Runner’s World Heroes 2011

The simple act of moving forward is a powerful force. Running can function as a social service to reduce loneliness in the elderly, put troubled lives back on track and act as a focus to help young athletes achieve their goals. The following Heroes have inspired us in the past year. We're sure their accomplishments will move you, too.

The Mentor: Mick Woods

In RW's 2008 Heroes awards, Steph Twell, bronze medallist in the 1500m at last year's Delhi Commonwealth Games, was crowned the Rising Star. In 2009 it was Charlotte Purdue, who took gold in last year's European Junior Cross Country Championships. Last year the award went to Emelia Gorecka, who won bronze at the same competition. All are members of Aldershot, Farnham and District AC - and all are coached by Mick Woods.


Woods, 62, has been coaching since 1986, when he was still running marathons (he has run more than 70 and competed internationally for Ireland). "I had a 2:20:12 PB," he says. "It wasn't bad but I know if I'd had someone like myself as a coach, I'd have been much better." His tone is not self-congratulatory; it is disarmingly matter-of-fact. He loves his job and he knows he does it well: in March, eight of the athletes he coaches made the 24-strong GB team competing in the World Cross Country Championships.


Until 1993 Woods combined coaching and full-time work, but that year he left his job as a British Telecom engineer to concentrate on his passion, taking a position in St Mary's High Performance Centre in west London, where he still works part-time. He has coached "countless athletes".  Visit thepowerof10.info and count: there are presently about 90 who name him as coach, but he is involved with many more than that at lower levels.


Woods has a simple philosophy when it comes to coaching: the squad, not the individual, is what matters. Star performers such as Twell, Purdue, Gorecka or English National Cross Country Champion Jonathan Hay (another of Woods' athletes) inspire those around them. "It's like a pyramid," he says. "What you get at the top end is only as strong as what you have at the bottom. That base is where those athletes come in. You try to channel them to the top."

Woods uses the word 'pathway' a lot, but that path need not necessarily take an athlete to a long career in athletics: "People might have an involvement in the sport in other ways, such as being a coach or administrator. But perhaps their time with me sent them on that pathway. And I think that is massively important."


Experience has taught him what to look for in an athlete. He first saw Purdue running when she was 11 years old, in a race in which she finished 16th. She says she has him to thank for her athletic career. "What I look for in an athlete is someone who has courage and the ability to stick at something when they are not necessarily achieving the best performance," says Woods. In Purdue he saw a girl who was really trying. "She was not an athlete with perfect movement. She had little leg lift and was very much a heel striker, but what I saw was someone who could have an engine - endurance - and that has always been Charlotte's success."


He says that talent will only take an athlete so far, that what is more important is commitment and an ability to stick to the task even when things are going wrong.


And things recently went wrong for Steph Twell, who broke her leg in a race in February. Her season is over but Woods has no doubt she will return and be in contention for the Olympics next year, though her preparation will have been severely curtailed. 
"I see Steph's real potential beyond 2012. With all the athletes I am coaching, their potential is beyond 2012 and if I stopped I feel I would be letting those people down. That's not what I intend to do. 

"I want to see this through because I don't envisage giving up coaching until the day I die. Or at least until the day I can't stand by a track and time-keep."

The Champion: Mo Farah

Britain in the 1980s: the Thatcher government, yuppies, strikes, shoulder pads, power ballads and three skinny white guys dominating distance running. Born in 1983, Mo Farah is too young to remember the golden trio of Steve Cram, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett - though he cites them all as his heroes, having since watched their races obsessively on YouTube. And he's proud to have been anointed by Cram as Britain's best distance runner in a generation. "For Steve Cram to say that about me, it's such an honour," says Farah. "I look up to him, Coe and Ovett so much and just hope I can follow in their footsteps."

Farah, 28, is well on the way to doing just that after the incredible year he's just had. Last July, he became the first British athlete - and only the fifth man ever - to win gold in both the 5000m and 10,000m at the European Championships in Barcelona. The following month, he became the first Brit to break the 13-minute barrier for the 5,000m, running 12:57.94 in Zurich and breaking David Moorcroft's long-standing record in the process. Farah now holds five British records: 10K road, 5K road, 5000m indoors, 5000m outdoors and 3000m indoors.

