It’s less than a year since Kayla Kavanagh was a self-proclaimed “poster girl for KFC”, struggling with back pain brought on by a slipped disc, and her only activity looking after her two young children.
When the pain in her back didn’t subside as she’d hoped would be the case, she turned to the NHS website in search for relief. To her surprise, the advice was to move more. And that meant taking on her nemesis – the world of sport.
“I was looking for something that wasn’t surgery,” explains Kayla. “It was the NHS website that led me to the ‘Couch to 5k’ app. You think that when your back is so painful that you should move less. But the advice was the complete opposite, that getting out and running was the thing to do.
“I turned 40 last April and I’d never ran. I hated the thought of running – properly hated it. I’m a musician and the sporting world was always my nemesis. I was the poster girl for KFC. I’d have one every other day and the only thing active that I would do is looking after my kids, which is quite active when you have two under five!
“But I have no sporting background whatsoever and it was desperation through pain that got me to the Couch to 5k. It said, ‘no experience necessary’, but I really had no experience, I was overweight and I didn’t even want to do it.
“The first night I went out was a really nice summer evening. I didn’t have proper sports shoes, it was ridiculous. I didn’t have headphones so I just had my phone talking to me as I was walking down the street. I must have looked a complete idiot!
“I did the first run – 60 seconds on, 90 seconds off. I thought I was going to die! But I got to the end of it and I hadn’t died. I’d followed a few other people who had turn Couch to 5k before, and they said when they posted it to Facebook they suddenly became accountable to other people to see it through. I put a video on and committed to it.”
From that first run in June, Kayla followed the ‘Couch to 5k’ schedule, heading out for a run a few times a week building up gradually and guided by the app. By July, the Irishwoman had completed a Race for Life event with a friend in her adopted hometown of Barnsley.
Somewhat ironically, the running had done nothing for the pain she was suffering in her back. But it gave her something more than she could have imagined.
“I’d never been able to lose weight before despite doing every fad diet in the book,” admitted Kayla. “I took a photo at the start and a photo four weeks later, and I could see the difference.
“All of a sudden, running changed in my mind from something I couldn’t do to something I might be able to do and with the benefit of losing weight. The more I did it, the more I realised there was a sense of personal achievement that I’d never had before by being able to run for longer or run faster.”
She combined her ‘Couch to 5k’ training with the Beat the Street initiative, plotting her route around the town where she could tap in at any of the boxes dotted around the streets. A 10k race followed having joined a local running group, but by November she was struggling to attend due to family commitments.
Missing the release that running provided, she took to Facebook to see if anyone would be interested in doing a ‘Couch to 5k’ with her. Within a couple of days she had been inundated and Mother Runners was born.
“The main reason women come to Mother Runners is for the big mental health boost. When there are no children, no other half and it’s just you on the run; having that time and space regularly suddenly became something that was quite precious, and I missed it if I didn’t have it.
“In week one a lot of the women thought I was going to be some sort of professional sports guru. I told them, ‘I’m just a mum. I’m going commit myself to be your cheerleader for the next nine weeks. I’m going to be here for you and all I ask is that you do the same. If you show up, I promise that by the end of it you won’t regret the nine weeks you’ve committed to yourself.’
“Everyone is absolutely buzzing with what they’ve achieved.”
There are four sessions a week for women to turn up when it’s convenient for them, be that a weekday morning or a Sunday evening. They then spur each other on to go out running at other times of the week. She’s hoping Mother Runners will become an affiliated club, and with support from Yorkshire Sport Foundation’s Mums’ Team programme, she has received funding towards making two volunteers qualified run leaders.
At the end of March they will complete the Nostell parkrun as a celebration of the previous nine weeks. The women will have t-shirts to wear and Kayla’s son will be on hand to give out medals.
Kayla has even postponed surgery on her back until the summer so she can see it through to the big day. In the space of nine months, she has gone from running for the first time to sharing her passion with others so they can experience the transformative benefits she did.
“I’m in much better health now than I was this time last year,” Kayla proudly exclaims.
“I didn’t think I was in terribly bad health then but starting running means I’m now the fittest I’ve ever been.
“If I could turn back time and tell that 40-year-old on the couch that there’s a runner inside you and it’ll be the best thing you’ve ever done, I’d do it. I’m a runner now.
“I’m not a sporty person or an athletic person, but if you can walk, then you can run. I’ve got a 66-year-old lady who has gone from doing no activity to running for 20 minutes. If she can do it, then anybody can do it.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done mentally and physically. What’s the worst that can happen? You can get out, get active, and you might lose a bit of weight. There’s nothing wrong with that.”