The streets are quiet on Tuesday night in Royal Leamington Spa. The biting November wind and driving rain has convinced most people to stay indoors, but as you turn the corner of the high street, there’s a gaggle of chatter. By the time the park comes into view, so do the hi-vis vests, flashing running lights and some 50 pairs of neon leggings.
This is Run Like A Girl — and they say this is a shoddy turnout. With 1,500 members on their Facebook group, they are more like an army of women than a local running club, and they have been shortlisted for The Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Community Award in association with Vitality.
Organisers and founders Lauren Gregory and Rebecca Chumun, both 37, grab a megaphone to direct the rabble to 5km, 10km and beginners’ training groups. Gregory and Chumun founded Run Like A Girl (RLAG) in July 2015, when they were “blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen”. They started an eight-week beginners’ course, encouraging women who had never run before to run 5km, loosely based on the NHS-led “couch to 5km” challenge.
Gregory, a personal trainer, had met Chumun at an antenatal class when they were both expecting their first children, now six years old. Gregory was a keen runner — she runs ultra-marathons — and Chumun had just completed her own “couch to 5km”, so they decided to set up a casual local club for women who wanted to pound the pavements with a bit of company.
Thank you for giving me my wife back. She’s a new woman. You have given her her life back.
“The first time we ran an eight-week beginners’ programme, we had 30 people,” says Chumun. “It was before we had any real booking system and we just told people to come and join us. The next time, there were 90.”
By April this year, that number had risen to 250. “We did gridlock Warwick,” Chumun grins. “That’s when the council called us in to find out what was going on.” What was going on was a feminist revolution in the parks of the West Midlands. Gregory, Chumun and their dozen or so volunteer “lead runners” have now put more than 800 women through the beginners’ course in the past year. So many of their women signed up to the Birmingham half marathon that they hired a coach to take them, and they recently trademarked RLAG in Australia and are looking to do the same in America as members move and take the movement with them.
Runners range from 12 years old to late sixties, encompassing mother-and-daughter pairs, classmates, colleagues and friends. All the stories start the same: “I wouldn’t call myself a runner,” “I’m not an athlete,” “I’ve never been sporty.” Then comes the admission: they recently completed their first half marathon, or 10km. One woman says she is “not a natural runner” before admitting she has now run three half marathons and four 10km races.
The club’s members have often fallen out of touch with sport after having children. Saty Kandola, 49, was one of those women. “I hadn’t run for more than 20 years,” she says. “It’s been amazing — all these women together, it’s such girl power. RLAG makes the impossible possible. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could run a half marathon, but I did this weekend.”
“It does give you that feeling, it really does,” says Nikki Mills, 41, a mother of three and a clinical psychologist. “I’ve never ever run, but I saw the support everyone gave each other. I went from struggling on that first week to run 90 seconds to signing up for two 10km runs.”
For most of the women, the biggest benefit is not just in fitness, strength and confidence, but in what they take home at the end of a run. “We do so much more as a family now, outdoors,” says Mills. “I have two daughters who are 10 and 11 and when I first started they wanted to come out with me but I wouldn’t let them because I was embarrassed I wouldn’t be able to keep up. We all did a 5km run together a couple of months ago and they came out with me and said, ‘Mum, you’ve got so fast!’ and they were struggling to keep up with me. That was lovely.”
Gregory says she was recently approached by the husband of one of her members, who said: “Thank you for giving me my wife back — she’s a new woman, you’ve given her her life back.”
“At the Draycott 7km, there was one lady at the back,” says Chumun, “and spontaneously about 20 RLAG women turned around and came back for her so they could run the finish together.”
The camaraderie of the women has become famous throughout Warwickshire, and they wear their branded T-shirts with pride. “The name Run Like A Girl reflects the ferocity and the determination women can have when they’re challenged to do something,” says Gregory. “If you tell them they can’t do it, they’ll bloody do it.”
Both women are delighted at their nomination for the Community Award: “That’ll show anyone who said we weren’t proper runners.”