Human Race: ‘I don’t know where I’d be without running’

Photo by Tom Watkins

Steve Oltay has 3:51 – his marathon time – tattooed on his arm. ‘When I crossed the finish line and they gave me that medal, it was like planting a flag saying, “I’ve made it – I can achieve anything I want to now”,’ he says.

It’s a euphoric feeling many of us experience when we cross that finish line for the first time, but for Steve it had special resonance. Just three years ago, the young Londoner was homeless, emaciated and addicted to drugs. ‘I had no focus, no ambition, nothing to hold on to,’ he says. Now 22, Steve has a job, his health, a home and, above all, a future. He puts the turnaround down to running and the people at The Running Charity (TRC), who introduced him to its powers.

Steve ended up homeless as a result of drug use and family breakdown. At first he lived in a tent in some woodland before finding space in a homeless shelter, where he slept on the floor in a room with 40 other people. Then he was introduced to TRC, a youth charity that uses running as a tool to help those affected by homelessness get their lives back on track. The charity started with a single day centre in King’s Cross, London, but it now has venues across the capital, as well as in Manchester, Oldham and Rochdale. Young people who join the six-month programme attend weekly training sessions run by coaches and volunteers, and build up to races. The charity also provides links to practical support, such as housing advice and drug counselling.

Commitment is rewarded – participants ‘earn’ their running gear through good attendance and hard work. (Fittingly, TRC has just teamed up with global giant Asics: the Japanese company was set up in the wake of the Second World War to make sports shoes for schoolchildren to promote health through sports participation.) ‘I thought it would be something to do, but straight away people saw the change in me,’ says Steve. ‘Running reignited a fire in me.’

But it didn’t come easy. Weighing just seven stone, smoking 30 cigarettes a day and, though attempting to address it, still using drugs, he found running a physical struggle. ‘We used to do laps of a block – it was around a quarter of a kilometre; at first I could barely make it round once,’ he remembers. ‘But even though I found it hard, I was motivated. I’d watch the others progressing and think, “I want to be like that – I want to be at the front.” And when they started to talk about mud runs and races, I was excited. I’d had no idea I was so competitive because I’d never done sport at school. The strength of feeling took me by surprise.’

TRC coaches and volunteers were with him every step of the way – supporting, encouraging and pushing him to put in the effort and reap the rewards – not to mention going out of their way to feed him up. ‘They’re changing lives with what they do,’ says Steve. ‘Their constant can-do attitude is infectious.’ In his first mud run, he came a superb 11th out of 3,000 participants, strengthening his motivation still further.

The sessions he enjoyed most were the long runs. ‘I started going out after the group training sessions to do more running on my own. Sometimes I’d do two or three hours at a time. It builds inner strength, not just physical strength. It’s like meditation, a way to process things.’

It’s no surprise that Steve soon had a marathon in his sights. ‘I’d decided I wanted to do a marathon before I’d even done a 5K,’ he admits, laughing.

But months of consistent training – covering up to 60 miles a week – meant he was now able to take on the distance; in April this year he completed the London Marathon. ‘It was incredible,’ he says. ‘All those  thousands of people, all for a run!’ As soon as he finished he wanted to do another one (‘and get a better time’) but he’s now moved the goalposts and is preparing for the 55-mile London-to-Brighton race. Ultra runner Robbie Britton, who visited TRC last year, has been giving him some training advice. ‘I used to do nothing but long- distance runs,’ says Steve. ‘But I’ve learned the importance of variety, rest and balance. Now I mix things up.’

Steve’s 23rd birthday on August 2 marked 18 months of being clean – no drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. ‘Drugs and homelessness are difficult habits to break and addiction runs in my family – but running has totally changed my focus. I don’t know where I’d be without it.’


To find out more information, donate or volunteer, visit The Running Charity's website.