For her entire life Helen Bly had wanted to be able to run. She’d tried other ways of getting fit, including swimming and going to the gym and had even tried running on the treadmill, but nothing seemed to do it for her. However, aged 34, unfit, overweight and fed up with her life, she decided it was time to make a change – and running was going to be her outlet. Finding the courage to take those first steps, Helen began her journey towards fulfilling her lifetime ambition – a journey that has seen her doing things she could never have imagined.
Helen, a mum of two and school administrator from Rochdale, went for her very first run four years ago and has since transformed her body and her life. Completely self-trained, Helen went from being unable to run for a minute to running her first ultra-marathon this year, and has dropped six dress sizes in the process. Her battle to get fit has been hard – physically and emotionally – seeing her complete some of the hardest runs she’ll ever have to do, while pushing through feelings of shame and embarrassment. But, determined to become a stronger runner, Helen’s never lost sight of her goals and is now fitter and more confident than she’s ever been.
Helen’s decision to take action to achieve her lifetime goal came suddenly. “One day something had changed,” says Helen. “[I] wanted to be able to run my entire life and I just wanted to be able to run a mile. I was really big at the time – I was a size 18ish, maybe bigger than that, I don’t even know exactly what I weighed because I was scared to look at the weigh-in scales. And it was a case of not wanting to lose weight, but I just wanted to get fit.”
Looking up on the internet ‘how to run’, Helen took her first steps out the door, following her own self-made training plan. “At the time there were no apps, there was no ‘Couch to 5K’…and it basically said you go out the door, walk for a bit to warm up, you run for a little bit and walk for a bit… and that’s what I did.” It was a long time before Helen reached that first milestone and she admits that the journey to get there wasn’t easy. “[I] ran for 30 seconds, which absolutely killed me to start with and then walked for five minutes… and, in that five minutes in between, I’d be psyching myself up to run that 30 seconds again.”
“I still remember that feeling, that feeling of getting that mile, I can remember kind of reaching for the air and going, ‘Yehh!’. It was amazing. That feeling of being able to accomplish something just made me keep running and running and running.”
Soon after reaching her first mile, Helen was straight onto her next goal – a 5K race. However, this meant not only running further – but in front of others. “It was almost about nine months after I’d first started running I think… but I was absolutely terrified,” says Helen. “It was a proper race so it was all the local athletes, everybody was really fast so, when I got there, I was literally at the back. I was still a size 18; I hadn’t lost any weight at this point became I was only running three times a week and I wasn’t going very fast.”
Helen pushed herself hard to make it to the finish – and to do so not as the last finisher – but felt only and shame and disappointment when she got there. “I looked like a beetroot,” she says. “I was exhausted and my kids were saying, ‘Mum, you were nearly last’. It was a kick in the stomach. I remember being really annoyed at having my photo taken at the time. I was very embarrassed at being seen.”
However, her own self-criticism coupled with her children’s disappointment served only to increase her sense of fortitude and she decided she’d do all she could to get fitter and faster, targeting 10K as her next goal. It was at this point that Helen began to see huge changes in both her body and performance. “Because I was running more, I was running further…[and for a] longer time, the weight started to go down and I started to see changes in my running and in my body and it really really helped,” says Helen. “After that 5K, within about six months, I reckon I was down to a 14. I was buying new clothes all the time and, every time I bought new clothes, I’d have to buy even more new clothes. Within that first year, I’d gone to a size 10. But then I was almost down to half-marathons after that first 5K. I done a couple of 10Ks and then that was it, [I thought], ‘Right, that’s it, I’ve done 10Ks, I’m doing a half-marathon now.”
