Nii Lartey had never thought about running as more than a hobby until he started freelancing after university. The strain of trying to set up his own company led to a period of self-doubt. Running turned out to be the one thing that helped. ‘It made me more optimistic about my future,’ he says.
Joél Thika has a similar story. He found his anxiety spiralling in his final year of university as he wondered whether he’d be able to get a place on a graduate scheme, or find a job. He, too, found comfort in running.
When the North London pair, who have known each other since school, realised they had this safety valve in common, they decided they couldn’t keep it to themselves. ‘We wanted other guys who might be going through mental-health issues to experience this too,’ says Lartey.
The result was Run With Purpose (RWP), which the two set up last summer. They describe it as a community, rather than a running group, and the goal is to create a safe space where men can become the best version of themselves. ‘Where they can take off the mask,’ as Thika puts it.
The focus on men is down to the stark suicide statistics: deaths from suicide rose nearly 11 per cent in 2018, with men three times more likely than women to kill themselves. ‘We’re from areas and friendship groups where the typical response is “man up” or “stop being a chicken”,’ says Thika.
‘We realised that we needed a multi-disciplinary approach of running and socialising to overcome men’s health issues,’ says Lartey. ‘That’s when we came up with the RWP concept.’
RWP’s first session was in June last year and more than 30 runners showed up, having heard about it on social media or via word of mouth. Since then, they’ve been held every two weeks on Saturdays near Alexandra Palace. Sessions last two to three hours and start and finish at a local north London cafe, which the manager lets them use as an unofficial HQ. There’s a meet-and-greet, followed by a warm-up and then a 5K run uphill to the Palace. At the top, Lartey and Thika take the group through an interval session, followed by a breathing session, where everyone holds hands in a circle and shares stories. Of course, this has all been restricted by the lockdown.
‘The core of RWP is running as one,’ says Lartey. ‘There are different tiers of running experience, but we make sure we all finish as one, because when it comes to mental health, doing it alone is the mental strain. The aim is to build up a community. We want to show that we are present and ready to listen.’
At the cafe, the men talk about the sessions. Thika and Lartey might help guide the discussion by introducing a topic, such as toxic masculinity, or ask the group what challenges they’ve faced in the week. The floor is open.
Thika shares the story of someone who joined the group but who hadn’t exercised for 20 years. ‘He’d struggled with drugs and alcohol, and he told us his story. He still got out of bed and put on his trainers. Meeting people like that is inspirational.’
Thika says RWP has always aimed to be a community ‘where guys of all backgrounds and all abilities come together’. He says it’s only since he and Lartey have been exposed to the wider recreational running community and events that they’ve noticed there are fewer runners from ethnic-minority communities. ‘So we do think about how we can pave the way so that more people like us can get involved.’
For now, RWP is a North London initiative, but the plan is to expand it to other London boroughs and perhaps further afield. ‘I was in the US for a couple of months and I was wearing the Run With Purpose T-shirt; a lot of people had questions,’ says Lartey.
He points out that he and Thika may need to train to deliver better support around mental health, to help structure the conversations or to handle the tougher questions. But, for now, they’re drawing on what they have: conversation.
‘We’ve noticed how suppressing what you’re going through leads to mental-health issues,’ says Thika. ‘If you have people who will just listen, there is power in that.'
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