, long before that training, from my own youth workers at Gateshead Youth Council, about the importance of actually listening to young people and making them feel heard. Making their voice really count. I will always always remember the day when I told my youth worker I wanted to deliver a training session to the group of young people. Not a bizarre request, you say? It wouldn’t have been, if I wasn’t a shy, quiet teenager who was ridden with anxiety. I barely spoke a word because I didn’t believe I’d be listened to. No one had ever given me the time to actually be heard before. Not tokenistic listening, when organisations say they consult with young people to go through the motions. Actual listening. I didn’t know what that felt like. But that day I felt heard for the first time.
She didn’t know what to expect but there was no hesitation in those words. She knew I was worth more than just a chance. She saw something in me, no one else saw. I go into this in detail elsewhere but being labelled as SEN from a young age really doesn’t do wonders for your self esteem and believing you can do everyday normal things. The very things diagnostic reports or PIP assessments scream you won’t be able to achieve. Anyways, in this moment I was told I can. And that was all I really needed to hear.
Recently it was Mental Health Awareness Week. A day that will have struck a chord with many. And we will have many awareness days and campaigns in the future. All of these will matter to young people. Maybe not just on that specific day or week or month, but all of the time. Young people will want to feel listened to. Understood. Cared for. And acknowledged. Youth work training teaches the importance of having difficult conversations. Having that chat. Trying to “get it”. Does the young person in your life know they matter? You may not be a youth worker by profession, but you will likely know a young person, whether it is a relative or neighbour, who needs to hear that their views are worth listening to. Principles of participation teach us about allowing that space to explore and debate, eventually leading to youth led decision making, and gaining ownership of those decisions. At the heart of this model is listening. If we don’t feel heard it’s challenging making the decisions that matter.
If Covid-19 and this last year working in this profession has taught me anything, apart from not taking everyday things for granted, it’s that youth work is changing. The way we deliver work with young people may never be the same again. But youth workers are holding up the families who are struggling the most, while the rest of the world argue about wearing face masks or not being able to go on holiday. Youth workers are solving problems that are often hidden from view. While schools closed, we were all of the support some young people had. Since all of my work turned virtual, I have put young people forward to receive laptops so they actually have a fighting chance in our ever changing online world, I have found funding for bikes to enable young people to get outside in the fresh air that we know benefits mental health and I have become an immediate source of crisis support for struggling families. Panic buying made the challenges of those who already struggle to put food on the table increase ten fold. I’ve contacted organisations for emergency food parcels. I’ve made sure I check in with young people. I made it my priority to listen to how young people are feeling. I texted if video chat felt like a step too far. I was always there. When many organisations, schools and services closed their doors or were furloughed, we remained open and were able to react to anything that came our way. It wasn’t just me who did this, I work with a whole team of fabulous colleagues, some with backgrounds in youth work and social work. And I know up and down the country youth workers have done the same, recognising a crisis and responding to the ever changing needs. The pandemic wasn’t predictable, or the length of time we’d be shut away from the world unable to see our young people face to face, so life in a pandemic certainly isn’t. Youth workers who’s jobs were once being cut or told they’re not worth reasonable pay, have now become the back bone of society. We are the support young people need, at what is quite predictably the beginning of another mental health crisis.
As a young person who struggled with my mental health, and now as an adult who continues to do so, being involved in conversations about services I receive and knowing my views are important is where I have seen the most powerful change in myself, and in those around me too. If I can recreate at least half of that feeling for the young people I work with, I’ll know I’m well on the way to becoming the kind of youth worker, who changed my life fifteen years ago, by making me believe I can. The pandemic has changed most of our lives for good and shaped how we now view the world, but for youth work, this change is only just beginning.
Running GNR now feels more poignant than when I tentatively entered the ballot in 2019 before a pandemic was even here. I became a youth worker because I felt believed and listened to as a young person, so I’m now running for youth work as a profession, to demonstrate how valued we need to be, as well as raising money for the organisation who quite literally saved my life.
Week 7 of running started on Tuesday as I stood at the start line of another Red Kite Runners 5K. We ran a route I felt confident with and this time it didn’t rain, hurray! I was again in the middle of the group, running along feeling pleased to be there.
