Runner’s World Heroes 2012

With every finish line and every training mile, we all register our small acts of heroism. But some runners take our sport’s power beyond themselves, saving lives, uniting and inspiring. Here are the stories of some true running heroes.

The Life-Changers: Run Dem Crew

Run Dem Crew is expanding running’s reach, changing lives and building communities. Just don’t call it a running club…

After 20 years in the music business, discovering running was an epiphany for Londoner Charlie Dark. Finding existing running clubs intimidating, he started an alternative. The ‘Crew’ has since grown into a life-changing phenomenon.

“I wanted to create something that was the antithesis of a traditional running club, so me and five friends started our own from someone’s kitchen,” explains Charlie. “Nike came on board a year later and it’s just grown from there.”

Capping membership of the original Crew at 100 or so this year, Charlie still treasures its unique identity: “What distinguishes us is our people: many of them have overcome adversity to be here.”

A spoken word artist, his ‘housekeeping’ speeches are legendary. At a Crew meet, Charlie’s passion is evident as he exhorts members to leave negativity behind and be the best ‘us’ possible. Amid deafening applause, he presents race medals to members who’ve overcome obstacles like obesity, car accidents and bone disease.

If passion is one vital ingredient here, altruism is another. Now a schoolteacher, Charlie has children of his own and sharing the love of running with youth is part of the Crew philosophy: “I’m into helping people better their lives,” says Charlie. “Lots of kids get into trouble after projects designed to help them come to an end. Many of them want to be in graphics or media but don’t have the connections. Their network is a gang – but business is a gang, too.”

Charlie knew lots of people his age (he’s 41) who wanted to work with young people but didn’t know how, so he set about bringing these groups together using running as a connection. Mentors are assigned to help ‘Youngers’ like Nathaniel Cole, 21, who admits he had no direction before joining RDC. Tonight, a previously overweight Nathaniel accepts a medal for a 1:37 half marathon. But that’s only part of it.

“The Crew has opened up new paths for me,” says Nathaniel. “Strangers become your best friends, but most importantly they believe in you. Now I’ve got a job and goals.”

It’s hard to be young these days, Charlie thinks: “We had people we looked up to – not pop stars or footballers – but older people in the neighbourhood who were role models.” So far RDC has helped young people start 10 satellite Crews across London, with a target of 50. In the aftermath of last year’s riots, Nathaniel is opening one for the youth of Hackney. “Medals mean nothing without a legacy; if I can help just one person, that’s something,” he says.

“Running is a metaphor for life,” says Charlie. “If you can run a distance you’ve only ever covered on a bus, then you can do anything. That’s the belief we’re trying to empower people with.”

Splitting into pace groups ranging from ‘Tortoises’ to ‘Elites’, the fired-up members emerge into the night for a 12K. Considering “this is not a running club”, they certainly put the miles in.

Words: Simon Cole

The Unifier: May El Khalil

May has harnessed running as a unifying force in a divided region.

May El Khali is all too familiar with the unrest those in the Middle East have endured during the tumultuous Arab Spring. Her own country, Lebanon, suffered 16 years of civil war that devastated its infrastructure and killed more than 100,000 of its people.

Long after that war ended (in 1991), conflict still shrouded the country. Disputes between religious groups, government officials, and militants threatened Lebanon’s stability, as did frequent cross-border fighting with neighbouring Syria and Israel.

Amid such turmoil, May, 55, saw an opportunity to promote peace and unity through running. In 2001, she began working to introduce running as an activity everyone could participate in, no matter where they fell on the political and religious spectrum. “I believe in the power of sport as a catalyst for change in society,” she says. The catalyst she created was the Beirut Marathon.

Ironically, her vision for the race came when she could no longer run. May was training in Beirut when a car struck her and pinned her to a wall. After undergoing surgery over 30 times, she was told by doctors that she wouldn’t be able run anymore. “I called my husband and asked him to start taking notes,” she says.

