Local Hero – Claire Coulthard
Since the very beginning, the Great North Run has been a celebration of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
This year, the event is celebrating everyday heroes, people who give back to their communities and inspire those around them with their dedication and perseverance.
Claire Coulthard will be taking part in the Simplyhealth Great North Run as part of her role as leader of a peer support group to help people with mental health problems through exercise.
Claire sought help for her own mental health issues as a result of a failed suicide attempt in 2017, and the Stockton mum of two has gone on to volunteer for Mind, the mental health charity.
Her group, Red Balloons, started in February 2018 and has grown to help more than 600 people online, while Claire leads sessions to around ten people weekly face to face, with that number expected to grow.
She said: “I suffered with mental health issues for a lot longer than I realised as a teenager. It came out a lot more when I had my daughter. I was 19 and I suffered badly with post natal depression. It wasn’t talked about then, I was a young mam and I wouldn’t dare tell anyone I was suffering because you think everyone’s going to take your baby off you.
“I was always in forward facing jobs like pubs and bars, so I could hide behind a persona. When I left there and started work in an office job, it changed and I realised I wasn’t managing as well as I thought I was. It came to March 2017 and I just basically had a bit of a breakdown and tried to end my own life. Luckily that was unsuccessful.
“If I hadn’t found exercise, I really don’t know where I would be. If I didn’t have that community or that sense of purpose I think my journey would have been very different. I would have probably struggled a lot more.
“Mind gave me the confidence to speak out and the confidence to realise I was worth something. I realised I could put the two together, so help people with mental health the way that I’ve been helped, and I started volunteering for Mind. I started raising money, I did a 10K, I did my first half marathon last year, it progressed from there.
“Red Balloons came from my blog where I was telling my story, I’d gone through counselling and I needed something a little bit extra. They said I should start writing letters, so instead of writing a letter I thought I’d blog about it and publish it. It has grown from there.
“I love the fact I can use my story and my experiences to help others, I can give back because of what I’ve been through and achieved.
“I can say you can do it, I know you can because I did. I was just your standard office working mother of two who didn’t have any faith in herself, hated what she saw in the mirror, and now I want people to focus more on what they can do, not what they look like.”
Claire is now the leader of a small group of people who have her to thank for their progress, and who feel inspired to possibly take part in the world’s biggest half marathon themselves.
One of the members, Stephanie Addison, said: “Claire’s amazing at what she does. She’s very inspiring, what she’s been through, how she uses exercise for her own mental health, and inspires others to do so – it’s amazing.
“It gives you freedom to talk. It’s not just about coming here and exercise. It’s peer support so you can chat amongst yourselves, and talk about any problems you’re facing at that time.
“To be in the room with someone that admits their own struggles and is open about it makes you more open to talk about yours.
“It’s well known that fitness does help your mental health. Even if you’re struggling in that moment, if you do 15 minutes of exercise you feel a lot better afterwards, so just having the space to come and do the exercise you can manage, rather than going somewhere and feeling you have to do it, makes everything better.
“Every session you always look forward to the next one. You get that sense of excitement towards exercise which I’ve never had before.
“To see your group leader doing something so fantastic like the Great North Run makes you think that maybe one day you could do that too, because there’s no limit to what you can do.”
Fellow member Sam Daniels agrees: “For some of us, the Great North Run is achievable. I think for some of us it will never be achievable. I’m immensely proud of her, I will be on the finish line cheering her on.
“I can’t promise I’ll do it next year but maybe in a couple of years I could. If Claire can do it then I might give it a go.”
While Claire is rightly proud of her own personal achievements, she believes she gets more out of seeing other people make positive strides forward in their lives.
She said: “When I see someone achieve something when they’ve told me they couldn’t, or when I see someone post a photograph when I know they’re terrified of having photographs taken, or I get people messaging me saying they’ve been inspired by me, sometimes it’s unbelievable, but it is nice to know that people believe in me and believe in what I’m doing, whether or not I’m helping people directly or indirectly. It is like watching your child take their first steps. It’s really humbling.
“There’s no words to describe how proud I am – it’s one of my biggest achievements. It’s their individual achievements but I can share in that success.
“I know personally that I’ve helped them do it. I don’t do any of this for acknowledgement, I don’t do any of it for thanks, I do it because people deserve to understand how well they can do themselves.
“If I can be just a little voice in their ear saying ‘go on, you can do it’ then I’ll be that little voice. I wish I had had a little voice, way back.”
Claire’s new-found confidence through running led her to apply for a place in the Simplyhealth Great North Run when the ballot opened earlier this year.
She explained: ”I thought I’ve ran a half marathon once, I can do it again, and I’m crossing two things off – I’m getting to run in my home area, another half marathon, for a charity and I’m there for the atmosphere to see everyone else doing it.
“I never thought in a million years I’d get through the ballot. I got the email and I thought it was amazing but then I thought ‘oh no, I’m going to have to do it’. It’s fantastic. I’m so happy that I get to do it. I’m nervous, I’m scared, there’s no two ways about it, but I’m so excited at the same time, I can’t wait to get there.”
Simplyhealth Great North Run is live on BBC One on Sunday 9 September, 09:30-13:30. For more information on the Simplyhealth Great North Run, visit: Greatrun.org/North