Working mothers and runners in Teddington (© Mara Yamauchi)
Teddington in south-west London is known as a Mecca for elite distance runners. During the summer months, world-class athletes from Kenya, Australia, the USA and elsewhere can be spotted training in Bushy and Richmond Parks, in between forays to Europe for Diamond League and other competitions. St Mary’s University has a rich history of developing talent and producing top endurance athletes.
But Teddington is also a hotbed of recreational runners who are the very backbone of our sport. Wherever you go in Teddington, you will see people running. The wonderful green spaces and Thames River path attract thousands of unsung heroes of distance running. Before its suspension due to the pandemic, Bushy Park’s parkrun – the very first – attracted over a thousand runners every Saturday.
In one quiet, residential street in Teddington, is a thriving community of women who run. Despite working demanding jobs, raising children, running homes, and dealing with all the challenges that daily life throws at them, these women somehow find the time to run regularly. Having been a full-time athlete with plenty of time to rest, I am frequently in awe of their dedication to running, and the wonderful support and camaraderie they give each other. They are examples of women all over the world who are the bedrock of families and community life…but who also challenge themselves to achieve something special. To celebrate these women during this week of International Women’s Day, I spoke to some of them to discover what running means to them, and why they run.
The mother of one of the youngest residents on the street, six-month old Freddie, is Harriet Excell, who started running to save time on commuting. While working in Westminster, in central London, she took up running after growing frustrated by long waits for buses on her way to and from the office. Now, Harriet is returning to running after giving birth to Freddie, and loves to run because it helps to “clear your head” – a common theme which came up several times. She is now in line to inherit a running buggy from a neighbour, so Freddie may soon be joining her on runs around Bushy Park.
Next-door neighbours Sam Carter and Raffaella Parmeggiani, affectionately known as Raffi, like to run together. Sam’s dog, Cleo, loves to be in on the action so she comes along too. Sam took up running when getting to the gym after her return to work became too difficult. She loves the flexibility running provides, and has completed over 100 parkruns. Raffi, who restores art for a living, says Sam is faster and “pulls her along”. But Raffi isn’t afraid of longer distances, and persuaded Sam to enter a 10km. “I always feel good after a run”, says Raffi. There’s definitely a sense with these two running buddies of friendly rivalry and pushing each other into tougher challenges.
Laura Higgins claims not to be a “natural runner” but is super active and loves sprinting, tennis, swimming, yoga and classes at the gym. When all indoor sport disappeared in lockdown, she ran more, even though she does not particularly enjoy it.
“I need to be active for my mental and physical health…I just love being out in the fresh air, in nature, seeing the trees and deer in the park,” says Laura. “If I didn’t run, I would just be at home for another half an hour, doing chores like hanging up the laundry.”
During the first lockdown, Laura was tagged by a friend to take on the “Run 5, donate 5” challenge, to raise money for the National Health Service by running 5km. She leapt at this challenge without a second thought. Her two girls, Amber (8) and Lily (5), are also very active and the whole family enjoyed junior parkrun before lockdown.
Nicky Smith, who runs her own wine PR company, began running cross country as a youngster. But running with her mother has been a highlight of her running journey. They ran the London Marathon together in 2007, when her mother was 60, and hope to run another marathon together. After giving birth to her second child, Nicky suffered back pain and really missed running. Seeing runners in Bushy Park, when she could not run, made her feel very low. But with her mother’s encouragement, she signed up for parkrun and has now reduced her best time from over 30 minutes to 22 minutes. Seeing husband Matt go out for day-long cycle rides was also a trigger to return to running.
“Even if I pretended to go running and sat in a coffee shop, I’d be out of the house,” laughs Nicky. Having some quiet time alone away from home was as important as running itself. Matt encourages Nicky to run, and suggests targets, interval sessions and other ways of running which make it varied and fun for her.
The last but not least members of this running community who I spoke with are Jo Blanc and Becky Gill, who love running together. Jo took up running while living in New York because it was very popular, and to lose weight. Enjoying runs along the Hudson river, she quickly found herself hooked. Jo will run in any conditions. “Running in nature is so invigorating; I love all weather, especially rain, cold and frost….it is so rewarding, physically and mentally”. She doesn’t put pressure on herself, and believes that even 15 minutes of running, or a mixture of walking and running, is better than nothing.
Meanwhile, Becky loves the flat terrain in Teddington. “I grew up in Huddersfield near the Pennines; I couldn’t leave my front door without running up a steep hill.” Both have made running a family activity, with their children coming along on bikes when they run. Becky loves talking while running, and is one of the fastest on the street – which is fine by the others, who let her talk while they just listen when they run together! Becky has been known to invite herself along on runs when she spots others setting off – the slower runners allow her to join them, on condition that she does all the talking!
Exactly a year ago, Becky and Jo were due to run the Paris Half Marathon having been persuaded to run by another neighbour, Hannah, in aid of breast cancer. Having suffered from breast cancer herself, Becky felt she could not say no. Sadly, a family bereavement meant Jo could not travel. Becky and Hannah made it to Paris, only to find the race cancelled due to the pandemic. So they have unfinished business with half marathon races, and hope to try again one day.
My chat with these women was fascinating, uplifting, and inspiring. What struck me was the myriad of reasons why they run. But there were also common themes: the delights of being out in the fresh air surrounded by nature; the opportunity running provides to clear your head and mentally refresh; and the value of running, even in small amounts, in a busy lifestyle. These incredible women weave running into their lives, on top of everything else they do, no matter what. They are fantastic role models for the entire community, leading by example, and helping the next generation to love sport and be physically active. As one of them says jokingly, “we’re pretty amazing, aren’t we?” I could not agree more!
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active