The inaugural event in 2003 attracted 6,000 runners from 49 countries; in 2011, more than 30,000 racers from 71 countries finished, and May and her team now assist small local races and also help community groups to start running clubs. In February last year, the Laureus World Sports Academy gave May its Sport for Good Award.

The group cited her efforts as a “triumph of the spirit and an example of sport rising above a hostile political environment”. As the Beirut Marathon continues to unite a fractured region, we couldn’t agree more.

Words: Debra Witt

The Rising Star: Hannah England

The World 1500m silver medallist reveals what it’s taken to make her a contender for Olympic glory.

RW: How’s your training structured?
HE: I went to Kenya for winter training. We did a lot of 5K and 10K sessions, which isn’t my favourite thing, but it puts down a good base. I dropped my mileage after racing in February, but then I was back    to base running – plenty of miles with tempo sessions for endurance.

It was a pretty impressive finish in Daegu. How do you train for speed?
A lot of it is actually down to strength so it’s a mistake to think I work solely on the kick. I do some fast finish drills, although I won’t do real speedwork until quite late in my schedule, probably three to four weeks from competition. I use interval training but only at around 1500m pace most of the time, whereas I’d class real speedwork as 400-800m pace.

And strength work?
Olympic lifting twice a week, working on power with plenty of cleans and squats using heavier weights and fewer reps. I like doing hill sprints too, which are good for strength. Most days I also do a variety of drills, incorporating plyometrics, plus core and conditioning work: leg raises,  crunches and variations on the plank with the Swiss ball and medicine ball. These sessions last about two hours.

What tips would you give to runners trying to improve their times?
Your training doesn’t have to be especially complicated, but you need to keep pushing yourself to improve. How much an ordinary person can do is obviously restricted, so you must make it good value.

What did the Daegu silver mean to you?
The World Championships made success seem normal, possible. I realised I belonged in that sort of company.

How will you cope with the extra pressure heading towards London?
I started seeing a sports psychologist about 12 months ago. If I’m feeling nervous about something she gets me to write it down, which makes it seem a bit silly. If I have a race plan she gives me techniques for staying focused on it. I put more pressure on myself than any journalist could. I’m not pretending it’s not there, but I’m dealing with it. I’m totally focused on training and I don’t care about much else at the moment.

Words: Milke Pattenden

The Inspiration: Simon Wheatcroft

Losing his sight hasn’t stopped Simon from taking on the toughest races on the planet.

Ultra marathoner Simon Wheatcroft has the same steely tone as any determined athlete. A knowing grin is etched across his face as he says, “The record will be mine. It’s just a matter of time.” The record in question is for the Badwater ultra held in Death Valley – over 145 miles in over 50C.

A tough enough challenge, before you consider that the athlete is striving to be the fastest blind runner ever to finish.

Simon was registered blind aged 17, having succumbed to retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that attacks the retina, reducing peripheral and night vision and, in his case, causing complete loss of sight. ‘Succumbed’, though, is the wrong word to use when talking abut Simon Wheatcroft.

After the initial shock, he started running. “One day I decided to go to a football pitch behind my house and run from goalpost to goalpost,” he says. “I soon swapped that for a nearby airport where some of the roads were car-free, so I could run without fear of being knocked over. After a couple of weeks I got bored. I found a dual carriageway and ran beside that, then I realised it was possible: I could road-run alone.”

It throws a new perspective on the minor obstacles that stop the rest of us getting out on our feet.

“I worked out a safe route and learned the pavements, where the posts are and the cambers of the roads,” says Simon. “I also used the RunKeeper app, which has distance markers and audio cues so I knew when to turn. I’ve had some mishaps. God, I’ve run into posts at full pelt. You have to presume the route never changes, but that isn’t always true – I’ve come a cropper on roadworks loads of times. Last week I went over what must have been a wooden fence!”

Simon’s first ultra was a 100-miler in the Cotswolds. “I only managed 83 miles, but while I was distraught that I didn’t finish, I couldn’t move my legs anymore and that was better to me than just quitting.”

