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She ran to lose weight. She didn’t know it’d save her life



Helen Foster, pictured with dog Spud, is four stone lighter and 100% fitter and happier since she took up running. (Helen Foster)

Two years ago, Helen Foster’s confidence was at rock bottom. Four stone overweight and struggling with depression, the busy single mother of five from Gargrave, North Yorkshire, had no idea how to pull herself out of the abyss.

“I’d struggled for years with my mental health, feeling fat and ugly, and refusing to have any pictures taken, even when I was holding my babies,” says Foster, 43, who lives with twins Oliver and Katie, 18, middle son Archie, 13, and seven-year-old twins Jack and Nancy. “I’d been badly bullied at school when I was younger and never quite got rid of the feeling that I wasn’t good enough.”

On New Year’s Day 2019 however, Foster decided to set herself a challenge. It was one that would change – and even save – her life.

“I decided to use the Couch to 5k app to see if I could lose some weight but I was so embarrassed about anyone seeing me that I would only go out at night,” she says. “That first night I set off around 7pm down pitch black country lanes, wearing all the wrong sort of gear and although I was slow, I managed it. 

“Two days later I went out again, praying that no one would see me and was determined that if a car came past I’d hide in a ditch.”

Helen Foster was initially embarrassed to be seen running, but she has since overcome her fears and completed marathons. (Helen Foster)

Helen Foster was initially embarrassed to be seen running, but has since overcome her fears and completed marathons. (Helen Foster)

Read more: Why running makes you feel so good

There is no hiding now. Four stone lighter and 100% fitter and happier, Foster has not only completed 10Ks, half and full marathons and even the Yorkshire Three Peaks, but is encouraging other women to get their trainers on and hit the road. 

As The Running Mum on both Facebook and Instagram, (@the_running_mum_) she regularly posts inspirational pictures and stories of her adventures in the beautiful North Yorkshire Dales and organises running groups for other women to join her on some of the trails.

“Running gives you the best feeling in the world and I am so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth – I never take it for granted,” she says. “Being in nature makes you feel so calm and the endorphin rush you get from the exercise – well, there’s no feeling like it.”

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Read more: Adding 35 minutes to your workout ‘slashes the risk of depression’

But Foster admits that when lockdown hit and exercise was curtailed, her mental health suffered again.

“The pandemic was horrendous at first,” she says. “I particularly love running up mountains but during lockdown, that was no longer allowed. I felt myself getting more and more depressed because I wasn’t able to do the thing I loved. 

“When the schools closed, I cried and cried. Teaching the children at home was impossible, it was too stressful and I sank further and further into depression.”

Watch: Exercise is good for the brain

“At one point, I couldn’t cope anymore and got into the car feeling suicidal and I drove away, not really knowing where to go,” says Foster. “In the end, I called a crisis line and within minutes, two police vans were up alongside me and the police brought me back home.

“They could see I was struggling and when I told them I simply needed to get out there and run, they said I could. As long as I wasn’t mixing with other people, then they wouldn’t stop me running. From that day on, I went out every day. It saved my life.”

Now Foster runs daily, her “medicine” against the dark cloud of depression. It helped her through the heartbreak of losing her beloved dog Hoover and she hopes to help others realise how much exercise can help in bleak times.

Read more: More people are using exercise to help manage their mental health

“I’ve been on medication most of my life but hated it because it made me feel sick and tired, but I no longer need it anymore,” she says. 

“Doctors should prescribe running and fresh air because it really does help. I will never be a fast runner but that doesn’t matter because I’m still getting the exercise and always feel fantastic afterwards. 

“I help out with a running organisation called Grim Up North and I’m their back runner, who accompanies the person at the end of a race. My own running club is going well, we’re such a mixed bunch of older ladies and younger mums and I’ve made lifelong friends from it. I really enjoy the fact I can get out there and show off the Dales. 

Helen Foster wants to encourage people to pull on their trainers and get out there. (Helen Foster)

Helen Foster wants to encourage people to pull on their trainers and get out there. (Helen Foster)

“Friends say they can see such a difference in me, I’m so much more positive now and even carry myself differently. My eventual goal is to train up to be a personal trainer.

“From being the person who never wanted to be in a photograph and who went running in the dark, I’m now wearing brightly coloured leggings and I’m happy to pose for a snap on a run or at the top of a mountain. 

“I want to show people that however bleak things are, you can pull yourself out from it – just get your trainers or walking shoes on and get out there.”

Watch: Is depression genetic? Here’s what experts have to say

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