Runner's World Heroes 2011

Meet this year's Heroes of Running, as named by the Runner's World UK team.

Posted: 10 May 2011

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The Humanitarians: The Good Gym

Sarah Ginn, 90, is dozing peacefully in her chair when 25-year-old Ben Young, slightly out of breath, gently taps her arm. She awakes. On recognition of her visitor, she radiates a warm smile. Ben, knocking back a glass of cold water, sits down and hands Sarah a copy of The East London Advertiser, which he delivers to her by hand every week.

Ben has just run three miles to visit Sarah in east London. He has been visiting her every week since last September, as a volunteer for community running group The Good Gym. Located in Tower Hamlets, The Good Gym pairs runners with elderly people in the community - with each runner committing to a weekly visit, delivering a newspaper or a piece of fruit as an excuse to drop in for a chat.

"We call the older person 'coach', as it's an empowering term that makes them feel special and also motivates the runners," explains The Good Gym's project manager, Mark Herbert. "The runner can't get away with calling up their 'coach' to tell them they're not coming that week because they can't be bothered. This pairing is mutually beneficial: the runner gets fit and the 'coach' makes a new friend. These quick visits make a huge difference to people's happiness; it has been proven that regular inter-generational contact improves cognitive ability, reduces vascular diseases and increases lifespans."

Sarah's daughter and live-in carer Linda, 51, heard about The Good Gym through her mother's day centre and decided to give it a go. "It cheers her up no end," Linda says. "Since Ben's been coming I've definitely seen an improvement. She was starting to lose her memory but now it's getting a bit better. She really looks forward to seeing him. On the day he's due to visit she always says, 'My young man is coming over tonight!'"

Mother of seven children, and grandmother and great-grandmother to a pack of 46, Sarah is the matriarch of an adoring family who aim to make the remainder of her life as comfortable as possible. Linda points to a picture of Sarah, 20 years younger and her face lit up by a huge grin, surrounded by a group of equally smiley people. "This is when Mum won a community service award," she explains. "She did so much for people right up until she turned 70. She raised us after our father died and was a governor for at least six schools. We were all very proud."

Making a difference

Ben, a teacher, heard about The Good Gym when he picked up a flyer for it in a local cafe. Originally from Sydney, Australia, he moved to east London last May and was keen to meet new people and find motivation to keep running in the colder climate. His weekly run to Sarah clocks up 10K - with a tea break in between - and alongside his improved fitness he says that this relationship has enriched him. "At first I didn't know what to expect," he says. "I had visions of being with her for hours, drinking loads of tea. The first visit wasn't anything like that - I was in and out in five minutes. I felt more like a delivery boy than anything. But now I feel I'm really making a difference to her life. I see her face light up when I walk in, which is lovely."

The Good Gym was initiated in the summer of 2009 by film-maker Ivo Gormley, when he ran a copy of The Sun over to an ex-boxer friend. Arising from his frustration that normal gyms were a "waste of energy and human potential", Gormley's aim was to build a collective of volunteers that would channel energy into social good, leaving the shackles of the treadmill in favour of reaching out to the local community.

The Good Gym now has over 60 members - all aged between 25 and 35 - whose aim is to combat the rising loneliness and isolation of elderly people living in the UK and improve their quality of life.

The statistics speak for themselves. According to Age UK over 300,000 elderly people in the UK can go for a month without speaking to a single family member or neighbour. "The Good Gym isn't designed to replace any other services," says Herbert. "We're not delivering meals on wheels, medication or anything essential - the visits are purely social, which is good for both sides."

Alice Westlake of Age UK agrees: "Any service that helps combat isolation among older people is a good thing. Many befriending schemes are facing an uncertain future because of local council budget cuts, so a service like The Good Gym can help fill the gap. But we must be careful not to cast older people as 'helpless', waiting passively to receive help."

As well as Ben and Sarah, The Good Gym has created many other beneficial pairings. Paul has run an apple to Veronica, 83, ever since illness made it difficult for her to get out. Rebecca runs to Elizabeth, 86, delivering vegetables, household goods or a recipe. And then there's Anna, a busy city analyst, who runs in her lunch hour to Denis, 73, bringing him his favourite chocolate bar.

Alongside the independent weekly runs to their 'coaches', The Good Gym members meet once a month. Here, as an add-on to a group run, they take on a local project. In February this year, a gang of volunteers ran from Bethnal Green to the Somerford and Shacklewell Estate in north London, grabbed some spades and shovels, and helped to shift mounds of compost to the residents' new allotment.

"We've done all sorts," says Mark. "We've ripped down an old banner for the council, cleared a room in a library and we even decorated a care home last Christmas. It's amazing how much tinsel 15 people can get up in 10 minutes!"

Sarah and Ben are still chatting when it's time for Ben to leave. They are talking about music and dancing. "When I young, I danced a lot," Sarah says. "I liked swing, Patsy Cline and Elvis." She looks up at Ben and smiles once again. "Look at his face," she says. "He's like me, all big smiles, and that's special." Ben blushes, kisses her on the cheek, says goodbye and heads out into the East End night.

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