During this time, Helen’s lifestyle drastically changed. She was running up to 11 miles at the weekends and made changes to support her running and her health. “I’d given up alcohol,” says Helen. “I wasn’t eating any differently because I didn’t really eat unhealthily but I was probably eating less because my body was kind of telling me, this is what you need to eat. It was almost symbiotic.” Now a size eight and feeling a sense of achievement she’d never experienced before, Helen saw a huge boost in her self-esteem. “As the weight came off, I felt fantastic,” she says. “I don’t know whether it was a combination of the weight loss and the endorphins from running and obviously getting all the medals from all the different races that I did, it just felt great.”
It was a long time after running her first half-marathon that Helen decided to sign up to her first marathon. “It took me a while to pluck up the courage because 26 miles is quite a bit different to 13,” she explains. “I’d balloted for the London Marathon for even years before I could even run because it’s one of those great things that everybody wants to do but, that year, I’d not got in so I kind of chucked my towel in and said, ‘If I’m not going to get in London, I’m going to do a marathon’.”
Helen signed up to the 2015 Manchester Marathon and, again, completely self-trained and did the running on her own, picking up any training and nutrition tips she needed from apps and the internet. “There’s an app you can get where you can download training plans and I just downloaded a basic marathon training plan from that and followed it as best that I could,” says Helen. “It was a process of learning really, I learned pretty early on that energy gels don’t agree with me. I don’t have anyone to train with so I’d go out on my own and, actually, I kind of enjoyed them [the long runs], the progression from going from 10 to 11 miles before the half-marathon and then going up to 16, 17, 18, 19 miles out. I really enjoyed it. It was great to be able to take my music out, just me, and spend some time just running in nature and having no distractions and just me. It was great.”
After the experience of Manchester, Helen soon caught the marathon bug and, last year, took part in the London and Yorkshire Marathons, as well as the Cancer Research UK Shine Night Walk. “Funnily enough, after my first three running marathons, every time I kept saying, ‘I’m never going to do another one – it’s awful, I hated it, I was so tired!’. I can’t put it down to whether it’s addictive like a tattoo is addictive or whether it’s the same as having a child – you forget the pain,” she says. “I don’t know whether it’s those sorts of feelings that you feel so amazing having that achievement at the end of it that you want to go and do it again.”
However, while these feelings of personal achievement have always been a draw for Helen, each of her marathons has been dedicated to charities close to her heart – and this year is no different. “Last year, I decided that I probably want to do some sort of a challenge, and I know a little boy called Evan, through a non-profit organization called I Run 4 Michael, who has Angelman syndrome, and I decided that I wanted to do a big challenge for him, so what better to do than 12 marathons in 12 months?
“[I Run 4 Michael] match runners with children that can’t run. I was matched to Evan [who] just happens to live in Leicestershire. We became friends and I became friends with his family via Facebook and they’ve been to a few of my races to support me. The charity I’m running this for is ASSERT, who support families with Angelman syndrome. They’re such a lovely family. They’re just so grateful that I’m doing something for them, but I feel a real sense that I need to be doing something because they’re so wonderful.”
Helen has now run three out of the 12 marathons she will be running for Evan and ASSERT this year – one being her first ultra-marathon. “In March I did Canalathon, which was an ultra-marathon along the Rochdale canal. I don’t know whether I loved it because it’s where I run and it’s my home turf but I really really loved that. It was such a wonderful feeling to be able to complete my first ultra-marathon.
Since her first 5K race Helen has come along way – and, once her biggest critics, her daughters Lilly, now 11, and Elinor, now 12, couldn’t be prouder of their mum. “They started taking my medals into school to show them off,” smiles Helen. “I went into school for parents evening the other night for Elinor, and the teachers went, ‘So I heard you did the London Marathon the other day?’ and I was like, ‘Oh really, so now she’s talking about me doing marathons now is she!’ So she’s proud of me.”
The Rochdale Canal, where Helen typically heads out for her long runs, is now where Helen feels most at home – and she loves the ‘me time’ these runs have afforded her. “That feeling of being free and just running, it’s like Forrest isn’t it? You just keep running and it feels fantastic to be able to do it.”
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Photos by Helen Turton