Every time we lace up our shoes, we explore new territory – not just on the road, but within ourselves. When we churn out a finishing kick on spent legs or push ourselves miles further than we ever thought we'd go, we're uncovering hidden strengths. Thanks to the simple act of moving forwards, we can reach beyond what we thought was possible and accomplish great things.
No one demonstrates this better than this year's Heroes of Running, sponsored by Aviva – six people who have achieved something astonishing or given back in a monumental way.
There's the woman who ran the world to honour her late husband. There's the man who devoted himself to putting on free races. And there's the amputee who is forcing us to rethink our definition of disabilities. We honour them not just for their contributions to the sport, but for the future running heroes they will inspire.
The Jane Tomlinson Inspiration Award Rosie Swale-Pope
On October 2, 2003, Rosie Swale-Pope stepped out of her house in Tenby, South Wales and set off on an epic adventure. Her goal was to run around the northern hemisphere taking in as much land mass as possible. She had no support crew and little cash, but what she did have was an optimistic personality, a robust physique and a determination to fulfill her goal.
Weighed down by a backpack, she ran 25 miles on that first day, stopping regularly along the way to rest before finally camping on the side of the road in a tiny bivvy bag.
It took her a week to run through Wales before heading out across England and northern Europe, on through the vast expanses of Russia, Alaska, Canada, the USA and Greenland, before heading home via Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Britain. She arrived back in Tenby on August 25, 2008 – four years and 328 days after setting off.
In time, the backpack turned into a wheeled stroller, a trailer and finally a mini mobile home that she pulled behind her along roads, through rivers and over mountains. She bought or found food along the way, ran whatever the weather and made camp on stretches of inconspicuous wasteland beside the roads or tracks. There were occasional visits from friends and family and the odd night in a house or hotel, but it was largely a hard, solitary adventure. But what an adventure it was.
She covered over 20,000 miles and wore out 46 pairs of shoes. She was hunted by knifemen in Kazakhstan, stumbled across a naked axeman in Siberia and found love in Alaska. She was hit by a bus, nearly drowned crossing a fast-moving river and survived pneumonia, frostbite and encounters with wild dogs, polar bears and wolves.
There were nine days in Alaska when the temperature slumped to a life-threatening -62ºC. There were days when the terrain was so tough that it took her eight hours to cover a kilometre. No one else would ever have even thought it possible to run around the world unsupported, taking in a Siberian and Alaskan winter along the way. But she embraced the challenge and revelled in it.
Despite stress fractures in both legs that turned the final few miles back to Tenby into a crutch-assisted slog, she came home from her experience stronger and fitter. The plight of Russia's countless orphans also improved a little thanks to the funds her efforts helped to raise, as did the cause of prostate cancer sufferers. The disease killed her adored husband, Clive, in 2002 and it was his death that sparked the whole adventure, giving the journey a purpose. Rosie Swale-Pope has shown us all what you can achieve with a big dream, a warm heart and a pair of running shoes.
The Veteran Joss Naylor MBE
No matter how accomplished a runner you consider yourself, few of us have considered running over 100 miles in one go, let alone 100 miles that include 40,000 feet of ascent – the equivalent of climbing and descending Everest, from sea level, one and a half times. But at one point in his incredible running life, that was all in a weekend's work for Joss Naylor.
Hampered with serious back problems that rendered him immobile for much of his childhood, it wasn't until an operation at 20 that Naylor got his first taste of running. With a new lease of life, he set out from his farmhouse in the Lake District to the surrounding fells, such as Great Gable and Scafell Pike – and fell in love.
Unfortunately, Naylor's overzealousness cost him – hurdling a fence, he slipped and landed flat on his back, a piece of slate entering at the precise point where he'd had the operation. It would be weeks before he could walk again. But as soon as he could, he was up and running. "If you stop running for too long after an injury you get thoughts about never being able to run again, so you need to prove you can still do it," he says. And prove it he did.
Naylor first raced in the summer of 1961. The Lake District 30K Mountain Trial was starting near his father's farm at Wasdale Head. On impulse, he entered in his hob-nailed workboots, and even led for most of the way, until he was struck down by cramp. But he knew what he was capable of.
Naylor went on to dominate the race, winning 10 times – including six straight victories in the early 1970s. The most coveted fell-running record has long been for the number of peaks scaled inside 24 hours. On an extraordinarily hot day in July 1975, Naylor accomplished his PB: 72 peaks, beating his previous best by nine and earning him an MBE. Then at 50, he covered all 214 of the summits listed in Alfred Wainwright's Lake District guides, in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes, eclipsing the previous record by half a week.
