With the London Marathon just around the corner I know that this Active Women Interview is going to hit the mark for those of you thinking that maybe one day you’d like to run but don’t really think you can. I want to introduce Alex Barnes who only twelve months ago could barely run for 30 seconds. She is about to line up at the start in London and during her running journey, she’s discovered a whole lot more than how to run, along the way.
Tell us a bit about yourself Alex …
I’m a 38 year-old mum and live with my husband, Oliver and our three young boys (aged five, three and one), in Hertfordshire. Having worked as a financial controller for a large corporation, I’ve taken some extended time out of my career to be a stay-at-home mum. Life’s been a whirlwind of nappies and children’s parties for the past few years! As a family, we love being outside (very necessary with three young boys), and travelling to explore different places locally, more widely in the UK, and overseas.
As you mentioned, twelve months ago, I could barely run for 30 seconds. A couple of weeks ago, I completed my first 20 mile race. In just over two weeks, I will be running the London Marathon in aid of Ovarian Cancer Action – Just Giving
I hadn’t thought at the beginning of all this training that what I had set out to achieve was particularly remarkable, but I’ve had so many comments about how inspirational my story is, that I’m considering documenting it. My Twitter is @AlexBrownjohn so watch this space! If I can inspire one person to get outside and get moving, it’s worth it!
When did you decide to start exercising regularly and why was that?
About a year ago, a Junior parkrun was established just around the corner from my home and my (then) four year-old was keen to take part. I went along with him and found, much to my horror, that I was only able to run for about thirty seconds before I had to stop, wheezing, and walk. My son ran the full 2km by himself.
I’d always been overweight, but had kidded myself that walking to and from playgroups every day had given me a basic level of fitness. I’d had a very sedentary lifestyle when I was working, and had gestational diabetes when I was pregnant the first time round, but had convinced myself that being a mum was a more active lifestyle and therefore I hadn’t suffered with gestational diabetes with my subsequent two pregnancies.
My shame at the parkrun was just the impetus I needed to make a change. I intended to download a Couch to 5k app, but saw that my local council was offering a free, 12-week Couch to 5k course, so I signed up. This ensured that I was running at least once a week, and striving to complete the ‘homework’ of one or two additional walk/runs too, for fear of being the unfit kid at the back of the class the following week.
What activities have you tried and what’s your favourite?
I’ve dabbled with many gyms and exercise classes over the years, but with a busy job and now the hectic demands of motherhood, I’ve always struggled to commit to a regular, organised activity. I hadn’t played team sports since my school days, and lacked the confidence to take up something new, assuming that I would be too unfit to participate.
I’ve found running to be the best activity for me, as I can start from my doorstep and do it whenever suits me – sometimes even under the cover of darkness, during the winter months! It can be as solitary or social as I choose – some days it’s an hour of headspace out in the countryside, and some days it’s a thirty minute motivational session with a friend.
Improving my fitness through running has given my self esteem such a boost; I’ve had the confidence to get back on a bike for the first time in years and have started to enjoy family bike rides with my three young boys. I’m looking forward to taking on more challenging rides as my sons grow up.
Who knows – maybe if I work on my front crawl, I will take on a triathlon in the future: why not?!
What has been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome in your fitness journey?
Logistically, it has been fitting it all in. I’ve found that I need to schedule runs into my week and ensure childcare is organised in advance. I aim to run three times in the week and once (a long run) at the weekend, so I need to consider how to squeeze this in around a busy family life and my husband’s long working hours. My husband gets the boys ready once a week so that I can go out at 6am for an hour, and then I go out at 7pm on another evening when I know he can get home in time. I also rely on a kind friend to look after my baby for an hour, one morning a week. I’ve found that if these routine sessions are committed in my and other people’s diaries, it’s more likely to happen. And if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world – the next session is already planned.
My other big barrier has been my own self-doubt. I’ve been sick with anxiety before races and long runs (I’ve only ever run two 5km, one 10km and one 20-mile race). It’s still early days in controlling this, but I’ve found that ensuring that I am well-prepared and rested helps, as well as chatting to other runners at the start and during the race.
Have you had any negative comments and how have you dealt with them?
Surprisingly, very, very few. During the early days of the Couch to 5k course, we had to run past a group of smirking teenagers on each lap. I just ignored them – I might have been slow but I knew that I was doing something positive for myself, and I just focussed on that and envisaged the change in me that it would bring.
I have actually been astonished at how friendly the running community is. In every race I’ve taken part in, when I’ve been struggling somebody has always asked if I’m OK, encouraged me to keep going, or hung back and run with me for a minute. There is nobody out there that wishes you anything except your best run.
What goals have you set and have you reached any of them yet?
I’d been going through quite a tough time emotionally when I first started running – I’d lost my dad less than a year earlier when I was heavily pregnant. Strangely though, this triggered an overwhelming grief for my mum, who died from ovarian cancer in 1997 when I was just 17. I’d always ploughed on with my busy life but in losing my dad, I’d lost that last link to my mum, and I was suddenly a parent without any parents, and devastated.
In a moment of inspiration(/madness, you decide!), I realised that my mum would want me to keep positive, and so I contacted Ovarian Cancer Action to see if I could run the London Marathon for them. I was lucky enough to get a place in their team, alongside some inspirational people, and have since been following the Bupa Intermediate Marathon training plan. Each weekend long run has been a mini-goal as each week, it’s the furthest I’ve run in my life. I’ve just run the Bedford 20 mile race so am on track for London and can’t wait!
I don’t have a target time in mind – I’m not putting that additional pressure on myself. I would just like to finish and raise lots of money for Ovarian Cancer Action on my way.
What benefits has being active brought you?
So many – the obvious physical health benefits of losing some weight, toning up and feeling an improvement in my cardiovascular fitness and stamina. I’ve spent a lot of time outside, embracing the fresh air and all the extreme elements that this winter has brought, so my skin is glowing.
Being a mum, I feel a huge responsibility to my boys to be the healthiest I can be, particularly having lost my mum to cancer at a young age. I’m determined to do everything I can to reduce the factors which might increase my risk of cancer, and becoming fitter and leaner, as well as drinking less alcohol, is definitely a positive step.
But equally as important are the mental health benefits of spending time outside: it’s given me some headspace and much-needed silence to think about all sorts of things (and sometimes nothing at all). I’ve planned meals for the following week, quizzed myself on general knowledge (I missed a mile marker in one race because I was trying to remember a South American country beginning with U (Uruguay)), and spent a lot of time reminiscing about my mum, figuring out how I could be as amazing as she was, and addressing my grief.
It’s given me increased self-esteem, and a newfound respect for my body’s ability to deliver more than I had ever thought possible. For the first time in a long time, I am proud of what I’m achieving – and that is something very important for my children to see.
What advice would you give to other women who want to start exercising
I actually implemented a technique I learnt from cognitive behavioural therapy: Go with the plan, not the mood. Make a plan, put it in your diary and stick to it – NO excuses. There have been many times when I really haven’t fancied running, especially over this winter, but if it’s been on the planner, I’ve done it and never regretted it. I know I’d have regretted not going, though.
Walk a lot, run a tiny bit and gradually increase your running proportions. The Couch to 5k is a fantastic programme for this. Do it at your own pace, but keep pushing yourself to run a little further (to the next tree or lamppost, for example) or a little faster.
Don’t be self-conscious – although you might feel like everyone is watching you, people are so wrapped up in their daily lives that they probably didn’t even see you. And initially you might be slow, but you’re lapping the people on the sofa!
I read some instructions for becoming a runner a few weeks ago: “1. Go for a run”. So simple, so true!