“Running has changed my life”: Heather’s story

May 2024

Reduced anxiety. Resilience. Confidence. Community. And the small matter of a dream come true – running the London Marathon. Just some of the things running has brought Heather Currie since she joined West Sussex Mind’s running group last year

“Running has been the best experience. If I’m stressed, it clears my mind. And it gives me something to focus on other than what is racing through my head,” says 26-year-old Heather.

Heather’s is a powerful testament to the transformative effect that physical activity can have on someone’s mental health – and particularly the way that exercise can help people manage their mental health on an ongoing basis.

Heather has suffered from anxiety from a young age. She had a difficult upbringing and was trying to find her way through life without much support from her family and with unresolved issues caused by childhood trauma. Things came to a head when, at the age of 18, she moved from Crawley to Bognor and then to supported housing in Chichester, while she was studying at college.

“Moving had a big impact on me. I was new to the area and I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t sleeping and I was suffering from severe anxiety. My mental health was in a difficult place and other people around me didn’t understand,” says Heather.

When Heather’s attendance at college started to suffer, one of her teachers suggested that she get in contact with West Sussex Mind. She started off by getting one-to-one support with our young people’s service for 16 to 25 year olds to equip her with better coping skills. Then she began going to our groups and activities where she met other young people experiencing similar issues. “We went places together and it helped boost my confidence,” says Heather.

When she turned 25, it was time for Heather to move over to West Sussex Mind’s adult service, which she describes as a “smooth transition”, and in May last year, she was offered the opportunity to try one of our running groups, part of our social activities programme for people getting support with us. The running groups were part of an ASICS and Mind-funded Get Active programme to recruit and train physical activity leads at local Minds and to get more people involved in exercise for their mental health.

From top left (clockwise): Heather after completing the London Marathon in April 2024; running with West Sussex Mind's Shoreham running group; posing with her marathon medal with her support runner, Nina; at the Brighton Marathon 10k.

Initially Heather was a little reluctant, because although she’d been quite active growing up, she hadn’t run for several years. “I was quite anxious at first, because I didn’t know what to expect. It was my self-doubt creeping in and saying, will it be okay? But the group was so welcoming and supportive and quickly put my anxiety at ease. I went that first week – and I just kept going back,” says Heather.

A dream come true

As well as running with the weekly West Sussex Mind run group in Shoreham, Heather now runs at least twice a week on her own and is a regular at the local Worthing parkrun. She’s completed several 5ks and 10ks (most recently the Brighton Marathon 10k) - and went on to complete her first ever marathon on 21 April 2024 in London!

This was, quite literally, a dream come true for Heather, who secured her disability place in the London Marathon through the Richard Whitehead Foundation on the basis of her mental health issues and her hearing impairment.

“I saw an Instagram post from the Richard Whitehead Foundation saying that they had 200 places for people with disabilities. I waited a week and then I applied. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get a place and when I did, I initially thought to myself, ‘what have I done’?!”

However, initial panic turned quickly to action as Heather enlisted the help of Nina Tully, our Get Active programme connector, who leads our Shoreham running group. Nina helped Heather develop a 16-week training plan for the marathon from January 2024 and subsequently secured a London Marathon place as a support runner for Heather – through the Richard Whitehead Foundation’s Supported Runner programme.

Heather and Nina completed the London Marathon in 8 hours 24 minutes, running and walking the 26.2 miles. It was testament not only to Heather’s resilience and determination, but also to how far she has progressed with her mental health and the fundamental role that running has played in that.

“I am so incredibly proud of Heather for completing the London Marathon,” says Nina. “She was really consistent with her training, listening carefully to advice and learning to listen to her mind and body. There were a few bumps in the road along the way, but Heather remained consistent and positive and it’s that attitude that got her across the finish line.”

Heather says her experience of the marathon was “phenomenal” and it’s a memory that will last a lifetime.

Breaking down barriers

Nina has witnessed a transformation in Heather since she started running with the group in Shoreham. “When she first joined the group, Heather had a lot of barriers about opening up and letting people in,” says Nina. “But she’s grown in confidence enormously and has flourished – and I now see her as the person that she really is with her barriers down.”

Nina says that Heather has also gained important life skills through running and through the marathon training, for example, learning to balance training with the demands of work and social life and learning to be more adaptable.

Heather says that running has been great for giving her connections outside her usual social circle and with a community that she describes as “welcoming and friendly”. “I used to be quite anxious meeting new people,” says Heather, “but I’m more confident now and running has helped me make new friends. It’s also increased my self-belief, because I know that, if I really put my mind to something, then I can do anything.”

Heather firmly believes that running has become part of her life that is here to stay and offers an important way for her to manage her mental health going forward.

“I feel in a much better place with my mental health than when I first joined the running group. I’m managing well and I know that, if I’m having a bad day, I can come out for a run, clear my head and it will help me to feel more grounded,” concludes Heather. “I don’t just go home and dwell on things any more. I can get outside, go for a run and that’s really positive."