Helen Davies, Former British No.1 Marathon Runner
Helen Davies – Former British No.1 Marathon Runner
Features and News by Nino Severino
In my feature this week, I would like to cover one athlete, who I believe represents the fact, that even if you are of a mature age, there is no reason why the glory of sport, and all it can bring, should not be a focus and aspiration. This woman is Helen Davies, and it has been an incredible privilege for The Hub to be part of her support team also supported by Dr Chris McMAnus and Kelly Murray from the Human Performance Unit, Essex University. I also write about her, as a mature athlete, and her “Hopes and Dreams”.
In 2010, Helen’s dream became reality, after committing to a life of training and competing, everything fell into place and she produced a marathon performance that earned her selection, not for one but for two international representations. She earned the opportunity to run for Great Britain in the European Championships in Barcelona, and for England in the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Helen committed all to this dream opportunity and gave up her full time job as a catering manager, and started her new career as a full time athlete, an incredibly brave decision that showed her utter commitment to her sporting “Hopes and Dreams” that drives the very tough life that a marathon runner needs to endure.
Helen tells me “The next two years was spent living the dream, multiple altitude training camps in Font Romeu and Iten in Kenya, training alongside the best athletes, not only in the UK, but in the world. My days were dedicated to training, eating, sleeping. I would have access to daily massage and physio, the best nutritional and medical advice. I lived to run. After the Olympic Trials at Virgin London Marathon and a PB performance of 2.34.11 I fell with my first baby and took a 5-year break from marathon running to start my family”. Helen had earned the life, she had dreamt of over so many years, but becoming a committed mother, was also extremely important to her, and for me highlights the incredible sacrifices that women make for their families, not only in sport, but also in business as well.
So, how is it years later, as nearly a 40 year old mummy of two boys (aged 4 & 6) is she running personal bests over 10k, half marathon and has just run a marathon PB (her fastest time since 2012) that placed her at the top of the UK marathon rankings, Overall! I spend a lot of time with Helen and her coach Clive Sparkes, through my role at The Hub, I asked her during one session, how on earth are you achieving this incredible level of performance, when others are retiring! She replied “when I made the decision to return to marathon running in 2017, the response from others close to me was mixed, and the majority did try to almost get me to lower my expectations, throw away comments along the lines of, ‘well you can run a marathon, but it’s going to be so much harder to train now’ ‘you won’t run a PB over the marathon’ ‘how are you going to fit it in’ ‘you will be so tired’ ‘how are you going to manage to train for a marathon around being a Mummy’ I think that last one was the stinger, the comment that got that fire in my belly burning. It made me ask myself, why can’t I be both things? Who says becoming a Mummy means I must lose the identity I had before I was a Mummy, I can do both things well. I know that these comments where harmless, and largely well-meaning by the people that made them, but throw away comments such as these, and how we can misinterpret them can actually be quite mentally destructive, they put barriers up in my mind, even if it is on a sub-conscious level, they plant seeds of doubt that can be really hard to remove”.
For me, as a former Olympic and British No.1 technical Coach, I can see how she has achieved this incredible life, Helen is organised and a committed perfectionist, she is also fiercely determined, and she often tells Clive her coach, “there is always a way”! She knew fulfilling her dream would not be easy, but knowing her, I think the challenge was part of the enticement for her, and the determination to achieve, what many said was simply not possible, this was part of the driving force that has led Helen to where she is now
Helen told me “I’m not going to lie, training for that Brighton Marathon in 2017, was hell, it was laced with so many emotions and struggles, physically and mentally. Physically the load was very exhausting on limited sleep and trying to keep all the balls in the air. Mentally I felt guilty and constantly questioned myself and what I was doing, and whether I was being selfish. If it had not have been for Clive, who constantly reassured me that I had nothing to feel guilty about, and that I could do it, I think I would have given up in the first 6 weeks. I guess the worst thing was, in the back of my mind so many people felt I couldn’t do it, shouldn’t do it, even those close to me, who I know where only trying to protect me from potential disappointment. When I voiced these concerns to Clive, he would say – the best thing you can do, is prove them wrong, let your success be your noise”.
She stood on the start line of Brighton Marathon in 2017, not really knowing what to expect, was she going to experience a fall, she questioned her decision to commit to the life of a Marathon runner, but on the flip side her mind was also telling her, was this the best sport based decision she has ever made! Either way she certainly didn’t expect to win it in a time of 2.42. This was a tough experience for Helen, but she knew, things could only get better, it was a life changing moment for her and she was so pleased that she had been brave enough and held onto her inner belief and Sporting “Hopes and Dreams”.
From this point on she knew she had to change and adapt the training to get the best from her body, but also fitting more training sessions in and around a busy family life and being a Mummy to her then 2 & 4-year-old children. This new phase would be a stark contrast to the glory days of 2010-2012. There would be no altitude camps, no midday naps, no funding, no physiologist and very little in the way of massage and physio, she knew she would need to be smart, and focus only on what was essential. Meeting Luke Read, the founder of Airborne Fit, was the fist major change, it was a turning point, and transformed her body in terms of athletic strength and conditioning.
The dreams then started to become reality again, after her 2.38 performance at Brighton last April, earning her England selection to run for the team at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in Canada, there was one major issue, it meant she would be away for her youngest’s 4th Birthday, and the trip would involve almost a week away from her children, these are the tough, but necessary sacrifices that need to be made as an athlete! Helen said “I had a seamless build up and standing on that start line, with no other thoughts in my head other than feeling ready to succeed. The power of self-belief was the added ingredient on that day, and ‘being human’ using that, gets you right in the tummy stuff’ its this that drives you and won’t let your mind go anywhere else”. At the end of 2018 the performance at Toronto placed her 4th fastest female over all in the marathon and top of the V35 age group rankings, at 39 years old, with her second fastest time ever of 2.35.11
A list was published by the athletics governing body of people who had been issued some funding on an endurance initiative. Incredibly, Helen was not included, despite women, significantly younger who had run slower, or indeed not run a marathon at all being included, now knowing Helen very well, I believe this only increased her desire to succeed! Her mind went into overdrive and she felt she was being viewed as a ‘has been’ it made her question herself and her dreams. She did not want to take the governing body to task over this, but Clive, her coach had felt strongly enough over it that he did write a letter to one of the main decision makers on the England governing body panel. I’m very pleased to write that Helen and Clive received a phone call and apology from the governing body, who did then add her to the funding list.
And this is where my life path crossed Helen’s and Clive’s, I contacted Helen, and offered the support from all the specialists in my team at The Hub. I read an interview, where Helen said “meeting with Nino lifted my spirits, his enthusiasm, excitement, passion and belief was so infectious, and added another layer to what myself and Clive where already doing”. I can’t express how important it is to me, to be part of Helen’s and Clive’s incredible lives, and I know, there is still much more to come from Helen, and I look forward to writing more about this incredible Ipswich duo in my future columns!
The Hub training, support and education is delivered from multiple sites, by The Hub team of experts. Images above taken from Helen’s and Clive’s session at Essex University, High Performance Unit, supported by Dr Chris McManus and Kelly Murray.