From Couch to Marathon: taking bold strides with Manchester YMCA Harriers

I am among the estimated seven million people who turned to running during the Covid pandemic. Armed with an old pair of trainers, a coat and scarf, and my phone in hand, I loaded up the excellent Couch to 5k app (iOS / Android) and embarked on a gruelling but rewarding three-month journey from occasional walker to bonafide runner. And, when Parkruns finally re-opened, I put my newfound hobby to the test.

But the endorphin hit of the much-vaunted runners' high began to plateau on a diet of just Parkruns and laps around the local park — nice as Alexandra Park in Moss Side is. I lacked direction, sometimes literally, and I felt like I wanted to progress.

Just over a year ago, my partner suggested I find a running club. Or, rather, she joined one, and it seemed like fun, so I decided I should find my own. In that spirit, I found the Manchester YMCA Harriers. Well, actually, they found me – at one of the club's Peel Parkrun volunteer takeovers.

Established in 1882, the Harriers have a rich history... blah blah blah. I do not mean to undermine the club heritage, but I can, hand on heart, say that a 140-year antiquity never much factored into my decision to lace up my — still old, arguably unsuitable — trainers and try them on for size. The Harriers, I mean.

Flyer in hand, I turned up the following Thursday outside the Y Club in Castlefield for the advertised New Runners' Night — where the club rolls out the red carpet for potential new members. The established members did not even mind that I had turned up a week early and "gatecrashed" a regular Thursday night run. They could not have been more welcoming. Although, I did have to wait another week for the chips and pints that formed a key part of the pull of New Runners' Night.

Instead of chips (yes, I am obsessed with chips. But, spoiler alert, thanks to YMCA Harriers, I am still fairly — only fairly — healthy), I got the choice of pace groups to lead me on one of the 12 km club routes around the city (or 8-mile routes — as a still relatively new runner, I am beholden to metrically measuring my runs, unlike the majority of club runners I ever meet who only understand miles. Perhaps because 8 miles sounds shorter than 12 km? I have yet to figure it out. Anyway, I digress).

I was apprehensive. I knew I was no Sir Mo Farah — and I did not want to embarrass myself in front of a club full of "serious" runners. But the club caters to every skill level — and I made my home in group four of four. I also discovered that whether or not a club member considers themselves a "serious" runner, that does not mean they are all deadly "serious" people. Some of them — naming no names apart from my own — are deeply silly. And all of them are friendly and fun. I quickly found my place among like-minded individuals who helped me build my running confidence and gave me a social outing to look forward to every Thursday.

As supportive as the environment was, however, for over six months after signing up — at a very reasonable rate, including UK Athletics Affiliation — I resisted the other YMCA offerings and stuck pretty religiously to my Thursday night routine. During this time, I set a new Personal Best for the longest distance I had ever run, at that point, in the Manchester Half Marathon. I was pretty happy with my lot and enjoying a weekly club run and Saturday Parkrun combination.

However, that all changed one Thursday night in the summer of 2022 when — at short notice to replace an injured participant — I decided to relent and sign up for one of the regular club events outside of the usual Thursday night routine; The Wacky Relays. After all, what damage could a 2km relay race do?

The damage? It depends on how you define the word. But let us just say that I have not looked back. The Wacky Relays opened the floodgates to "full participation". Equinox24 was next. A bonkers event whereby a campsite full of fools aims to find out how many laps of a 10km off-road route they can run in 24 hours; working in one of four YMCA relay teams, it was expectedly exhausting but surprisingly brilliant fun. Cross Country followed — which, even though I have done a full season, I am still not sure I would wholeheartedly recommend: it is tough.

And then there was Track. About four months ago, I finally signed up for the YMCA speed-work track sessions that — while still catering to every ability — aim to, I guess, ultimately, make you faster.

Not only that, the club's events calendar is always packed with exciting races, both local and national, providing opportunities for members to challenge themselves and showcase their hard work — and, more importantly, just hang out. We had a lovely club weekend excursion to the Lake District last month for the Coniston 14 race.

I have grumbled, I have limped, and my partner has questioned quite how much time I spend with the club, but I cannot say I have ever looked back since. I pushed myself harder than ever before and reaped the rewards of improved speed and endurance.

Regular Tuesday track sessions, Thursday night club runs, Cross Country season and the support of my fellow runners all culminated last month in my first-ever marathon — a distance and event I could scarcely imagine entering before I joined the club. And, as I said, I am not particularly competitive nor did I join the club with the intention of doing anything but finding new ways to enjoy my new hobby. But... I cannot say I am disappointed that since joining the club, I have smashed my PBs at every distance from 5km to marathon.

The journey from Couch to 5k to 5k to Marathon has been an enjoyable ride — and I can't wait to see where the club takes me next.

So, if you're sitting there toying with the idea of joining a running club, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the leap and become a part of the Manchester YMCA Harriers family. Whether you're a novice runner or a seasoned athlete, the Harriers offer a supportive, fun, and challenging environment that will help you reach new heights (distances?) in your running journey — if you want it to, it could equally just give you a bunch of fun people to hang out with while keeping fit.

Take it from me – joining this club will change your life, one stride — and several pairs of increasingly expensive and specialist trainers — at a time.

But, if you think after a year of club running I have dispensed with the coat and scarf, you would only be half right — despite having more of the "proper gear", I am still known to wear far too many layers and turn up overdressed for every occasion.

— Liam Ward