Farah was born in Somalia but moved to the UK when he was eight to live with his father, who was working here as an IT consultant. Little Mohammed didn't speak a word of English and initially struggled to settle in. But his PE teacher Alan Watkinson spotted in him a natural talent for running - one that he has personally nurtured for the last 15 years. When Farah got married in April last year to long-term partner Tania Nell, a former athlete and college classmate, Watkinson was his best man. Cram and mentor Paula Radcliffe were among the guests.

The couple managed to fit a honeymoon in Zanzibar around his training - but the return home didn't go according to plan. "We couldn't fly back because of the volcano ash cloud," Farah explains. "We were stranded in Nairobi for four days, and I was losing fitness and worrying about the European Championships. So I went up to the mountains to train. I ended up sending my wife home on her own, which wasn't easy. Winning the 5000m and 10,000m made the sacrifice worth it."

Training at altitude in the Rift Valley with Kenyan runners took Farah's running literally and figuratively to a higher level. "It took time to adjust to their way of thinking and training," he says. "The Kenyan runners are so humble and hardworking. They run, sleep, train and that's it. I'm living my life in that manner now. That's what you have to do to be among the best in the world."

As a Muslim, Farah has self-discipline, dedication and faith in abundance. The medals and records he's won in the last year are evidence of the lengths he has gone to in order to compete with the world's best. In March he moved to Oregon, US, with his wife and six-year-old daughter to work with new coach Alberto Salazar in preparation for London 2012. "I just need to stay focused and injury-free," he says. "It might be tough, settling into a new country. My mantra is: 'Train hard; win easy.' The Olympics is all I'm thinking about now. I can definitely win a medal. I know it's possible."

The Rising Star: Jodie Williams

UK Athletics head coach Charles van Commenee is a notoriously hard man to please. Since he took over in 2008, Britain's athletes have found it tough to convince the Dutchman they're worthy of wearing the GB vest.

So when he smiled and said, "She's the sort of athlete every country is waiting for," about 17-year-old Jodie Williams after the she finished fourth in the 60m at the Paris European Indoor Athletics Championships in March, his words caused quite a stir. Van Commenee could hardly contain his excitement at Williams' success in her first senior international championships, and he wasn't the only one.  

"It was an amazing experience competing in Paris," says the world junior 100m champion. "Just to be away with the senior team was great. It wasn't really that different from junior competitions. The only thing that was strange was that normally I'm expected to win races, but this time there were no real expectations on me. I felt like I'd be happy with however I did."

That's not really true, though, is it? She smiles, shaking her head. "OK, I'm extremely competitive so I really wanted to get through to the final. In the back of my head I was thinking of a medal, but these things can't always happen."

Throughout her junior career though, these things have always happened. Two years ago at the World Youth Championships in Italy, Williams, aged 15, became the first girl in the competition's history to achieve the 100m and 200m sprint double. A year later, she travelled to the World Junior Championships in Canada with expectations that she'd do the 'double double' and continue a winning streak dating back to 2007.

She started well, preserving her 149-race winning streak in the 100m - a victory she says was her "proudest moment" of the past 12 months, Paris aside. But then something strange happened: Williams was beaten. "At the time I was absolutely gutted," she says of her second place in the 200m final. But looking back now, it was a massive relief. There's no way I'd have wanted to go to the European Indoors in Paris still being unbeaten.

"Once I got to the final [in Paris] I was actually quite relaxed," she says. "I just wanted to do a bit better than my ranking - I think I was the sixth fastest in the race."

Williams was beaten to the bronze medal by one-hundredth of a second - something she only realised after watching the replay. "Because I was on the outside I couldn't see what was going on. Watching it afterwards though, I knew I'd come fourth and the Norwegian had pipped me to the line. I was happy with my race, but being so close to a medal was quite frustrating." Van Commenee clearly believes those medals will come, and we're inclined to agree.

The Humanitarians: The Good Gym

Sarah Ginn, 90, is dozing peacefully in her chair when 25-year-old Ben Young, slightly out of breath, gently taps her arm. She awakes. On recognition of her visitor, she radiates a warm smile. Ben, knocking back a glass of cold water, sits down and hands Sarah a copy of The East London Advertiser, which he delivers to her by hand every week.

Ben has just run three miles to visit Sarah in east London. He has been visiting her every week since last September, as a volunteer for community running group The Good Gym. Located in Tower Hamlets, The Good Gym pairs runners with elderly people in the community - with each runner committing to a weekly visit, delivering a newspaper or a piece of fruit as an excuse to drop in for a chat.

