Club in the running for award after helping Helen get back on her feet

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A RUNNING club in Tunbridge Wells has been nominated for a prestigious accolade for supporting mental health issues after it helped a woman recover from tragedy.

Sarah’s Runners is one of nine nominations for the All In The Mind awards, associated with Claudia Hammond’s BBC Radio 4 programme of that name.

They recognise the people and organisations that have gone ‘above and beyond the call of duty to help you with your mental health’.

The group, which was founded by Sarah Russell and meets every Thursday, was nominated by Helen, whose husband took his own life when she was 38 weeks pregnant.

It was Helen who found his body. Her daughter born three weeks afterwards – and she already had a toddler to look after.

That happened five years ago. The 43 year old, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, credits Sarah’s Runners with turning her life around. ‘I feel I have changed so much since then,’ she said.

‘I started going to Sarah’s Runners about a year after my husband took his own life. By the time I started running I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by my finding him, and I felt the need to run, but I was struggling to run for more than a few minutes at a time.’

Even when Helen overcame that initial obstacle, it was not an immediate release; it would take time to interact with other people – and she feared their judgement.

‘Sarah went running with me one on one and persuaded me to try running with the group,’ she said. ‘I didn’t feel like I could talk to new people, I had completely lost my confidence.’

However, her new companions were to prove a very special resource. ‘The group has been amazing, they have always been inclusive and welcoming,’ said Helen.

‘I have never felt that either my husband or I have been judged by what he did. This is a particularly difficult thing to deal with when bereaved by suicide, and it regularly happens.’

She added: ‘I have met many people who run to help with their mental health within the group, which helps normalise my feelings.

‘There’s no pressure within the group, no competitiveness to improve times. More important is to support each other, run together and enjoy the benefit of running.’

Sarah recalled when Helen approached her: ‘It made me feel really emotional. I remember getting an email from Helen four years ago.

‘I woke up to hear her telling her story with tears running down my face, thinking ‘if there’s anything I can do, I want to do it’.’

Helen said: ‘When I found my husband, I went into a frozen state, I just couldn’t move. It was a way of me being able to protect myself. It was ‘fight or flight’ – and I could do neither so I just basically froze.

‘Then, when I then gave birth, within there was this overwhelming desire to be able to run away. It was obviously the ‘flight’ response kicking in. Every time I went out to run, literally within three or four minutes I would be exhausted and couldn’t run any further.

‘Going out with Sarah, she taught me how to slow myself down, how to do everything calmly, and the confidence I got from just being able to run further was just incredible.’

She found that the other runners could offer similar support. ‘They have all been really sensitive. I would start having flashbacks to the event and that would cause me to have the panic attack. I wouldn’t be able to breathe.

‘They would say, ‘let’s just rein it in a bit, let’s walk up the hill’, and they just kept talking to me until I was able to talk back to them.’

Sarah’s Runners is more about mental health than physical fitness. ‘That’s what makes it so special and so important,’ explained Sarah.

‘So many runners focus on times and personal bests and get wrapped up in that. There’s so much more that running can offer for your mental wellbeing.

‘What we focus on here is creating an environment where people don’t feel judged, they don’t feel under any pressure, they can go at their own pace and just come along and feel they can exercise in a safe environment.

‘We run, we walk, we chat, but we provide mental health support almost inadvertently, and that’s what is so fantastic about it. I didn’t realise that until fairly recently.’

She added: ‘Running and movement, that’s the therapy, and the chat that happens while you’re running is really important.’

Helen nominated Sarah’s Runners because: ‘I really wanted Sarah to see how much she’s meant to me and other members of the group. It’s a big part of my life today.’

The awards will be announced at the end of June, and one of the judges is a bit of an expert on running – and has also dealt with her own mental health issues: Double Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes.

Dame Kelly said: ‘I am very aware that physical activity is a great tool and therapy for people that are struggling with their lives.

‘I also think that in sports groups you have a big social interaction, which stops isolation and stops you feeling you are on your own.

‘It gives you that energy and spirit to realise you are not the only person. And physical activity gives you the kind of adrenaline and positive affirmations that you need.’

PICTURE: GAINING CONFIDENCE: Sarah Russell (left) and Helen

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