In the middle of 2017, overwhelmed by the stresses of living and working in London, Jessica Robson began retreating every weekend to her parents’ home in East Sussex, where her mum would drag her out for Sunday runs. “That was quite a dark summer for me. I was really struggling to cope,” she says. “But I found I was opening up far more when running with my mum than I was in my therapy sessions in London. With my therapist I felt so intimidated having someone sat in front of me – all that eye contact in a small enclosed space. I was holding a lot back. But when I ran it was like I had verbal diarrhoea.”
By that autumn she had gained the courage to see if there were others who wanted to use running the same way she did – as a safe space to talk about mental health. A callout to friends was met with silence, so she called it Run Talk Run and started asking strangers on the internet instead.
Initially she would wait by the Monument in the City every Thursday evening with a 5k run in mind. “It was always 50/50 whether anyone would show up, but I would go to the starting point and run anyway,” she says. “My self-esteem was so low at that point, but the fact that I pushed myself to stand there every week improved my resilience, and running consistently helped with any negative feelings. By the end of the runs I was feeling much better.”
As a small following developed, she moved the base to a gym in Southwark so there would be water and toilets available, and developed some guidelines: run as slow as the slowest runner, be there to listen, not to advise, in a confidential space. It’s peer-to-peer support, not professional help. She stresses that she is neither a therapist or a running coach.
“At the start of every run I reiterate that it isn’t competitive. I never track the runs. I encourage runners to ditch the Garmins and focus on the conversations that are taking place. We know we’re not for everyone. There are so many running clubs for people who want a tough run. That isn’t us.”
In June 2018, Jennie Oliver found Run Talk Run on Instagram and asked Robson if she could set up the second group in Peterborough. It has carried on growing that way, with the active online community spreading into new places in real life. As well as 19 groups across the UK there are now three in the US and one in Brisbane Australia.
“If I’m totally honest, it was selfish in the beginning. I started it because it was what I needed,” says Robson. “But as more people started coming along, and seeing us online, I saw how much others needed it as well. What I love is that I can turn up as anxious or as low as I am and it’s still okay. I know that’s a space where I can be completely myself, and so can everyone else.”
RUN TALK RUN MEMBERS
“I met others who were kind enough to share their stories with me, whether it was their ongoing battle with mental illness or simply what they were going to cook for dinner. I found myself opening up in a way I had never experienced before in a non-medical setting.”
– Katie MacDonald, joined spring 2018
“I had the fear that I would be too slow or too much of a hindrance, or it will be too awkward. I’m glad I was disproven on all accounts. There is no competitiveness, but rather a spirit of collaboration and achieving a goal together.”
– Sumaya Hassan, joined November 2018