gal-dem started a run club, and this is how it went

Supported by Nike

Earlier this year my reaction to runners was a combination of intimidation, irritation, and admiration for the wholesome lycra-clad speedsters, pacing it through the city in backpacks taking dramatic swigs from water bottles, while I sat on my daily rhythm of bus-tube-bus. 

I’m not alone though – for women of colour under 34, running regularly is a myth. According to YouGov, while 66% of us will have run in the last year, only 6% of us will have run in the last two weeks. Running, compared to most other active sports, has fairly few barriers to entry. There’s no gym membership, the only equipment that you “need” to buy is a pair of trainers (and maybe a water bottle), and if you are able to go, you can do it in groups or solo. Given all this, this spring we paired up with Nike to produce a free run club for women and non-binary people of colour, training our chosen team to be able to run a 5k over the course of two months.

Our running team was formed by mums looking to get back into running, people recovering from chronic fatigue, those of us looking for sport as self-care, and even those who just needed to be able to run for the bus. We invited everyone to join us for eight weeks, and the brave to sign up to the Hackney 5k after four weeks. Led by Nike Master Trainer Kim Ngo, we met every week by our Bethnal Green office over the course of the two months, to make friends, get fit, and overcome our own barriers. 

Two of our incredible runners – Giselle Richelieu and Rianna Stevenson – kept diaries logging their experiences with us. These stories are for any of you out there that need the boost to get up and running this year. Trust us, we’ve all got a wholesome lycra-clad speedster in us somewhere…

Giselle was born and raised in London and has worked as an Advocate and support worker for 12 years supporting young people with experiences of abuse and trauma. She has recently left the field to practice self-care, perform with her band FANIPAC Collective and develop black girls bloom, a brave space for young black women to share, heal and create community. 

Rianna currently works in advertising, and this is her first venture into writing for a magazine. Outside of her 9-5, she works on Supernova Mas, a carnival band she founded with her friends – keep an eye out for them at Notting Hill Carnival this year. You can follow her on Instagram @RiRiannaS and @Supernovamas. 

Signing up and Week 1

Rianna

The night before I saw the opportunity to join a running club for women and non-binary people of colour, I had cried to my boyfriend. I was feeling worse and worse about my body, about myself. It was impeccable timing. I was just about to relocate to London and start a new job and this was the perfect opportunity to push myself, grow and meet new people. I knew I had to go for it. Even if I didn’t get in, I made the first step towards doing something.

Walking into a room of women that looked like me erased my nerves. It was a relief to come into a “fitness” space and not feel tight and aware of my appearance. 

Physically, however, the first week was tough. We were tasked with running our first 1k but I couldn’t even finish it. I felt so embarrassed I couldn’t even do one lap of the park. I knew I didn’t push myself as much as I could have, so I was disappointed in myself a little, but I promised myself next week, I’ll try harder.

Week 2

Giselle

Today Kim was not playing! We started with a round of squats and I realised I could go deeper into the squat and faster than most of the group – but this came with a string of thoughts popping into my head, “‘You don’t want people to think you’re showing off, slow down so you don’t alienate yourself, it’s not a competition!” l started to feel anxious and almost altered my natural flow to match the group until I looked around and realised how absurd I was being. Giselle, no one’s watching you. Everyone was in their own head, on their own journey engaging with their bodies in whatever way they knew how. 

I felt silly and recognised my ability to make any situation a cause for worry, even being good at something. These trash thoughts were trying to derail my progress, so I decided then and there to go at my own pace for the rest of this and every session to come. I started a mantra in my head of “I move at my own pace, I am doing this for me”. We ran 2km around the park and I moved from the slower group to the fast group mid run. It was challenging, but I wanted to push myself. 

I have decided am going to sprint as fast as I can, keep pace for as long as I can, squat as deep and as much as I can every week to get the most out of this experience. My body has been craving this. It deserves this time and attention, it deserves to heal and rebuild.

