If asked to describe the perfect running club, what would you say?
Friendly, positive club leaders? Hundreds of members running for social, health and competitive reasons? Group runs for all abilities, led by enthusiastic members? A strong presence on social media and at a variety of local and national races, with support for all runners? Post run “rehydration and refuelling”?
Blackburn Road Runners has all this and more, as England Athletics found on a recent club visit.
Based at Witton Country Park, the club was founded in 1986 and over the following 25 years or so steadily built its membership to more than 100 members. However, over the last few years, as a result of the forging of close links with a local Couch to 5k group, the total number now exceeds 300.
The growth is down to the hard work of both the previous and present club officers and the Chair, Sue Wolstenholme. “I’ve been with Blackburn Road Runners for 15 years,” she explains. “I’ve been chair for the last two years since the club expanded and since we got involved in Couch to 5k. And I’ve seen its development from 180 runners to nearly 300.”
What has kept her involved for all this time? “Running is addictive in itself, but club running is even more addictive, because it’s got the social aspect as well. Running is incidental to the group. In fact, I don’t ever run on my own at all now. Ever.”
Sue credits the collaboration with Couch to 5k as a key part of the club’s success: “It started when Blackburn Road Runners were on the car park at Witton Park at the same time as a guy (who turned out to be Rick Wilson) was stood there with 6 other people. The next week, he had 10, then 15. On the fourth week I went over and asked him what he was doing. Rick responded that he was wanting to lose some weight but that he was scared of joining a running club, so he started a little group and it kept expanding.”
“I was really interested in that, because we always struggled to recruit new members. So we started a filter group and a progression group and we encouraged them then to come to Blackburn Road Runners, so it’s like a progression. That’s what’s expanded us over the last few years.”
On the cold and icy evening of the England Athletics visit, six groups running at varying paces, set off for a chilly and hilly 5 mile run, while a beginners and returners group tackled a 6k route.
England Athletics’ North Area Manager Emma Davenport looked on enviously as CEO Chris Jones opted for the 6k option, while Head of Business Development and Communications Dean Hardman, whose fitness was severely lacking, found himself embarking on his first 5 mile effort for some months, which included a stretch of the notorious St James’ Road, an urban incline that club members described as almost a fell run on tarmac.
In the end, the members got us through and showcased all that is great about club running – supportive, positive encouragement and enjoyable conversation that certainly helps the miles fly by.
Following the run, the majority of the 70+ runners who’d braved the conditions retired to a local cricket club, with whom BRR enjoy a strong relationship. While the bar was, unusually, closed for the night, members had brought drinks and food to share and sat back to reflect on recent achievements and experiences and to explain what makes Blackburn Road Runners so special in their experience.
Sally Heppenstall is one such runner. “I never thought I’d be in a running club, I never thought I could be ‘good enough’, but then I met Blackburn Road Runners members through our local C25k group who convinced me it wasn’t about being good enough, it was about having fun, meeting new people, keeping fit, challenging myself and helping others,” she beams.
“I read that running is a great leveller and its true, especially in our club. No one cares who you are, what you do or what you have. You are there to run together and help each other and it becomes more than just running, it feels like you are part of a community who will go the extra mile to help each other and lifelong friendships are made. In terms of the actual runs and races no one ever runs alone, and at every race we make sure we support every member how ever long they take to finish, and their achievement means just as much as the person who came in first.”
Dave Almond agrees: “I joined the club literally three weeks ago from another club. I joined for the social side, as well as the running. The social side and some really motivating club challenges between us all really attracted me.”
“The social media side is great and a lot of people are on Strava. You can train on your own, but it’s great that there’s always someone to go to races with. A lot of the guys are into marathons, while I’m more into 10ks.”
“The club has far exceeded my expectations. The club’s thriving, it’s buzzing. I try to come to the club after the run for the social side. The first time I came I didn’t know anyone, but straight away I was introduced to everyone and got to know them really quickly.”
Chris Jones thoroughly enjoyed the visit and seeing all that Blackburn Road Runners have to offer. He commented, “Blackburn Road Runners show all that is great about our sport. Everyone at the club made us feel so welcome and it was great to see a club in action that truly embraces every type of runner, from those who are new to the sport all the way to athletes who feature at the sharp end of races. Like many of our member clubs, Blackburn Road Runners show that athletics and running is for everyone, whatever their experience or ability and are clearly doing outstanding work in their community.”
What makes Blackburn Road Runners so special? Last word goes to Sue: “It sounds corny, but it’s the mutual support. If you look at any of the pictures on our site or come to any of the races, nobody goes home until the last person has finished the race.”