How one running crew is elevating back-of-the-pack runners

Not every runner is driven by setting PBs and beating peers. It’s a fact often overlooked by mainstream running clubs, but a new running group – Backpackers – sets out to champion those who are perfectly happy to be bringing up the rear.

‘Slow is not weak,’ says crew captain Leeanne Adu, 32, from southeast London. ‘We may not have supreme speed, but we do have the heart to go the distance.’

Leeanne never thought of herself as a runner. In 2012, having never run further than 10K, she got a place in the London Marathon. She trained hard and completed the race is 5:36, which made her realise that nothing was out of reach.

‘In the course of my training I saw that there were so many runners like me, working hard to get stronger but also wanting to have a good time while doing it,’ she says. ‘I’d always loved encouraging people to find their feet with running so I started leading groups.’

Backpackers is a project from the Chasing Lights Collective, a London running crew founded by 36-year-old run coach and trainer Chevy Rough. ‘I encourage members of the Collective to give back via projects that bring movement, connection and community to people,’ he explains. ‘Just as Leeanne is doing with Backpackers.’

‘There can be a lot of barriers to entry when considering joining a running group for the first time,’ adds Leeanne. ‘“Will I be too slow?” “What if I walk?” “What if I'm the last one back?” We wanted to create a crew specifically to support those people.’

When crew member Ruth turned up for the first time, she cried because of the warm welcome she received. ‘I’d been to one running club where I was told within the first mile that it wasn’t the right place for me and advised to turn back. Other clubs told me I could join when I was faster. At Backpackers, I knew I’d found my place – there’s community and friendship as well as movement.’

On a typical evening, 20 or so runners show up. ‘After a celebration of the past week’s successes, we warm up and then hit the road in our pace groups,’ says Leeanne. There are three choices – walk/jog, joggy and joggier (10-minute miling is as fast as it gets). But it’s not just about grinding out miles: ‘We’ll meet midway to do some technique work or strength practice – or play games. The sessions are varied to keep it interesting and help runners stay injury-free.’

At the Hackney Half Marathon in May, Backpackers provided official pacers for the back end of the field. ‘We wanted runners to feel supported and appreciated for their hard work and training, regardless of speed or time,’ says Leeanne. ‘It was amazing – we laughed, joked and sang our way to the finish line.’

The feedback they received was resoundingly enthusiastic – so expect to see them at future races. And if you do, Leeanne has a word of warning: ‘Don’t feel sorry for us because we’re at the back. We like it there.’

Backpackers’ free weekly sessions run from the Lululemon clothing store on Regent Street in central London.