04 May In the Spotlight – Catherine Barker

Thanks to Bethan, my birthday buddy, for the nomination.  It has really made me think about, and be grateful for, running and made me feel old (reflecting on how much the world has changed in just a couple of decades). Incidentally, I think it is I who will be trying to keep up with her when we get back to racing.

When did running begin for you?

When I was about 8, my best friend and her brother invited me and my brother to join them in a “Fun run”.  It was 12 laps of the Aston Villa football pitch and my first-ever run.  All I can recall of it, was my friend very kindly trying to encourage me around the last few laps of a stadium that was empty but for the organisers, our brothers and her dad, all waiting for me.  We were last (though my friend could easily have finished much earlier) and I had hated the whole thing.  So I can categorically say that it did not start then!

When it did begin, is harder to pinpoint.  Growing up, I played a lot of tennis (not particularly well, I must admit).  Back then, tennis was more seasonal than now, requiring decent weather, light and as now, other people to play with.  “Running” (or “jogging” to be more accurate) was something I started doing very occasionally, perhaps from about my mid-teens, when I could not play tennis but wanted some exercise.  The odd holiday jog with my Dad or in the dark in the Winter.  Then when starting at university (nobody played tennis in the Winter) and later living in London (I could not afford to join a tennis club), running (I think that was a fair description by then) was one of the things, alongside swimming and aerobics, that I turned to instead.  In those early days, I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it much – it was lung-busting, but I enjoyed being outside, the feeling when I had done it and, over time, the satisfaction of being able to run further.  Gradually, it hurt less and I began to appreciate the actual running bit.  And it had the distinct advantage over those other forms of exercise in being the cheapest and most convenient option.

I think it really started to take hold of me when I was in my mid-20s living in London.  I was inspired by a colleague who went from non-runner to running the London Marathon in a few months.  It showed me that anything was possible.  So I started running again, applied in the ballot and got a place for the 2001 event.  It was, I think, my 4thever event, not counting the Aston Villa fiasco.  One of those 3 events was the Civil Service Sports Club 10k Championship around Battersea Park, for which I donned my first ever team vest, running for the Lord Chancellor’s Department where I then worked.  I do not recall how I did (although I do remember battling against a woman whom must have been over twice my age!), in fact, I had completely forgotten about it until I found this photo when searching for marathon photos.

I ran the marathon in 4:41 that year, and although I stopped running for a while after that, I duly applied the next year and got in again (those were the days!).  In 2002, I recorded an improved 4:26.  On both occasions, I ran in the Brain and Spine Foundation team, led by non-running captain, Des Lynam.  Here is a newspaper picture from the after-party in 2002.

Back then, I knew very little about training, speed sessions, hills etc.  Nor did I know many other runners.  I just plodded around pretty much always at the same pace, but increasing the long run each week.  After the second marathon, I started to run more regularly and was improving my pace (I was delighted with 48 mins in an undulating 10k), but then work, getting married and having children got in the way.  After the second maternity leave, the only opportunity I had to run was the 7 miles to and from work, which I did once a week in each direction.  Those runs kept me sane during difficult times at work and as there was so little time to run, I would just go as fast as I possibly could, literally running away from the stresses of the day.  And that was how I got faster.  It was a lovely run – taking in several of the Royal Parks (St James’s, Green, Hyde and Kensington) and Buckingham Palace.  Gradually as David (our youngest) got older, the opportunities for running increased, so I embarked upon one half marathon a year (Windsor in 2012 and 2013, Bournemouth 2014) and at the end of 2013, I discovered parkrun (late, I know).  Getting that first parkrun results email from Poole parkrun, telling me I was 14th female and 1st in my age category awakened my competitive side and changed Saturday mornings forever.  We moved to Wales in 2014 and I joined P&D in September 2015, which was of course, one of the best things I have ever done.  I made my club debut at the July 2016 SSAFA and that was when “racing” began for me – I was hooked.

Why do you run?

