Helen Bly wanted to be able to run for a whole minute. It was a massive challenge when she started, back in 2012. She was a size 18, and found every step a struggle. Since then, running has transformed her. Now she is taking on the challenge of running 12 marathons in 12 months, raising money for a brilliant cause.
We chat with Helen about how running has changed her life, and how she’s now running to change the lives of others…
How did you get into running?
Well I used to be quite overweight. I was about size 18 back in 2012. I decided I wanted to be able to run. Just a little bit. I wanted to be able to run a mile – that was my dream, a whole mile.
So I googled “how to be able to run” and looked up information for people who didn’t run at all. Now there are so many fancy apps around for this sort of thing, but there wasn’t much when I started. I found enough advice though – basically it said “Just walk a bit, run a bit.”
Was it difficult to get started?
Yes, it was so hard at first! Running for a minute made me so out of breath. The thought of increasing to a minute-and-a-half seemed like torture. Even now when I look back I can clearly remember how hard that was.
I was determined to hit my targets. I just wanted to be able to run that mile. I would count in my head until I reached 60 or 90 or watch out for lampposts or people as landmarks to make the time pass. I found these key to keeping my brain focused on not being out of breath. I still use these motivators today. When I could run for a minute, I would walk for the next section with a big smile on my face, proud of what I had achieved and ready to go again.
When I could run as far as a mile, I was euphoric about that, I can still remember the feeling. I got a bit addicted and wanted to keep pushing on to the next target each time.
There’s a large part of getting started that’s about training your brain, finding the motivation to do it and making yourself go and work at it.
Did you have support from other people to keep you going?
No, I didn’t really tell anyone what I was doing. I think I felt embarrassed about it and didn’t want people to know.
I definitely didn’t want to be seen out. I felt very self-conscious and uncomfortable. I know a lot of people, especially women, get beeped at and shouted at by men in cars, and I think a lot of bigger ladies in particular suffer this.
How did you deal with that, and what kept you going?
What helped was wearing headphones. I liked zoning out and listening to my music.
To start with I was going out three times a week for 20-30 minutes. It’s not very long, but I made myself do it. And I really HAD to make myself go. But I was motivated because I really wanted to get to a mile. And when I hit that, I wanted to get to 5k.
What was you first race?
I entered a local 5k. I was disappointed that there wasn’t a medal at the end – I would have liked a memento of my first race.
My kids came along, but they weren’t very encouraging to be honest. I was right near the end and they said “Mum you were nearly last!” They were trying to take a photo, but I didn’t even want a picture of myself. There’s one snap of me from a bit of a distance away and I look as red as a beetroot and definitely NOT impressed!
I was still size 18 when I did that race, and it was very hard. But I’d given myself a time to improve on, and that was a big motivation for keeping going.
So it took a while to start losing weight?
Yes it did. I think I hadn’t starting doing enough running by then. I still needed a lot of walking breaks when I went out, and I wasn’t doing any other exercise.
It was when I started going up to training for the 10k distance and I was strong enough to stop the walking breaks that the weight really started to drop off.
Was it disheartening not to lose weight faster? Did you feel that you needed the payback for all the effort?
No it was ok because I didn’t start running to lose weight. That wasn’t my main reason. I wanted to be able to run. So the payback for me was about being able to run a particular distance.
I ate the same as before, and I didn’t really change my diet. Actually I didn’t eat unhealthily before. I think the main thing that made a difference to my weight was that I stopped drinking when I started running – alcohol was probably where a lot of the calories came from.
But for people who do start running mainly to lose weight, they may need to be patient. It can take a while for the metabolism to change, but once that happens the weight can really drop off.
So what would you say to someone who is in the same position as you were? Or who think running is too hard for them?
I have a blog called Fat Girls Can Run (www.fatgirlscanrunblog.com), because I want to share my experiences and help other people believe that they can do it too.
If you’ve got a goal you can achieve it, if you want to do it enough. You’ve got to keep going at it for long enough and be persistent. But you will get such a sense of achievement when you’ve done it, it’s amazing.
I had a huge feeling of euphoria when I ran a mile for the first time. It made me want to keep reaching further for those goals. It can be the same for anyone. Anybody can run if they really want to.
People will need their own different strategies. It takes some people longer than others.
How different do you feel from your pre-running self?
I feel like I’m a different person.
I can run a marathon. I’m not obese. I feel healthy. It’s a massive thing, what this does to your body as well as to your outlook on life.
I’m much more enthusiastic and more positive than I used to be, and I’m far healthier. I’m also running obsessed – I feel like running has consumed me!
How did you build up from that first 5k race? How long did this take?