Over the years, Naylor's record-breaking accomplishments, achieved on little more than mouthfuls of sweet tea and macaroni puddings, have not just made a name for himself, but have lifted his sport.
Now 72, Naylor averages a more modest 50 miles a week, cranking out eight-minute miles over Britain's most challenging terrain. He has no intention of stopping. "I'll always keep running," he says. "Why stop doing something that keeps you fit, healthy and young?"
She's mastered track and cross-country, dominated at a local level and put in consistent, solid performances at European and World Championships. But Charlotte Purdue is a remarkably ordinary teenager. When asked about all the attention, she responds with a sheepish giggle: "Yeah… it's alright."
So what sets her apart? Like many 17-year-old girls, Purdue has a personalised web page. Unlike most, hers is studded with photographs of herself with top athletes: there's Kenenisa Bekele; Kelly Holmes; Paula Radcliffe.
Purdue holds her own among world-class athletes, her growing confidence matched by a growing hunger for success. "I used to get star-struck," she says. "But now I see these athletes almost as competitors. I'm not up there quite yet – but I'm on my way."
Purdue never even thought about running until she was spotted by coach Mick Woods at a District Schools race at the age of 11. "Without him, I would have gone home and never run again!" she freely admits.
But run she did. Charlotte's list of achievements includes a 5K PB of 16:04.46, earned at the 5th BMC Grand Prix, along with first place winner's medals at both the 2008 National Cross Country and National Road Relays. She has also triumphed several times at the UK Cross Challenge.
Now she has her eye on the biggest prize of all: "Cross-country is good background work, but because it isn't an Olympic sport, I'm moving more towards track. I'm focusing on the 5,000m for London 2012."
Focus is one thing Purdue certainly has, helping her recover from disasters like losing her shoe at the 2007 European Cross-Country Trials. "During the race, someone stood on the back of my spike. I just had to carry on with one bare foot!"
She won that 4.4K race in 15:13. And after she turns 18 this June – when she leaves college for a history degree at St Mary's University College – she aims to graduate on to better times. She wants to win the 5,000m European Juniors and European Cross-Country Championships, helped by determination, ambition – and the ability to giggle at whatever life turns up.
The Philanthropist Paul Sinton-Hewitt
Imagine a race where there's no registration, no race numbers to pin on and no hassle – all you have to do is turn up and run. Sound good? Well, it's already out there. And there's not just one of them – they're all over the country, they happen every week and, best of all, they're free.
A man who truly loves running and the running community, Paul Sinton-Hewitt's aim was simple: he wanted to create an easy-to-run event that allowed anyone to come and race whenever it suited them. "Make it simple, make it free," was his aim. He didn't half pull it off.
The thriving parkrun series is a true running phenomenon. What began five years ago as a small get-together for weekend 5K jaunts in Bushy Park in Surrey is now a weekly fixture that regularly attracts over 230 runners.
Responding to demand, Sinton-Hewitt and his team followed up with the Wimbledon Common parkrun in 2007, paving the way for others to follow. There are now 11 weekly events around Britain – including Brighton, Cardiff, Leeds and Glasgow – and another in Zimbabwe. All are run by volunteers and completely free of charge. It's a formidable growth, but Sinton-Hewitt is not finished yet. "Every town in the country should have a parkrun," he says. And with 120 planned to start by 2012, he means business.
The perfect example for grassroots sports participation, parkrun boasts an impressive franchise model that means that each event is self-sustaining. Run by a not-for-profit company, parkrun provides the start-up knowledge, training, expertise and infrastructure to get an event off the ground. Organisers then build and manage their own teams and relationships with the local community. Any income raised through sponsorship is used to cover operating costs and to fund the expansion of events.
Sinton-Hewitt, 48, is the first to acknowledge the help he receives from an army of volunteers, but an ambitious venture like this would never have got off the ground without his extraordinary dedication – or his deep pockets. Family man Sinton-Hewitt even pays for the privilege of working 40 hours a week on top of his full-time day job as a project manager for a communications company. "I'd say I'm about £50,000 out of pocket, but it's not about the money. It's like any hobby; you're willing to invest in something you believe in."