"We call the older person 'coach', as it's an empowering term that makes them feel special and also motivates the runners," explains The Good Gym's project manager, Mark Herbert. "The runner can't get away with calling up their 'coach' to tell them they're not coming that week because they can't be bothered. This pairing is mutually beneficial: the runner gets fit and the 'coach' makes a new friend. These quick visits make a huge difference to people's happiness; it has been proven that regular inter-generational contact improves cognitive ability, reduces vascular diseases and increases lifespans."

Sarah's daughter and live-in carer Linda, 51, heard about The Good Gym through her mother's day centre and decided to give it a go. "It cheers her up no end," Linda says. "Since Ben's been coming I've definitely seen an improvement. She was starting to lose her memory but now it's getting a bit better. She really looks forward to seeing him. On the day he's due to visit she always says, 'My young man is coming over tonight!'"

Mother of seven children, and grandmother and great-grandmother to a pack of 46, Sarah is the matriarch of an adoring family who aim to make the remainder of her life as comfortable as possible. Linda points to a picture of Sarah, 20 years younger and her face lit up by a huge grin, surrounded by a group of equally smiley people. "This is when Mum won a community service award," she explains. "She did so much for people right up until she turned 70. She raised us after our father died and was a governor for at least six schools. We were all very proud."

Making a difference

Ben, a teacher, heard about The Good Gym when he picked up a flyer for it in a local cafe. Originally from Sydney, Australia, he moved to east London last May and was keen to meet new people and find motivation to keep running in the colder climate. His weekly run to Sarah clocks up 10K - with a tea break in between - and alongside his improved fitness he says that this relationship has enriched him. "At first I didn't know what to expect," he says. "I had visions of being with her for hours, drinking loads of tea. The first visit wasn't anything like that - I was in and out in five minutes. I felt more like a delivery boy than anything. But now I feel I'm really making a difference to her life. I see her face light up when I walk in, which is lovely."

The Good Gym was initiated in the summer of 2009 by film-maker Ivo Gormley, when he ran a copy of The Sun over to an ex-boxer friend. Arising from his frustration that normal gyms were a "waste of energy and human potential", Gormley's aim was to build a collective of volunteers that would channel energy into social good, leaving the shackles of the treadmill in favour of reaching out to the local community.

The Good Gym now has over 60 members - all aged between 25 and 35 - whose aim is to combat the rising loneliness and isolation of elderly people living in the UK and improve their quality of life.

The statistics speak for themselves. According to Age UK over 300,000 elderly people in the UK can go for a month without speaking to a single family member or neighbour. "The Good Gym isn't designed to replace any other services," says Herbert. "We're not delivering meals on wheels, medication or anything essential - the visits are purely social, which is good for both sides."

Alice Westlake of Age UK agrees: "Any service that helps combat isolation among older people is a good thing. Many befriending schemes are facing an uncertain future because of local council budget cuts, so a service like The Good Gym can help fill the gap. But we must be careful not to cast older people as 'helpless', waiting passively to receive help."

As well as Ben and Sarah, The Good Gym has created many other beneficial pairings. Paul has run an apple to Veronica, 83, ever since illness made it difficult for her to get out. Rebecca runs to Elizabeth, 86, delivering vegetables, household goods or a recipe. And then there's Anna, a busy city analyst, who runs in her lunch hour to Denis, 73, bringing him his favourite chocolate bar.

Alongside the independent weekly runs to their 'coaches', The Good Gym members meet once a month. Here, as an add-on to a group run, they take on a local project. In February this year, a gang of volunteers ran from Bethnal Green to the Somerford and Shacklewell Estate in north London, grabbed some spades and shovels, and helped to shift mounds of compost to the residents' new allotment.

"We've done all sorts," says Mark. "We've ripped down an old banner for the council, cleared a room in a library and we even decorated a care home last Christmas. It's amazing how much tinsel 15 people can get up in 10 minutes!"

Sarah and Ben are still chatting when it's time for Ben to leave. They are talking about music and dancing. "When I young, I danced a lot," Sarah says. "I liked swing, Patsy Cline and Elvis." She looks up at Ben and smiles once again. "Look at his face," she says. "He's like me, all big smiles, and that's special." Ben blushes, kisses her on the cheek, says goodbye and heads out into the East End night.

The Jane Tomlinson Inspiration Award: Daphne Hathaway

While I'm still alive, I want to live." That's more than Daphne Hathaway's fundraising motto; it's also a reminder that for her, being alive means staying active, come what may.