Our runners in the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36

Week 4 and the Hackney 5k

Rianna

This week we received the freshest of creps – the exclusive Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36 before they were actually released to the public. To be honest, I was feeling myself and that was all the motivation I needed. We ran from the gal-dem offices to Victoria Park and back. It was a struggle with a few stops on the way but we did it – 5.2k! After that, it was decision day for me. I was umming and ahhing about running the Hackney 5k with the rest of the team, but the feeling of relief that came over me today made me pumped and excited to do it.

By the time the weekend came, I was so nervous I thought of faking something and pulling out. But when I arrived at the Hackney Festival of Fitness, the girls put me in a great mood. Despite this – plenty of moments reminded me of why running with WoC and NBPoC is so important. At the starting line, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to find a white woman asking, “Excuse me… could my daughter have some of your water?” I was confused, handed over my bottle, the girl took the drink and the mum barely said thanks. I ran the rest of the race holding an empty bottle. 

Despite that, as I ran, I got into my rhythm, running when I could and walking when I couldn’t run anymore. Nonetheless, I ran (and walked) my way to 5k and even took off at the end for a sprint finish! I was elated, I couldn’t believe that four weeks prior I had never ran before – except for the tube. Now here I was, completing my first race, with a bunch of amazing inspirational girls.

Week 6

Giselle

I really needed run club today. I had a rough evening yesterday and came to work with puffy eyes and a stream of unwanted thoughts on repeat in my mind. By the time I got to run club I was itching to get started. It was raining a bit and we had the option to stay inside but I voted to go out. I knew I needed the combo of exercise, nature and fresh air if I was going to have any chance of shifting this feeling

The session was hard – really, really, really hard! We did pure conditioning and all the sprints and my nerve and determination were being tested. I think because I was in a weird headspace my relationship to the work was different today. I could feel my mind and body needed the challenge and distraction but the work was tough to deal with as it collided with my already fragile emotional state. 

I kept affirming myself on the inside though and came around to the idea that I actually love to sprint. I find it really hard to do more than three in any one session (especially when there are lunges in between), but I love the feeling that I get when I sprint. I can feel the power in my legs propel me forward and the effort alone means I am totally consumed by the action. There are no thoughts when I sprint, just me, my power and the wind rushing by. I kept pushing myself, even when my legs felt like jelly, even when the 3rd set of lunges threatened to send me headfirst into the concrete because my legs weren’t having it. Kim saw me stumble and reset my spirit with her encouragement. She knew I could do it and reminded me I knew it too. I needed this today, I’m glad I came.

Our final week

Rianna

The warmup was very challenging – Kim wanted to push us harder. I was ready to give it my all and finish with a bang and Kim noticed the effort. We started the sprints and I felt something in my thigh; I pulled a muscle. I felt so frustrated and disappointed! We were divided into teams (I was repping #BADBITCHES). Even though I couldn’t participate, it was a great session. Saying goodbye was hard, we all connected over the time we spent training together. 

Unfortunately, run club didn’t make me love running, but, and this is a big but, it made me love exercise in a safe community. I even signed up to one of Kim’s Food & Lycra fitness sessions. I am going to continue on this journey to feel fitter, healthier and stronger. I met some amazing people, I have started liking my body more and finally found a “fitness” community where I belong. 

Giselle

I’ve learnt a lot about myself at run club, what I’m capable of and what it feels like to be in my body when I’m present and paying attention. I was reminded that exercise can be joyous when you’re motivated by something other than fear or shame and that for the most part, no one knows what’s going on in my head or how anxious I am. I remembered that when I’m comfortable I enjoy being with people and making new friends. I learnt how to run for real,  I’m here now, publicly sharing some of my unflattering truths with you. I’d call that progress. 

More than anything, I’ve learnt that out of all the existential crud I’m grappling with, working out, moving my body is something tangible that I know I can achieve right here, right now and anything that makes me feels good puts me in a better place to tackle all the other stuff I’m working through. I’m 5K closer to home.

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