The Mentor Dame Kelly Holmes
After the drama of her extraordinary achievements at the 2004 Athens Olympics, there can barely be anyone who is not familiar with Kelly Holmes.
A former Army physical training instructor, Holmes blossomed late in her athletics career, taking 1500m gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games before storming to victory in both the 800m and 1500m finals in Athens at the age of 34 – becoming the first British woman to win double Gold at an Olympic Games.
Since retiring in 2005, Holmes has buried herself in a project that excites her just as much as racing – developing the superstars of tomorrow through a mentoring initiative called On Camp With Kelly (OCWK).
A programme for young middle-distance runners, OCWK gives athletes from mid-teens to early-20s a practical insight into what it takes to be a world-class athlete.
"Making it to the top is about more than just doing your training sessions," says Holmes. "I found that there were so many things you need to do to be successful, so we try to make sure we cover all the bases. As well as doing standard training we give them life experiences: media training; taking them to international race meetings; giving seminars on how to cope with injury; tutoring on how to deal with the disappointment of a bad race – things like that. I want all my athletes to have the best chance of succeeding."
Holmes, 39, is fully hands-on. As well as hosting several training camps a year, she has regular contact with her athletes and their coaches to maintain continuity, and takes over responsibility for rehab for any injured runners in order to take some of the burden from their coaches.
The programme – funded by Aviva – has grown from an initial intake of eight athletes in 2004 to 45 today. Once on the programme they can stay indefinitely (the original eight are still involved).
Looking to the future, Holmes plans to concentrate more on taking on 17 to 20-year-olds, the age at which runners are most likely to leave athletics, either through low confidence or social pressure.
"Ultimately the underlying motivation for me to do all this is to keep young people in the sport. It's not about me wanting to train them to Olympic gold level because, after all, everyone has their own level and competition is tough. Success for me would be for every athlete involved with On Camp With Kelly to stay in the sport, finish their careers and say: 'You know what? I did everything I possibly could do, I got the most out of myself and I don't have any regrets.'"
The Survivor Abdifatah Dhuhulow
It's a familiar story: a beginner joins a running club, unsure of his ability, and finds he has talent. What's different about 28-year-old Abdifatah Dhuhulow's story is that he did this with only one leg.
In 1991, Dhuhulow was living with his family in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, when civil war broke out. While trying to escape the city on a lorry, the family came under fire. Dhuhulow was shot in the ankle and fell off the lorry, and his right leg was crushed under the wheels. He was unconscious for 16 hours.
Dhuhulow received minimal treatment, and as a result his bones healed in the wrong place and he was forced to use crutches.
In 1998, Dhuhulow was given the chance to live in the UK, and the following year had his first operation. But when he was eventually able to walk again, Dhuhulow suffered unbearable pain in his foot. After three more operations, he agreed to have his left leg amputated below the knee.
During his long and painful rehab, Dhuhulow's physiotherapist was so impressed by his mental strength that she soon encouraged him to run.
After training by himself for some time, Dhuhulow joined Serpentine Running Club in London. At his first session, he told only the coach about his leg, and ran in a tracksuit to disguise it. "I wanted to see how far I could keep pace with the other athletes," he says. After the session, the coach praised Dhuhulow's footwork, and another runner asked why he was being singled out. "The coach grinned: 'This guy has only one leg, and he's running better than some of you,'" recalls Dhuhulow.
With the club's help and his confidence growing, Dhuhulow began to race. He was not satisfied with his first half-marathon time, 1:48, so the next month bettered it with a 1:34 PB. Soon afterwards, Serpentine gave him an award for being an inspiration. Running had provided a release for the tension that had built up over the years.
"You have so many ups and downs; you dream and the dream does not materialise, and in the end you become numb," says Dhuhulow. "I needed to let go of so much that I'd been bottling up all those years. Running enabled me to do that."
While most runners would feel that losing a leg was the worst thing that could happen to them, Dhuhulow feels differently. "I want to push myself to achieve, to do the things I could not do for so long," he says. "Maybe it's exaggerating, but I feel that when I lost the leg I was reborn."
Aviva is proud to sponsor the 2009 Heroes of Running, working alongside Runner's World to recognise and honour those individuals who continue to make a difference through their running exploits.
We are delighted to congratulate this year's winners. Every single one has a truly inspirational story behind them. Aviva has been the team behind UKA (UK Athletics) since 1999 and we are committed to developing the sport in the UK from the playground to the podium.