Human Race: ‘I run to help myself offload stress’

It was an observation from Dean Karnazes in his book Ultramarathon Man that turned Lisa Thompson from a casual runner into an ultra runner. ‘He wrote that people are capable of achieving more than they think they are,’ says Lisa, 48, from Birmingham.

She’s been proving Karnazes right ever since – running a 12-hour solo race in 2013, her first 100-miler in 2014 and the gruelling six-day Fire and Ice ultra in Iceland in 2016. This year, Lisa has completed all three races in the Threshold ultra series – Race to the Stones (62 miles), Race to the Tower and Race to the King (both 53 miles), which she describes as ‘training runs’ for the GB Ultra, a 200-mile race, which she ran in under 88 hours, in August.

Lisa is chief executive of Birmingham and Solihull Rape & Sexual Violence Project (RSVP), which supports children and adults who have been subjected to rape, sexual violence, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. The work can be emotionally draining and so Lisa uses running as part of her self-care. ‘With a relentless and sometimes overwhelming workload, it’s important that we have ways of taking care of ourselves and maintaining our emotional well-being,’ she explains. ‘For some, that may be through gardening or walking or cooking. For me, running is the best way to release secondary trauma, [the effects of hearing about other people’s traumatic experiences], offloading both physical and mental stress. I don’t listen to music, I let running nurture me as I tune into nature or use it as an opportunity to connect with others.'

Lisa’s been running since her schooldays. ‘I used to come last at cross-country but I always enjoyed it,’ she says. She did a half marathon at 19 with her dad and has carried on running and racing ever since.

Lisa believes that her running sends an important message to survivors
 of rape and sexual abuse about overcoming challenges and difficulties. ‘Ultra running, in particular, has taught me that seemingly impossible things can be achieved, which is a great lesson,’ she says. ‘When I lined up on the start line of the Fire and Ice ultra I did not know if I could finish it. I could hear the doubting voices in my head but I ignored them and carried on anyway. Each step I took fuelled me to take another. You don't have to be the strongest to achieve – some of the most resilient people and survivors I know are the quietest and gentlest, with the most self-doubt; but they keep going anyway and achieve their goals.’

(Related: Running while female)

Having experienced how empowering running can be first-hand, Lisa found herself wondering whether her clients could benefit from it, too. In 2014, she launched a free running group for survivors, which has been meeting once a week (with coffee and chat afterwards) – and taking part in races – ever since. ‘We started simply by walking the local parkrun, then added a few running steps and built from there,’ she says. ‘One woman did her first 10K and half marathon last year; another is currently training for her first full marathon.’

If people want to talk about their experiences during or after the run, they can, but there is no pressure to do so. ‘The fact that others have been through similar experiences brings a sense of connectedness,’ says Lisa. The group is open not just to survivors but also to staff and supporters of the charity: ‘We don’t want people 
to be defined by the abuse they’ve experienced; they are so much more.’

The group has so far helped 15 women on their running journeys,
 but Lisa stresses that the benefits go far beyond improved fitness. ‘Rape 
or abuse doesn’t just affect you emotionally, it also affects your
 physical body and can lead you to feel self-loathing, or that your body has
 let you down,’ she explains. ‘That can result in you feeling detached from your body and perhaps not looking after yourself very well.’

As well as being a form of exercise that gets people back out into the world, running can also help survivors experience their bodies in a more positive way. ‘One woman told me: “I never thought I’d be doing this!” Others have said it’s helped them “reclaim” their bodies, feel more grounded and build confidence and self-belief.’

Lisa began her career in social work in the 1990s. ‘I got interested in working with survivors of abuse,’ she says. ‘We get messages that in these situations, your life is over – you’re a victim – and
 I felt strongly that there needed to be more positive messages.’

She has been working with RSVP since 1999. Recently, she discovered that her late grandmother had been raped as a teenager and had not told anyone about it for 70 years. ‘I always wondered why I’d felt destined to be involved in this line of work, but when I heard about my nana, I knew,’ she says.

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