Human Race: ‘I need to live for Lee’

Photo by Jon Enoch

Aimee West has found strength, comfort and purpose through running in the aftermath of the brutal murder of her fiancé, Lee Rigby, outside Woolwich Barracks, in May 2013. ‘It’s been my way of coping,’ says the 24-year-old from Middlesex. ‘At first, I felt very, very angry and running provided a physical way to get my rage out. I would cry the whole way and come home from a run absolutely drained.’

Running also gave Aimee some time alone. ‘I was constantly surrounded by people watching me and asking if I was OK – running gave me time to think.’ Aimee wasn’t new to running at the time of Lee’s death. In fact, it was he who’d got her into running. ‘Keeping fit is part of the job in the army, but I’d never run regularly until I met Lee. I used to hate it, but he would drag me out: “Come on Aimee! We’re going for a run.” He loved it because he was better than me!’ she says.

Lee and Aimee ran at a country park near Aimee’s home. ‘It’s still one of my favourite runs,’ she says. ‘I like to run in places where we used to go together. I always talk to him when I run. Sometimes I hear him talk back, too.’

The couple met in 2012 while teaching at a cadet training camp in Wales. On their return to London they started dating and in February 2013, Lee proposed. A month later, Aimee set off for Afghanistan to serve as a Royal Military Police Officer. ‘We were in touch by phone and email every day,’ she says. ‘It’s surreal to think I was ever there now, although I don’t regret it.’

In Afghanistan, running meant circling the military base in heat and dust, wearing high-vis and carrying a rifle – or hitting the gym treadmill. But it was here that Aimee took part in her first official race – the US Marine Corps Half Marathon. ‘Lee said if I could do that, we should enter a marathon together. A group of us did it – we had to get up at 3am because of the heat, and then they messed up the course measurement and we ended up running 16 miles,’ she says. ‘When I rang Lee to tell him I’d done it he was so pleased and excited. We decided to run Paris the following April because we – well, I – wanted to go to Disneyland as well.’

Lee was denied the chance of running that marathon. But Aimee ran the 2014 race along with her younger brother Chris, raising £28,000 for the Lee Rigby Fund that she’d set up as part of the Soldiers Sailors Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), a national charity that helps members of the UK armed forces, veterans and their families.

Aimee – and Lee’s family – found the SSAFA’s Bereaved Families Support Group invaluable in the difficult months following Lee’s murder. ‘It facilitates a way of meeting others who have faced a similar situation,’ she explains. ‘It really helped me. Now I know if I am having a down day I can get in touch with people who’ve also lost someone. Raising money for SSAFA seemed to be a good way of giving something back.’

Crossing the Paris finish line last year, in 5:21, was an emotional moment. ‘I was amazed I’d done it – and so relieved I hadn’t let all those people down who sponsored me,’ she says. The marathon could have marked a kind of closure on running for Aimee. But over the months of training, she had found solace in the escape and routine running provided. It also makes her feel close to Lee. ‘Running is something we did together. I think about him more when I run.’

Aimee continues to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her loss. ‘Having structure in my life is important to me now,’ she says. ‘At first I had panic attacks, thinking I could be attacked like Lee was. I still have short-term memory problems as a result of trying to block out all the painful thoughts. But it’s got better. I know what triggers it and how to bring it under control – running is part of that.’

She hasn’t joined a running club – preferring to run with her two-year-old beagle, Riggs, or alone – but she has been bitten by the racing bug, setting her sights on three marathons this year in aid of the Lee Rigby Fund. ‘The plan is to gradually work my time down,’ she says. She already has London (with an impressive 23-minute PB) in the bag, and has Berlin and Las Vegas scheduled before the year is out. ‘I like the way I can just take part in a race and blend in. No-one notices who I am.’

Aimee left the army in December 2013 and after a year away ‘to sort my head out’ she returned to university (she already has a degree in history), where she’s been studying for a graduate diploma in law. She hasn’t yet decided what she’ll do afterwards but talking to this quiet yet confident woman, you get the feeling it will be something challenging, brave and purposeful.

‘I throw myself at every opportunity now,’ she says. ‘I’m more fun and more fearless. I just feel like I need to live for Lee. There are so many things that he didn’t get to do.’