Debbie Croston (44) from Westhoughton wasn’t always a runner. In fact, she didn’t really know she could run at all. But four years ago, she thought she’d give it and a try.
Starting with small distances and a lot of walking she’d take herself out of the house, getting some space to herself. Over time she managed to get up to 5k and lost 10 kilos. However she was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst a few years ago. During recovery from surgery she couldn’t run, and then life got in the way. Running seemed like a distance memory.
By 2019 Debbie had put back on the weight she’d lost. She was itching to run again and started researching groups in her local area. This is when she came across the Howfen runners. Set up by Rob Mansfields, Howfen prides itself on being an inclusive running group, welcoming runners of all abilities and ages. Their motto is ‘no one gets left behind’, and their emphasis is about having a good time doing something you like, with people who have the same interests.
Debbie said, “I thought I might need some support to help me get up and get moving again but running is something I’ve always done by myself. I thought running with a group of people might be weird.”
After stalking the group on Facebook for a couple of months, Debbie took the plunge, pulled on her trainers and went out for her first group run. “I loved it; it was so inclusive. The Howfen runners were so welcoming and I loved the fact that runs are paced so everyone is supported. If you’re faster than the others, you double back and run at the behind, offering support and pushing each other on.
“Before Covid I’d meet up with the group every Tuesday and Thursday. There could be up to 90 of us, especially when the weather was good. We’d start at a central point, then break up into different groups based on distances and abilities, then come back together at the end. We’ve got everyone here – from couch to 5kers, to ultra-runners. But the thing about Howfen, is that we don’t exclude. Everyone is welcome, and we’ll make sure there’s a run suitable for everyone who turns up. Even if there’s more walking than running at first.
“Over time I’ve gone from not being sure, to being motivated and supported by a great group of people, to being a run leader! Before lockdown it was my job to lead one of the runs, to make sure my route was suitable to everyone in my group and to provide moral support – much needed on a cold, wet winter’s night!
“However, once we entered lockdown we couldn’t run together anymore. At first, we were still communicating on Facebook, but then everything went silent. People just stopped engaging. Those I knew and spoke to said they were struggling. Not just to get out and continue running on their own, but with their wellbeing too. I knew I had to do something.”
Since the beginning of lockdown Debbie has been setting challenges via the group’s Facebook page. From dress up runs, spotting rainbows, to pictures of animals encountered when running. Through interactive challenges she’s been helping to keep the group moving.
“When I realised the Bolton Marathon wasn’t going ahead, I knew I had to set our biggest online challenge yet. We had about 40 members of the group who should have been running in it. I split the route into six legs, so runners of all abilities could take part, and asked people to complete in teams of six. Runners did their ‘stage’ by themselves and we added each group’s times together. We tracked times via apps and wearable health monitors, got people to send in selfies and got everyone engaged in some friendly competition. I had medals made for everyone who participated. It was great to get everyone interacting and running again. And it gave everyone something positive to focus on, helping them get back into training.
“As the pandemic doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere quickly, I’ve already planned in a 5k Santa dash on 20 December. All our runners will be dressing up and running distanced around Westhoughton. It’s going to be a sight to behold!
“Since we’ve been able to, we’ve been meeting up and running in groups of six. To keep it safe we get people to book a run through an app. It’s been so nice to get out and have the wind in my hair again. During the summer my 21-year-old son has also been running with us. He plays professional rugby league and needed something to keep him fit as his training had ceased! It’s been great getting out and getting running with my son, it’s been a great way to bond over something we’re both interested in.
“You might just think it’s a running club, but to me it’s so much more. In Howfen I found a group of runners, who have quickly become a group of friends. Unfortunately, I lost my dad in December 2019 and earlier this year my mum suffered a heart attack after a fire at her house. With everything that was going on I just didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone. But there was this amazing group of people who’d just ring me. They weren’t forcing me to run, they were just checking in on me. But they’d encourage me to get out the house and meet up with them, run around the block and leave my worries behind for a blissful hour or two. They gave me something to look forward to each in week. They helped get me through the worst time of my life.
“Running with Howfen pushed me to run further and faster than I had when I’d been running alone. It also gave me the confidence to run with others, and the support when I thought I couldn’t run anymore.
“I feel fitter, healthier, happier and I’ve lost weight. 2020 has been a really hard year and having a whole group of people to talk to, and also support, has given me something positive to focus on. Running isn’t just about keeping the body healthy, it keeps the mind healthy too.”