Talking to Wheatcroft, you marvel at a man who has refused to be the victim. Uncomfortable with the word inspirational, he says, “I’m just living my life. Taking up distance running was me striving for independence.” And not finishing that first ultra spurred Wheatcroft on to continue competing. “My next is a 100-miler in the South Downs. I’ve been told some of the route is along a cliff, so I’d better be careful.”

Training is seven days a week; runs range from four to 30 miles. There are times – like most runners – when he simply thinks, ‘Why?’ “It’s the bad days, though, that are more satisfying,” he says. “They’re what make me stronger – when it’s raining and freezing, or I’ve dropped food and can’t find it and just don’t want to be there, but I still get the run done. Easy is easy. I want to overcome barriers and there is a voice in my head that says, ‘You can do this.’”

All the hard work is for that final goal: Badwater. “All my races are aimed at getting qualification,” says the 30-year-old. “This year I’m running to qualify for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Hopefully I can get enough points to do that in 2013 and then in 2014, I can go and run Badwater. Once I have that though, a record at the toughest foot race in the world, where do I go from there?” You just know he’ll find something.

Watch Simon a video of Simon in action at asics.co.uk/madeofsport.

Words: Leo Moynihan

The Fundraiser: Mark Allison

A feat of superhuman endurance raised huge sums for charity.

After a final check of his watch, Mark Allison turned his back to the Pacific Ocean on California’s Huntington Beach and headed east. What lay ahead of him in May last year puts long runs into perspective: 3,100 miles across the US in 100 days.

“As I stood at the start, at over 18st, I probably looked more like an overweight Geordie who loves his pies than a runner,” says Mark, 40, from Shotley Bridge, County Durham.

What brought Mark to the start line was personal heartbreak. He lost both parents to cancer and his brother David to a brain haemorrhage all in the space of 10 years. The care his mum received at St Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland set him on a mission to repay a debt of gratitude. So he began to run.

After finishing the Great North Run several times, he moved on to full marathons to fundraise. Then, 10 years ago, he realised that if he wanted to raise bigger sums, he’d need to raise the stakes.

He completed the 134-mile Coast-to-Coast route across northern England three times before running the 874 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End five years ago. But that still wasn’t enough. Before he’d even reached the Cornish coastline, he’d come up with the idea of running across the States.

With the backing of his wife Katy and son Jack, he began a gruelling 110-mile-a-week training schedule. He got sponsors on board and gained a huge following on social network sites. His ‘Run Geordie Run’ self-branding raised his profile further. As well as fundraising for St Benedict’s, he was also supporting The Children’s Foundation charity in the north-east of England.

On day two, as the Californian coast slipped behind him, the size of the task hit him. “I began to think of all the miles I still had to go,” says Mark. “But that feeling disappeared and I broke the distances down into the chunks I needed to do each day.”

He slipped into a routine. After a bowl of porridge, he’d be running by 7am. Friends came out to support for a week or two, driving the back-up vehicle. Running mostly on the hard shoulder of freeways, Mark would clock 20 miles before lunch. After pasta, energy bars and a snooze, he’d be pounding the freeway again by the afternoon. This pattern took him across 14 states, through the intense heat of the Mojave Desert and the steep climbs of the Rockies.

On day 51, in Kansas, a heatwave hit, beating down on him for the entire second half of the challenge. Some days, he was running in 46C. “I didn’t need to remind myself why I was running. If my efforts could make a small difference to someone’s life, that was all the motivation I needed.” 

When he finally reached the finish at Coney Island, he was five stone lighter, nine pairs of running shoes down, and his feet needed three months of professional TLC. He’d also raised £105k. “It was a total relief,” he says. “And I was very emotional when I spoke to my wife live on radio.”

But that’s not the end for Mark. In October next year he’ll set out to cross Australia – 2,600 miles from Perth to Sydney in 70 days.

“I learned a lot about myself while crossing America. I realised I can run long distances and recover enough to do it again the next day, and the day after that,” he says, with the understatement of a man whose actions take care of the superlatives.

To support, sponsor or find out more about Mark, visit rungeordierun.com

Words: Adrian Monti