Fitness: Velvet hits the road with Let's Run Girls
Recognising a need for a supportive women-only running club, Danielle Guy launched Let’s Run Girls Cambridge in 2016. Since then, more than 1,000 women have pounded the streets with the volunteer-led group, as Louise Cummings discovers
Danielle Guy despised running as a child. The gruelling bleep test, arduous cross country races in blistering heat, explosive sprints, all filled her with horror. “I didn’t mind team sports like netball and volleyball, but anything that involved running I hated. In fact I actually skived off sports day. It was my idea of hell!” recalls the 27-year-old, who lives in Waterbeach. “I grew up in Singapore and the climate was tropical so cross country was just mud and sweat – plus we had to run through a passageway which we called ‘Snake Alley’ – and you can imagine why!”
Danielle’s early aversion to running makes her current achievements all the more remarkable. An Active Lifestyle Officer with Cambridge City Council, she helps people to get fit, and is almost evangelical about the benefits of running.
She’s conquered 5k and 10k runs, half marathons and the London Marathon - and in 2016, determined to bolster the confidence of likeminded women on their own running journeys - she founded Let’s Run Girls Cambridge. The friendly, ladies’ club welcomes absolute beginners to its free 12-week courses, and invites seasoned runners on 5k jaunts in and around Cambridge.
So what led to this extraordinary about-face? The running epiphany came during a year in Spain, where Danielle was teaching English as part of her languages degree at Cambridge University.
“It was quite a stressful time, being on my own and trying to remember the names of the 150 children I was teaching. I’d been home for Christmas, eaten way too many chocolates, and felt
really lethargic, so on the plane journey back I made a New Year’s resolution to start running – and it’s the only resolution I’ve ever stuck to!” she exclaims.
Danielle followed the NHS Couch to 5K training plan, religiously running three times a week.
“Around week six, I realised I wasn’t thinking about breathing or putting one foot in front of the other – my mind had gone somewhere else. And that was the moment I thought ‘this is what people mean when they talk about the mental space running gives you’. So along the way I really started to feel the benefit – and I became hooked.”
Back in Cambridge, Danielle clocked up the miles, her sights set on the London Marathon. To secure a coveted place, she volunteered to be marathon secretary for Cambridge University’s Athletic Club, though the experience proved daunting. “Club meetings were so intimidating. I’d only been running for six months and they advertised their ‘easy run’ as an eight minute mile. I’d been proud of myself to that point; I’d done my first half marathon and really progressed – and that hit my confidence. I was put off trying to run with anyone else for quite a while.”
Danielle triumphed in the London Marathon in 2015, but still lacked the confidence to sign up to an official running club. However, while working for charity, Living Sport – the County Sports Partnership for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough - her perspective changed.
“Colleagues were curious about how I got into running, so I’d suggest trying the Couch to 5k, but many said they struggled to stay motivated running on their own,” she explains. “The more I spoke to people, the more I realised they needed a helping hand, so I floated the idea of a running club for women.”
Having qualified as a fitness instructor during her year abroad, Danielle already had the expertise, and enlisted the help of two gym pals who were keen runners. Living Sport agreed to fund the trio through a course to become qualified Leaders in Running Fitness (LiRF) with England Athletics, and in early summer 2016 they set up expectantly on Jesus Green for the inaugural Let’s Run Girls meet.
“We weren’t sure if anyone would turn up,” recalls Danielle. “We’d put some posters up on toilet doors at the Fort St George, in local shops and advertised the beginners course on Facebook. We actually had 10 women turn up!”
Of the starting line-up, six made it to the end. “It felt a real sense of achievement to get them up to 5k,” Danielle smiles. “In week one, no-one thinks they can do it – and I remember vividly how hard it felt running for 60 seconds. But the really lovely thing about running is you do see improvement really quickly.”
Once the course finished, the fledgling runners - now able to complete 5k - were so buoyed by their progress, they didn't want to leave. So as well as laying on further beginner sessions, Danielle launched a group for steady runners. The Let’s Run Girls facebook page quickly followed, and enquiries flooded in from women wanting similar groups in their neighbourhoods.
Trumpington acquired its own club next, with Living Sport agreeing to train more run leaders to make it happen. Abbey, Chesterton, Ely, Sawston, Fen Drayton, Milton and Waterbeach have since followed suit, with hundreds of women pounding the pavements together each week, come rain or shine.
“We must have seen over a thousand women run with the group, from students up to a 62-year-old, which is amazing,” enthuses Danielle. “One of our first runners has since moved to Germany and is doing her own version of Let’s Run Girls there. We have about 40 leaders now, with each group fairly autonomous.”
Though membership is free, with crowdfunding campaigns used to cover the cost of training new leaders, Let’s Run Girls stocks its own bright merchandise, from T-shirts to hoodies, with a small portion of the proceeds ploughed back into the club.
“It’s really nice when you turn up to races like Cambridge Half Marathon and you see a runner in a Let’s Run Girls vest and you end up having a chat as it’s such a friendly group,” Danielle smiles. “I like to think the ethos is the same across all the groups. It’s not elitist or overly competitive - it’s supportive.”
Four years from the inception of her inspiring programme, Danielle – who leads the Chesterton runs – believes the key to its popularity is the notion of accountability.
“Running with the group keeps you accountable; having the same session each week, knowing there will be a group of girls there waiting for you gets you out of the door. It’s also a nice escape from whatever is going on at home or work.”
Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, Danielle had started recording podcasts, but these are especially valuable since the club runs have been suspended due to social distancing. “We are doing a 12 part series which guides people through the beginner programme, so it’s similar to Couch to 5k in that it will tell you when to walk and when to run, but I also talk to 12 different guests along the way about their running experiences.”
During the pandemic, Let’s Run Girls members have kept each other motivated on WhatsApp, posting pictures of their solo runs and the Trumpington group even organised a relay event, social distance style, of course.
Undeniably proud of what Let’s Run Girls has achieved thus far, Danielle admits she’s still shocked that the child who hated running with a passion has grown into a woman who wholeheartedly embraces it. “I think my younger self would be just amazed that I can run 5k!” she enthuses. “I always used to watch people out running and feel quite envious of them and wish I could do it. And now I can!”
* Find out more about Let’s Run Girls Cambridge at letsrungirlscambridge.uk
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More by this authorLouise Cummings