After the 5k, I entered a 10k race a couple of months later.
I progressed in the same way as before, increasing how much I could do. I did a bit more running and a bit more walking in between, until got up to 10k. It took a few months, but eventually I was running a 10k every week in training.
As soon as finished my first 10k, I entered a half marathon – the Robin Hood Half in Nottingham. This felt like a massive deal, but I felt so positive about it. I decided it would be fine even if I had to walk some of it. But I can remember being really nervous. By then I’d lost so much weight – in 18 months I’d gone down from a size 18 to a size 8-10. I was quite small by then.
The half marathon was a warm day, and I remember it being very hard. I got to about 10 miles and I couldn’t run any more, and had to put in some walking – I was so disappointed! I had just started too quickly, I hadn’t worked out proper pacing by then. I mucked it up and went off with everybody.
Even so, I did it in 2 hours 16 minutes. I was mortified at the time, but now I can look back and realise it was good for a first half marathon. It got me addicted because I’d got a time to beat!
When was your first marathon?
I’d put into the ballot for the London Marathon for a couple of years but didn’t get in. The more I ran half marathons, the more I wanted to run a marathon even if it wasn’t London. So when I got another “no” from London, I booked the nearest big marathon to where I lived, which was the Manchester Marathon in 2015.
Training went really well right up until four weeks beforehand. I got up to 22 miles as a long run, and I felt great. But after a heavy training week of around 40 miles, I also went on a running weekend in Anglesey and ran another 15-20 miles on top. I’m not sure what happened, but somehow I damaged the cartilage in my knee.
I spent the next four weeks not running. I went ahead and ran the marathon, but on a bad knee. I had to walk after 17 miles in the marathon. I was devastated. I knew things weren’t going to go as well as I’d hoped, but I’d been aiming for a sub-4. I finished in 4 hours and 34 minutes. I couldn’t walk for two months afterwards – I had swollen feet and all sorts of other problems, and eventually was diagnosed with the cartilage problem in my knee.
It did deter me from marathons for a while but not from running. I still need to be careful with it because my knee is missing the cartilage, so sometimes I have to add an extra rest day if I need it, and I try to avoid hills because running uphill aggravates it.
Tell us about the charities you’re involved with, IRun4Michael, and ASSERT.
I joined a Facebook page called “IRun4Michael”, which pairs runners with children who can’t run themselves. I loved the idea of this and wanted to find out more, and get paired up with a child myself.
I was matched with Evan, who is a gorgeous little boy with a condition called Angelman Syndrome, which is a neurological disorder that causes severe learning difficulties. The condition is rare, one in 15,000 births, but causes lack of speech, seizures, walking and balance problems, and requires lifelong care. Evan can’t run himself, so every mile I run is dedicated to him.
I’m Evan’s buddy now, and I have close contact with his family, and I chat with his mum on Facebook. They support me so much with my running too, even though they live quite a long way from me. I was in contact with them for quite a while before I first met them – they came to support me at a 10 mile race in November 2016 and became my cheering squad even though it was raining and cold. They were amazing.
I started raising money for ASSERT, which is a charity supporting families of those with Angelman Syndrome and funding research.
Tell us about your current challenge – 12 in 12.
I’d been planning to run lots of different marathons and ultras this year, and I thought it would be great to put them all together into one challenge to raise money for ASSERT. So I’m running 12 marathons or ultras over a 12 month period.
I’m doing lots of fundraising, including online raffles.
How’s it going so far?
Unfortunately I missed the first race I’d planned on 1st January, because I was really poorly with sinusitis and couldn’t run for five weeks, so I’ve rescheduled an extra event at the end of the year.
Apart from that it’s going ok so far. My first one was at Belvoir in February. It was my first trail marathon and I found it really tough, running on clay for 26 miles, which took me 5 hours 46 minutes. It took a week to recover afterwards. But I did it. I’m running an ultra in March and then the next one is the London Marathon in April.
Find out more
For more about Helen and her 12-in-12 challenge, visit her blog at www.fatgirlscanrunblog.com.
To donate to her brilliant effort, visit her justgiving pace at www.justgiving.com/12marathonshelen.
Her 12-in-12 events are:
- February 25th Belvoir 26
- March 26th Canalathon 50km
- April 23rd London Marathon
- May 21st GU36
- June 18th Trailblazer 6 hour solo challenge
- July 15th Piece of Cake Marathon (Church Stretton)
- August 12th Thames Meander Marathon
- September 24th Loch Ness Marathon
- October 22nd Venice Marathon
- November 18th Kirkstall Abbey Marathon
- December 10th Leeds Liverpool Canal Marathon
- December 31st Liverbird Marathon