I’ve noticed myself getting faster and according to my FitBit this is represented in my pace. As I got to the hill, I saw one of the run leaders who had ran back to run with me, which was nice. As we ran I asked; “how can I get faster?” He told me about interval runs and speed sessions, when in theory you pick a spot, and then run as fast as is physically possible to that point, and then drop your pace again. I haven’t found a moment to try this yet, and I’m worried I’ll fall flat on my face, so it needs to be away from people, and ideally not pouring it down. Where I run there’s always dog walkers who get in the way. On the top path another local running club seemed to be doing some kind of speed session. They were running backwards and forwards at varying speeds, quite disorientating when I just wanted to run forward and away from them. They all looked like they knew what they were doing too. I stopped for a second and internally yelled at that voice, because there wasn’t any reason I didn’t know what I was doing. The conversation moved on, after we dodged the speed runners, and I said it helped to have a marker to run to, and I know my stamina is increasing if I pass so many trees, or lampposts, or a certain bench. Familiar routes also help. Knowing what’s coming next encourages me to push that bit harder. The talking helped, and I ended up running the fastest 5k I have in a while. The only time I’ve ran that specific route faster was on my Couch 2 5K race day when I was pumped full of adrenaline and people were at every corner cheering me on. I came home and rewarded myself with a massive helping of pasta. Pasta after a run is always a good move.
Since restrictions eased, and more people can now attend organised sessions, there have been more Kites coming back to club. This was the first time I’d seen a Thursday night full. It was lovely seeing more people there, it made me think that things are moving forward, but it also takes some getting used to. Running on your own or with a tiny group is very different to running on mass. That’s the bit of the GNR that worries me most, running in a crowd of runners, after avoiding people has become normal. We did our group warm up that felt like a work out on it’s own, and then set off. It was a relatively easy route but it did involve crossing a couple of roads, and at that time in the evening everyone is coming back from work. The road parts of this run don’t have many walkers on them, meaning I could really go for it and not worry about slowing down for anyone in my way. Once across the road it’s one straight road, until another road crossing and then joining the path and dog walkers again. As always I was in the middle of the group, but further towards the tail than to the front. I ran mostly on my own, which suits me. Sometimes it’s nice to have company, but other times I like space on a run to really reflect. I’ve been feeling more tired recently, and I’m not sure if it’s down to all of the exercise, a bit of stress at work, not eating as I should given the extra exercise, or a combination of the three. I know training makes you tired but I’d expect that three weeks before, not several months before a big race. I’m obeying my training plan to the letter, worried about changing things and losing motivation, although I’m sure if I sack off a run because of energy levels, to run another day, I’m pretty sure the sky won’t fall in. Finishing this run, I was pleased I got out, but equally couldn’t wait to go to bed that night. My new trainers have well and truly broken in and really make a difference now.
I spent most of Friday in hyper-focus and stressed over my increasing workload, in typical ADHD style I’ve tried to do too many things at once, realising it doesn’t exactly work. I often over compensate by taking less breaks than I should or working more hours than I’m contracted to. Friday was one of these days. If running isn’t the reason behind my tiredness, I think I’ve found the culprit. Since Friday I want to learn to listen to my body more and not feel like I need to be chained to my desk for hours on end, it’s not healthy, and won’t help me get through a half marathon, let alone anything else. Friday was supposed to be a rest day but after working an hour and a half more than I was supposed to, I ran 7K instead. And god, I really needed that run. Running was a really healthy alternative to launching my computer out of the window in frustration. I was tired but my legs kept on moving. As if they were saying, “It’s okay, we’ve got this, Alice.” Running gave me the energy I needed to function and switch off from work that evening. It was a really comfortable 7K. I’m proud I squeezed an extra run in that week. Saturday was a real rest day, and like Friday’s run, I really needed that too.
On Sunday, I got up for my weekend long run, my training plan said 6-7 but I did 10K. I’ve never ran 10K before, not running the whole thing. I’ve done plenty of 10K plus walks. I was so so proud of myself, and happy exhausted. My pace was improving, and I realised if I can do this and keep it up, I’ll get to half marathon standard, no bother. There was a bit of a slow start at the beginning as I negotiated hills. Once I was on the flat, I was away. Feeling like I could do anything. I got so excited around the 9K mark, that I missed a curb and sprained my ankle. It’s the kind of overexcitement I didn’t think existed. It does.
Paying attention to where you’re going is important. I hobbled briefly, and after realising there was no real damage, I ran the last bit home, determined to complete that distance. 10K wasn’t planned. My legs just kept on going, and I went with it. Some runs won’t be great, and others will feel the best. Sunday was a great day. I came home, and used my left over adrenaline in the kitchen baking a lemon cake for my sister coming home the following week. Tired and happy and smelling of lemons. What more could you want?
If you’ve got to the end of this slightly emotive, my hearts on a sleeve, reflections about why I became a runner in the first place. PLEASE consider sponsoring me. You’ll be helping me to raise money charity who got me here in the first place, alongside demonstrating how important and vital to young people youth work really is. And make all of the exhaustion feel worth it.
I apologise in advance to anyone who knows me personally if me banging on about running all of the time in the lead up to the GNR gets a bit annoying. I worry about being annoying a lot of the time, I hope I’m not. I’m just very bouncy about doing THE THING.