Running towards happiness: How a coffee with friends changed Emma’s life

We’ve all taken leaflets about something of interest and then stuffed them at the bottom of the handbag along with a lippie that’s lost its lid and an unused sanitary towel, forgotten until you’re at airport security and get stopped and they go all over (oh, just me then…)

However, for 44-year-old Emma Brunel Smith from Oxford, picking up a flyer when having a coffee with friends led to a new career, a fitter body and a whole new outlook on life.

Emma – aka Embot – is one of the inspirational women in my life. She features in my From a couch potato to the Great North Run post and I think I can truly say I would never have ran the GNR if it hadn’t been for her.

Her story begins a little under eight years ago, when she was at a loss after leaving the world of academic publishing behind following the birth of her daughter Evie, now nine.

“I was really overweight, bigger than I’ve ever been in my life, and not doing any exercise at all,” she tells me.

Out with friends one day, she saw a flyer for the Garden Cafe Runners running group, inviting new members to join. “It was very welcoming and friendly and they accepted all levels of runner,” Emma says. “And it happened to be on a Wednesday morning, when I wasn’t working and Evie was in nursery, and it was very near to where I live. So I went along.”

Fast forward a few years and that chance flyer has resulted in Emma running several marathons, making lots more friends and setting up her own business combining physical activity with a therapy service.

Plus, she says, the strength and conditioning has made her reassess her body image.

“It’s totally changed my attitude to my body, which I spent a lot of my life punishing. Now I love it,” says Emma, who is now also the mum to four-year-old son Joe – and two cats.

“I’m not Claudia Schiffer – nobody is, not even Claudia Schiffer probably really looks like that – but I’m my best me. And I love my body for what it can do now.”

Tell us how you started running…

It was a chance picking-up of a leaflet. Evie was about 18 months old and to be honest, despite having the most gorgeous baby girl ever to have been born in the world ever (no I’m not biased), I was a bit miserable and lost.

I’d decided not to go back to my career in academic publishing to retrain as a psychotherapist, so was permanently stressed out, working hard on a second degree I’d foolishly decided was a good idea, in an unpaid work placement as an NHS therapist.

Anyway, I was at a baby group with my NCT friends and I saw this flyer for the Garden Cafe Runners. So along I went and met this amazing group of utterly inspiring women.

Are they all lithe super-fit goddesses?

Some of them are retired, some work from home or part-time, some are on maternity leave and have a baby in a running buggy, as I did when I returned with Joe.

We have a few therapists in there too actually proving my TOTAL belief of how good exercise is for your mental health!

How did you start off?

That first run I wore a pair of old maternity joggers that were falling down with every step, a Judge Dredd T-shirt with massive holes in it and a pair of 15-year-old trainers. But I never looked back. I just loved it and from there I worked my up to my first 10k and then my first half-marathon and then I joined my running club Headington RoadRunners and the obsession was born.

Now I’m one of the leaders of Garden Cafe Runners, am training for my fifth marathon and am a qualified running coach and a qualified therapist. I’m extremely involved in my running club and this morning, me and Evie did Park Run together – and she knocked over a minute of her previous personal best!

What made you decide to go for your coaching licence?

It seemed like the logical next step, really. I got my Leader in Running Fitness Qualification so I could help out with Garden Cafe Runners, but I’m also heavily involved with Headington RoadRunners and was helping out at a ridiculously early-morning track session run by my friend and coaching mentor Tony. The club needed more qualified coaches and as I was already doing a bit of coaching and leading a lot of runs, I decided to go for it.

I have to say, it was a big step up in terms of the work and the commitment, but it was worth it. I really enjoy it and along with the track sessions, Tony and I also have an online group where we work with Headington RoadRunners training for their first marathons and half-marathons. It’s very rewarding.

I’m also on the books of We Run Coaching and am VERY much available for one-to-one running coaching in the Oxfordshire area. #shamelessplug

What do you get from running?

Ooh, a lot!! To flip that around, you should see how HORRIBLE I am when I’m not running, if I’m injured or something. Ask my husband about that one!

What I get from running is more than just the physical exercise, although that is a big part of it. I realise now I’m in my mid-40s that I need a LOT of exercise. I feel so much happier and freer when I’m exercising. I love the endorphins, the buzz I get from working hard, getting a really good sweat on.

But it’s a lot more than that. The feeling of accomplishment after finishing a marathon – knowing you gave it everything and that you worked really hard and put yourself through a lot of physical discomfort to achieve something you really wanted – definitely changes you.

Plus I have made some amazing friends. Running all those miles with someone bonds you. As does the mainlining cake and coffee afterwards and moaning about lost toenails and swapping tips on how to combat intimate chafing.

Do you think running changes as you get older?

Menopause affects women as we lose muscle mass etc – although I have to say, no one has told that to some of the women of Headington RoadRunners, some of whom are breaking club records on a regular basis into their 70s.

Maybe, as you get older, slowing down is inevitable, but only as much as you let it. The fitter you are and the more you do, the slower the decline will be. And I fully intend to keep running for a VERY long time.

I figure that by keeping myself fit, letting myself recover properly and eating the right fuel, I’m giving myself the best shot at being one of those 80-year-old runners.

What advice would you give older women who want to start running?

If you live in Oxford, give me a shout and come along to Garden Cafe Runners! For anyone who doesn’t live in Oxford, I would advise starting with the wonderful Couch to 5K (C25k) and just build up really slowly. C25K starts with a minute walking, a minute running and you build up gradually until you’re running for 30 minutes.

Or if you have a local running club, see if they have a beginners’ group that you could try.

But actually the biggest advice really is to just go for it. You are literally never too old to start. Be gentle on yourself, but just give it a go.

How has it felt to change careers in your 40s?

Well, I’m still very much mid-change and finding my way to a new career. But the short answer is that it’s REALLY liberating.

I know I’m very lucky to have such an understanding husband who completely supported my not going back to publishing. My job for the last few years has been to raise our amazing, feisty, cheeky kids.

I met up with a friend the other day who is still at the company that I was working for at the end of my publishing career and she was admiring my purple hair (it’s now blue) and remarked that I didn’t do it like that when I worked in publishing. She asked if I was ever tempted to go back to corporate life and I’m not even sure you can print my answer, which was: “HAHAHAHA! F*** no!”

There were elements of my job that I really liked – I worked with some lovely people – but I’m just not a corporate person. I can’t physically spend that much of my day inside.

What happens next?

Well, that is the big question right now as I’ve set up a running therapy practice in Oxford.

When you’re on a long run with someone, or even a long walk, you seem to be able to discuss things with a depth and an intimacy that just doesn’t seem to work within four walls. There’s something about being outside and moving forward alongside each other that opens up the conversation in a better way than face-to-face, which can be slightly intimidating to some. I want to replicate that in a therapeutic way.

In terms of running, I’m training for the Manchester marathon and will almost certainly do Abingdon marathon in the autumn, too. And in between I want to start doing triathlons so I’m having swimming lessons at the moment, too (I can swim if “not drowning” counts). I’m learning to do front crawl like a PROPER swimmer, I have goggles that make me look like an angry wasp and a sporty black cossie as opposed to my turquoise frilly one with Day of the Dead skulls on it.

I also have a big mad crazy dream to do a full Iron Man in my 50th year. My husband thinks I’ve gone entirely mental and him and my mum both asked me if I didn’t think that was a bit extreme, which obviously made me more determined to do it because I’m a contrary f****r like that.

To find out more about Emma’s running therapy, visit Oxford Wellness Running and you can read more of her running adventures at Embot Runs. Main image: Emma with the Garden Cafe Runners – thanks to them for the photo

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