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From mile one to the Olympics: A runner's journey of blood, sweat and tears

For amateur runners completing a marathon is a massive achievement.

Hayley Carruthers, 26, from Walsall was an amateur runner
Hayley Carruthers, 26, from Walsall was an amateur runner

The delight on the faces of runners as they cross the finishing line after 26 miles shows the real sense of achievement – it’s something they have worked hard for.

But for most the idea of going from total novice to running with the elite group in the London Marathon in just a few years is unthinkable.

For 26-year-old Hayley Carruthers from the Aldridge area of Walsall that became an unexpected reality. Nearly three years to the day that she completed her first one mile run Hayley lined up alongside the cream of the crop in world marathon running.

“Going into the elite field is quite psychologically scary and there was a bit of impostor syndrome and thinking do I deserve to be here at the start line with the best 25 women across the whole world,” she said. “Standing there I was just like ‘this is so weird’.”

She crossed the line in 18th place in a time of 02:33:59, it was a personal best.

“She’s run two and a half minutes quicker than she’s ever done – what a brave effort,” said Steve Cram on BBC commentary.

But the memory was slightly tainted for Hayley who crossed the line at the end of The Mall on her hands and knees before marshals rushed in to ensure her safety.

Hayley collapsed just before the finishing line of the London marathon, but managed to get herself over the line in 18th place

“I think I was quite lucky to get to that point,” she said. “If it was 100 metres back I wouldn’t have made it. People say no one stops just before the finish line, you always get over it and collapse, well they don’t. You wouldn’t collapse two minutes before if you really didn’t have to, but my body just went ‘that’s enough now’.”

Hayley was labelled and inspiration – and while she is delighted to have inspired people, there are mixed feelings when she sees the picture. “I don’t want to be defined by that piece that’s on the front of every newspaper. That picture will haunt me for the rest of my life,” she laughed.

“I don’t want to be known for that, I want to be known for being the best. It still breaks my heart, I can’t watch the video back. That feeling is like nothing else I have ever had before and it’s so frustrating that I had to do it on national television in the London Marathon in my first race as an elite. It is almost embarrassing. Now I need to go and prove that it’s not me.

“I want to inspire people in a way that is everything is possible. You can go from being a non-runner to the elite level in three years. If you want to do something then give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Hayley has a lot of training ahead to make the Olympics squad

Some might say that Hayley is being hard on herself. But training 20 hours and running anything between 70 and 90 miles a week on top of her full time job in Birmingham as a radiographer, which she says can be a mentally draining job, means there is a lot of pressure on your results.

But Hayley doesn’t moan about the training, in fact she thrives in it.

“It’s just part of my day,” she says. “If I’ve not ran, like on a rest day, I just feel like something is missing. Rest days are few and far between and they are important for recovery. During the week I don’t really see my partner Perrie, but he’s really supportive. We can be like ships that pass in the night so we make sure we always do something together on the weekends.”

While Hayley was always the outdoors type, she admits that running did not come to her naturally.

“When I was a kid I used to do sports day and I remember I ran the 400 metres and cried because it was so far,” she laughed. “When I was young I would always be climbing up a tree or something else. My mum always said I was non-stop.

“Throughout my whole life I have always felt like I have this bundle of energy that just needed to be streamed into something and I didn’t find out what it was until I started running. When I started running I felt complete.”

Hayley runs between 70 and 90 miles a week

Hayley started running in 2016 after seeing a work colleague complete a 5K. Within just a few months Hayley had completed 5K, 10K, a half marathon before taking on her first full marathon. “I didn’t even have a watch or anything,” she said with a smile. “Within the first year of starting running I did a marathon which I ran in 3 hours 22 minutes.”

For the last 18 months she has been working with a set of specialist coaches which include University of Wolverhampton PhD student Dan Robinson. They meet at the University’s Institute of Sport in Walsall where he is currently researching how to cope with fatigue in endurance sports, particularly marathon running.

“It’s about late event fatigue; when you’re asking why you signed up for this and wanting to stop,” he said. “I focus on what we can do to help people manage their way through that. My research is all around offering people tools that may or may not work and in training we evaluate how people get on with them and what their response is.

“It’s not about making it easier. But what we say is it’s really, really hard but we will help you manage that fact, and step one is accepting it’s hard, you’re doing it because it’s hard. But when you are finding it hard you can re-frame that and say this is why I’m here. If it was easy people would feel disappointed. It being hard is the point. If something is painful, then really it’s getting people to think ‘is this the appropriate feeling’.

“It’s a strange idea. But instead of it being positive or negative, it can be a neutral thought.

Hayley and her coach Dan Robinson

“Are these physical sensations correct and are they the right level for where I am in the race? We assign language to them which makes them judgement values. ‘This hurts’, ‘it’s painful’, ‘it’s tough’, all these things can be quite negative, or ‘I feel great’, which is quite positive, or you can say something neutral which is ‘is this appropriate and is this how my body should be feeling after running quite hard for 18 miles’.

"The answer is yes it should, but you don’t have to put labels on this.

“In applied work we have proved that you can push yourself through these strategies to a fairly extreme degree and Hayley was probably my best case study in that respect.”

During a race Hayley has taken on Dan’s techniques and she does attribute that to her being able to push herself as far physically as she did at the London Marathon.

“I have a mental toolkit which I use in different parts of the race,” she said.

“I always use miles to think about certain members of my family and I focus on certain things they’ve said to me.

“I will focus on them for a mile, then the next mile I will focus on someone else. I always say to my parents, that whether I can see them or not I will always run with them in my heart, and that’s all thanks to the family support I have.”

Hayley trains at the Walsall campus of Wolverhampton University

Hayley will be returned to The Mall on for the Vitality London 10,000 race. She says this is part of a step-up in her preparation for her next goal – representing Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.

“I need to run the qualification time for the Olympics in the autumn,” she said.

This time for women is 2:29:30, and if Hayley can meet that time then British Athletics will then select which runners they take as part of the team. “It’s a long way away, but I think I’ve got as good a chance as anyone and I just think ‘why not’.”

But until then Hayley accepts that she needs to cherish every moment of running that she can, and that her quick ascent in the sport does not guarantee her longevity. “Because it’s all happened so quickly I do worry that it’ll all get taken away so quickly,” she said.

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