How one woman created a 1200-strong running community

Photography by Ben Knight

After giving birth to her first baby, in 2010, keen gym-goer Lauren Gregory was desperate to get back in shape. ‘Running is free and accessible at any time so it seemed the obvious way to get back into training,’ says the 37-year-old, from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. ‘I’d do a 5K loop, with my son in his buggy.’

Lauren quickly became a running convert, moving up to 10Ks, then marathons and even a 100km ultra. It wasn’t just the physical benefits that she enjoyed: ‘Women are often their own worst critics when it comes to body image and self-esteem, but I found running to be one of the best remedies,’ she says. ‘It taught me what my body was capable of and I felt empowered to share this with others.’

In 2015, she set out to achieve just that by launching Run Like a Girl – a running group aimed at helping other women find a love of running. ‘I was thrilled when 23 ladies turned up for the first session,’ she says.

By Lauren’s side was her friend Rebecca Chumun, who, two years earlier, had been persuaded to join Lauren in a 5K Color Run. ‘I wasn’t exercising at the time, so I downloaded the Couch to 5K programme to train for it,’ remembers Rebecca, 37. ‘I’m not a natural athlete, but running soon became something I loved.’ She was delighted when Lauren asked her to tail-run Run Like a Girl’s first beginners’ group. ‘Having been that slow, unfit person struggling at the back I know what it feels like, but I also know where it is possible for you to go,’ she says.

Lauren believes that the strict ‘no-one is left at the back on their own’ policy helps reassure new joiners, and the group’s swelling ranks stand testament to that: 800 members and counting, plus a 1,200-strong Facebook community. ‘Many of the women who’d never run before are now competing in half marathons and 10Ks,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing, considering some couldn’t manage more than a minute in one go at first. It is great to watch their bodies change and their confidence grow and to be helping them on that journey.’

Among Run Like a Girl’s success stories is Helen Owen, who has run two 10Ks, two half marathons and a marathon relay since joining in September 2015. Aiming to ease back into exercise after an ankle injury, she hoped running would improve her strength, but it’s done much more. ‘Running with a group has given me the belief I can achieve anything if I set my mind to it,’ she says. ‘Lauren helped me see that you have good and bad runs, but it’s the getting back out there that counts. After a disappointing half-marathon result in the spring, I knocked 20 minutes off my time in the next one. I’ve even encouraged my mum to join the group. It’s great that we get to run – and sometimes compete – together.’

Member Nikki Baker-Mills says her proudest achievement is not giving up. ‘I began running in January 2016 after being inspired by beginners sharing their progress on the Facebook page, so I plucked up the courage to give it a go myself,’ she says. ‘I doubted myself during the first few weeks, but at every session, I proved myself wrong and ran a little further each time. I recently completed my first 10K, which I am so proud of. Lauren and her team have created a nurturing place for women to cast aside self-doubts and be the best runners they can be.’

Run Like a Girl is still expanding – with 15 qualified run leaders, and groups in Warwick and London. Lauren credits her group’s members with its success. ‘Every woman who turns up knows starting to run is not easy. But the encouragement within the group is what makes it so special. There’s no judgment – everyone is there to challenge themselves. For me, seeing people reach their goals is one of my biggest achievements.’