Because I love it.  I know I am addicted (as my children regularly tell me), but so what?

From early on, I loved running through the heart of a city on a Sunday morning, in empty streets that the rest of the time would be teeming with people (remind you of anything?), watching them just start to come alive, often to the sound of church bells.

I love the satisfaction of running a long way (did anyone else used to use string and rulers to try to measure from an A to Z how far they had run?  How technology has advanced!) or as far as you can see and beyond.

I have loved finding my way around new places by running and often getting lost.  In one run, I discovered both Richmond Park (and that there are deer in it) and that I could run for 2 hours, having not run for more than an hour before, which is all I had set out to do that day!

I love running by the sea, by rivers, through parks, in the dark and even in the rain.

I love that it is a sport that connects people whatever their ability.  If you watch a parkrun or a race, the really fast runners come through, focused and intense and so are all the other runners behind them.  They might not all be as fast or as graceful, but at no point does it change and become unrecognisable compared to the early runners.  And I love that you can take part in the same event as the elite in the world, even if it is many many footsteps behind.

I love the connection between runners – it brings all sorts of people together regardless of their background.  I love the support they give each other even in competition.  I love acknowledging other runners whilst out running.  One of the most beaming smiles I have had from another runner, was, I think, from Princess Beatrice in Hyde Park (didn’t think it was good etiquette to ask her!).  Incidentally, another time whilst running on the Thames towpath, I called out to another runner who looked as I imagined the brother of the friend who took me to that “Fun run” would look as a grown up and it was indeed him (I had not seen him for nearly 20 years).  I don’t know if I would have called out if we had not both been running.

I love that the whole family can run together and in events.

To sum up, I guess I love it because it makes me feel connected to life.

What race or moment in your running career holds the most significance and why?

Well, being the first female in the Great Welsh Marathon in 2018 was of course quite a moment, though I could not have done it without Steve urging me on towards the end and critically, warning me how far away the competition was.

But the more significant moment fo me was doing the final leg of Castles in 2019.  It was of course such a huge privilege to carry the P&D flag through the finish line, but it also meant so much to me given that less than 4 months earlier, I had undergone surgery for a broken arm and dislocated wrist.  And I would be lying if I said I was not chuffed with my time that day.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Stillman)

Who is your running inspiration?

Paula Radcliffe.  Who could not witness the ups and downs she has had so publicly and not be inspired?  I saw her running in Regent’s Park once, leisurely in a group (she was pregnant at the time).    Closer to home, I am pretty inspired by the Barry junior parkrunners – there are some very determined and dedicated young athletes there, who make running look effortless.

What event past or present would you like to take part in and why?

Can I chose one of each?

Past – that run they did around the London Olympic stadium in the run up to the Olympics (I applied in the ballot, but did not get in).

Present/future – I am not really that bothered about travelling the world to run; I wracked my brain for the most exotic event I have ever done and all I could come up with was Gorleston parkrun (it’s a hop, skip and a jump along the beach from Great Yarmouth, so hardly exotic, but it is the furthest away).  So for me, it would be Snowdonia.  It just looks and sounds great.

What golden piece of advice would you give to other runners?

I don’t know that I have any for other runners, except perhaps always to make sure you are enjoying it.  I think my advice would be for non-runners, those that think they cannot run or who are just starting out.  It would be – do a parkrun, it may be life changing (for the better, of course).

After sleeping on it, I did come up with a tip for racing – beetroot juice before, cherry juice after!

What is next?

At the moment, I would be happy just to run to Barry or through Cosmeston if this crisis would only go away.  But if and when life does return to normal, my next goal would be my 5th marathon (I was supposed to be doing London last month), with the aim of going sub 3:30 and thereafter going sub 20 mins in a 5k (doing a marathon is the only way I have found to make significant inroads into my 5k PB).

Who would you like to nominate?

This is the hardest of all.  So in the end, I put some names in a hat and selected one at random.  And the winner is … Chris Nellins.

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