Daphne, 75, started running at 60 to help ward off the retirement blues, and not even a decade spent caring for two seriously ill relatives could knock her off her feet. She won several county medals at distances ranging from 5K to 26.2 miles, and consistently placed in the top two or three for her age group at her favourite race, the Dublin Marathon.

But in 2009 Daphne was disconcerted to see that her Dublin time was 40 minutes slower than in 2008: she was exhausted without knowing why. Then on Christmas day that year, when Daphne bent over to pick up a jigsaw piece from the floor she was stunned by a terrible pain in her chest. It turned out to be a hole in her breastbone, eaten away by a rare form of incurable bone marrow cancer called myeloma. Daphne finally had to stop running.

"The doctors told me any pounding will fracture my bones, so I can't jog, jump or climb any ladders - but I can still walk," Daphne says. "Having already earned my Good for Age place at this year's London Marathon, I wanted to honour it - so I committed to walking 26.2 miles instead."

Daphne threw herself into her new training programme with the good humour of a person who refuses to sugar-coat the truth, but also refuses to let herself be overwhelmed by the facts. She even claims to have discovered a new feeling she calls the 'walker's high'.

Based on her new pace of 17:30-minute miles, she fixed on a target time for London of around seven and a half hours, some three hours longer than her PB of 4:46:21.

She walked the race with no protection other than a sign on her back politely asking other runners not to jostle or bump into her. Far more thought went into her eye-catching race-day outfit, and into dyeing the hair that she didn't lose through chemo bright blue and green.

"I thought if the chemo left me totally bald, I might get a tattoo there instead," she explains. "I don't want to fade into the background; it's much better to go out with a bang. So I've changed my focus from trying to get a good time, which is irrelevant, to raising as much cash as I can."

In a typically selfless gesture, Daphne is raising this money not for cancer charities, but for the Alzheimer's Society. After 11 years of caring for her husband and her 100-year-old father,  both of whom suffer from the disease, she knows only too well the terrible frustration of someone who has started to lose grasp of their identity.

"I count myself lucky to still be in control of my life and able to express myself freely," Daphne says. "Walking isn't quite the same as running but at least it's something. Something useful that I am still more than capable of.

"We've all got to go in the end and if my bus comes along a bit earlier than expected, so be it. But my illness doesn't mean I have to sit still and do nothing - that's just not me."  

To sponsor Daphne, visit her charity page at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/DaphneHathaway

The Survivor: Geoffrey Corcoran

What is true misfortune? Is it losing a loved one? Losing your home? Your job? Your family? Perhaps it's all four, as happened to actor Geoffrey Corcoran in 2006. In the space of a few months his mother was killed in a car crash and his father died shortly afterwards. He lost his best friend to breast cancer, before becoming estranged from his sister over a family dispute, a situation that spiralled into him losing his job and his home, and ending up in a hostel at the age of 60.

"I was so depressed that I couldn't think straight or make simple decisions," he says. "I was an ultra runner and 3:40 marathoner at that time, but I stopped running - which in hindsight was the biggest mistake I could have made. I became a recluse. My weight ballooned and I couldn't sleep. I just sat in an armchair in a filthy flat.

"I know the actor Simon Pegg and at that time he was filming Run Fatboy Run. I was going to be offered a part in it, but he saw that I was too depressed to work properly, so I couldn't take the job."

Geoffrey's doctor prescribed anti-depressants, but instead of subduing his suicidal feelings, they intensified them. He made a trip to Beachy Head, but held back from taking his own life.

In December last year Geoffrey wandered into a newsagent's, where a copy of this magazine caught his eye. "I had stopped reading Runner's World when I first became ill," he says. "The sight of the familiar lettering stopped me in my tracks. I spent 20 minutes reading it until I was informed that this wasn't a library. So I bought the magazine.

"The next morning I got up at 6am and walked an hour to Hampstead Heath in my kit. When I got to Kenwood House I began to shuffle a bit. I lasted 20 seconds, then I had to stop and walk. I carried on like this for a bit - jogging very slowly then walking - and I knew I had found the thing that was going to save me. After about 25 minutes I stopped and cried. All I could think was, 'I'm back.'

"I got the bus home and did something amazing: I went to the cafe round the corner and had poached egg on toast, the first time I had been able to go out and eat in public for five years. I felt fantastic."

Six months later Geoffrey's recovery continues apace. He has work, a flat and a new set of friends from his local running club. And he can run for an hour without stopping.

"What running can do for you is amazing," he says. "It's the best therapy. Now I'm running again,  I'm never going to stop."