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'My family's deaths were a wake-up call'

Helen Cleary took up running after losing her father and brother to heart disease.

After both her father and brother lost their lives to heart disease at a young age, Helen Cleary knew she had to make changes.

Then in her 40s, the mother of three was overweight and unfit, and couldn't go up a flight of stairs without losing her breath.

Sport or exercise was never her thing – school-age memories of punishing cross-country runs and being picked last for team games have a lot to answer for.

But since taking up running with Couch to 5K and parkrun (free, weekly 5km timed runs), Helen is a person reborn. She's lost 22kg (3.5st), dropped three dress sizes, and feels healthier, younger and more confident at 50 than she did in her 30s.

The south Londoner is proud to call herself a runner and, whether she's running or there as a volunteer, she says parkrun has given her a new sense of belonging.

Why did you start Couch to 5K?

I was overweight and unfit. I couldn't go upstairs without having to catch my breath and I was embarrassed to go for a walk with my sisters, as I was wheezing after a very short distance while they were striding along. All of that, plus the fact my father and brother both died young with heart problems, made me realise I had to get my act together.

What impact did their deaths have on you?

Dad had a heart attack at the age of 55. He had his first one when he was my age. My older brother died at 37 from dilated cardiomyopathy. He was overweight and unfit at the time. I always worried about it. 

I think that now I'm only five years away from my father's age when he died, it has really hit home that I won't live forever and if I carried on the way I was, it would be sooner rather than later. 

How has Couch to 5K changed you?

I have lost three-and-a-half stone and gone down three dress sizes by running and changing my eating habits completely. Now I go running two evenings a week with my husband and do parkrun when I can on Saturdays.

I recently turned 50, and I think I am healthier and much more confident now than I was in my 30s. I feel younger now, too. Running upstairs is no longer a problem.

How active were you before starting Couch to 5K?

Apart from walking the dogs, I wasn't at all active. Even the dog walking wasn't very strenuous, as I tended to stroll around the park. I never did anything else apart from that, and would just collapse on the couch in the evenings.

How did you hear about parkrun?

I walk the dogs in Nonsuch Park [Sutton, south London] and happened to be there one Saturday when it was on. I signed up but didn't do anything about it for a year, as I didn't think I could run.

My husband started doing parkrun and I didn't go with him to start with as I didn't want to make a fool of myself, but I went to cheer him on. I got talking to a couple of volunteers one Saturday and they persuaded me to give it a go, even if I didn't finish the course. So far I've done 20 parkruns.

Did you start parkrun after completing Couch to 5K?

No, I started parkrun probably two or three weeks into Couch to 5K. I sort of followed the podcast as I ran round the course; then, when it was finished, I just walked and ran the rest of the way.

Have your running times improved since starting parkrun?

Definitely! The first parkrun I did soon after starting Couch to 5K gave me a time of 44 minutes and 35 seconds. I was over the moon when I first got a time of under 40 minutes, and my best time has been 35:22, which was in May [2014]. 

I have had a month of not running due to illness and birthday celebrations, but I got back into it a couple of weeks ago, and today I did a fun 5km run in Seaford and my time was around 37 minutes, which was better than I had been expecting.

Do you run with friends or family?

My husband goes regularly – his 50th run was on July 12 [2014]. As he is much faster than me, he will often find me when he has finished and do the last bit of the course with me.

Have you made new friends doing parkrun?

Nonsuch parkrun is incredibly friendly. There are several people I chat to there who I consider friends. I've also started volunteering regularly, and the main volunteers and race directors all know me now. Next weekend we are having a "goldenrod party", where a group of runners and volunteers are going to help clear the park of this invasive weed.

Why do you volunteer?

The event organisers told us they would like everyone to try to volunteer three times over a year. The first time I volunteered, I had shin splints and was resting for a couple of weeks, and my husband was going to run so it was a way of still being involved.

Now I volunteer because I enjoy it. I like being part of the parkrun family. The regular volunteers are a good crowd. Also, I'd love to be that person who convinces someone to take their first steps in parkrun, just like I was.

How does parkrun keep you motivated?

Now that I've graduated from Couch to 5K, I need a focus to make me run during the week, and parkrun is perfect for that. Trying to improve my time is a fabulous way to keep me pushing myself. 

What does it mean to you to be able to call yourself a runner?

I am actually in awe of being able to say that. I think back to the kid I was at school, who was always picked last in games, hated cross country and road running, and would have said even then that I can't run.

I like calling myself a runner, even though I am not at all fast and still have a lot of improvements to make. It also gives my husband and me a shared interest and time together when we go out running. The fact that at 50 I can say I am a runner is really a rather fantastic feeling. 

Editor's note: Helen was interviewed in 2014.

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