Every runner’s journey of how they came to describe themselves as a runner is uniquely and beautifully different. Some run for good mental health, some run for fitness, some run for weight loss and some run for escape. There are a myriad of other reasons why people start and even more to explain why people carry on – when, let’s face it, running can be tough!
Paul Willan, 42 and Burnden Road Runner since 2021, has been described as ‘The Accidental Runner’ by the podcast UK Run Chat. From no running at all until 2007, he is now an Ultra-Marathon runner with 32 milers under his belt and an ambition to run the 50 mile Manchester to Liverpool race.
Paul shared his journey with UK Run Chat and as soon as I saw that he had been on the podcast, I had to include his inspirational tale.
It’s a great interview with the host and I’ve summarised Paul’s story here – including his Strava and Instagram links at the bottom if you’re not already following Paul’s amazing progress!
Thank you, Paul – Burnden Road Runners are cheering from the sidelines!
“Paul was never a runner and was pretty unfit as a youngster. By 2007 he was a smoker, 18 stone and didn’t exercise.
However, in 2007 he was approached by a work colleague who asked him to go for a walk at lunchtime. That 1.5 mile walk proved to be life-changing. It became a daily walking club, which increased in membership as more colleagues joined in.
Slowly building up to a 4 mile walk – and getting sore feet! – Paul noticed the weight dropping off and it was a motivator at that point to keep going.
Eager to progress, a colleague suggested running instead of walking, as a way to fit in more activity during the lunch hour, and the group began using lamp-posts as targets for their running.
Paul admits he would question why he carried on when ‘it sometimes felt like I was killing myself’.
After around 6 months, the colleagues were run-walking around 2.5 miles and it was suggested that they ran a competition between themselves. Two groups of runners – running different distances – set off.
For Paul, something clicked. The competition gave him the motivation he needed to continue. That – and better trainers! – was the switch that needed to be flicked and he found himself overtaking others in the race. From thinking ‘I can’t do this but I’m not giving up, Paul was now thinking ‘I can do this!’ Finishing first in his group, although it was the shorter distance, he felt like he’d won the whole competition.
Paul got the famous ‘running bug’ and his tip for others is to ‘Start off really slowly and make it into a habit’.
By running with other people he had accountability and didn’t want to duck out – even when the usual running niggles, such as shin splints, arrived.
In 2008, Paul entered his first race – a 10K in Birkenhead – and ran it for Cancer Research. He admits he paced it completely wrongly – setting off way too fast – but managed 56:15, which he was really pleased with.
His lunchtime running club was still going strong – up to 5 miles a day on average – and for around 2 years he entered as many 10Ks as he possibly could.
This grew and grew from running 8-9 miles to conquering the Leeds-Liverpool Canal (127 miles) over 5 weekends in 2010.
But Paul was falling out of love with running – the enjoyment he’d once had was disappearing – and he knew what had caused it. Every race that Paul ran, he was PB chasing – constantly wanting the next race to be faster than the last – and he pushed himself too hard. He gave up the sport completely - donated his running gear and the weight started to creep back on.
It was in 2016 that a phone call from his cousin, asking Paul to meet up for coffee or a run, prompted him to lace up his trainers again. Once his cousin explained that he was running the Great North Run in September and asked Paul to join him, Paul knew he had to train. From February to race day, he trained as much as he could but had learned some valuable lessons. This time around, he was going to include rest days to let his mind and his body reset.
It worked – despite a slump in 2018 followed by the pandemic – Paul completed the Great North Run again in 2021, 22 and 23 – 2022 being his best half marathon time of 1:46:00.
In 2021 Paul joined the best club in the North – Burnden Road Runners – and hasn’t looked back. He completed 3 separate 32 mile Ultras during 2022 and 2023 and now has several goals set for himself. In addition to his May Ultra, Paul wants to qualify for the Burnden Road Runners Club Championship 2024, complete a hilly GB Ultra race and ultimately to conquer a Grand Slam – either 5 x 50 Milers or 5 x 100 Milers in a year.
Unbelievable! And he gets up at 4am to train!
Paul Willan – Instagram @willanruns81 Strava p@ulwillan