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Pioneering Mum and Running Coach has the X Factor

Fitmums & Friends is a running club founded by Sam Barlow which has snowballed in popularity. Providing parents with the opportunity to socialise while keeping fit, it has swelled to more than 500 members in the six years since its formation – and its rapid growth shows no signs of slowing down. Blake Richardson spoke to Sam to find out how the success story unfolded

The X Factor has a lot to answer for.

I’m not talking about the endless string of irritating novelty acts it has spewed forth over the years, like Z-listers Chico, Wagner and Jedward, or the pantomime villain that is Simon Cowell. I’m thinking more along the lines of those annoying catchphrases the programme has spawned.

You know the ones: ‘Let’s take a look at your X Factor journey’ and ‘Here are your X Factor best bits’. The merest whisper of the words will typically be followed by floods of tears and running mascara.

It is a template that every reality TV show has copied. And because of the persistent use of these expressions, it has diluted those genuinely fascinating journeys that inspirational members of the British public have undergone.

Someone who actually merits her moment in the national TV spotlight and who really has made a difference to people’s lives is Sam Barlow – no, no relation to Gary. You can erase the X Factor motif out of your minds now.

Sam is the founder of Fitmums & Friends, whose motto is ‘Get fit, have fun, lose weight, make friends’. It is a running club based in Humberside and with groups dotted around Yorkshire, but it is so much more than that.

You don’t have to take my word for it. This is what former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe had to say about the impact Sam is having on people’s lives in the north of England.

Fitmums is an excellent initiative that brings together women to share in the double joys of running and motherhood and support each other while making friendships for life.”

Further glowing testimonials testify to the transformational effect the club has had on the lives of its members. But more of those later.

Sam’s story

So where did it all begin?

I didn’t start it intentionally,” says Sam. “There was no plan as such. I was a full-time working mum in the NHS, feeling quite lonely, and, although I’d been in running clubs prior to having my children, what I found out afterwards is that the club times didn’t suit family life. I was in the middle of tea-time, bath-time or bedtime when they were training.

“Because I was working, I wasn’t in the playground picking my little boy up and dropping him off when he started school, therefore I wasn’t making any contacts – people who liked running and could run with me at a time that suited my lifestyle. So, I asked my son’s teacher to put some fliers in the children’s book bags.

“Four people turned up that first night and I didn’t know any of them who knocked on my door. Now here we are, six years later, and there’s more than 500 of them all around Yorkshire.”

Parents would meet on Sam’s drive and off they would jog. But it soon became clear that, while she had experience as a club runner, she didn’t have any experience supporting complete beginners.

I was attracting people who had never really run but liked the idea," she says. "So, I had to very quickly develop systems of how to support those who were fairly good as well as those who were complete beginners.”

In the early days, Sam would take a one-mile group out around the village, return to her doorstep, then run a mile with the two-mile group. Then it would be back in time to set the three and four-mile runners on their way, where the cycle would begin all over again. “It was tiring but great fun.”

The club continued to expand, so that by the Easter of their inaugural year in 2009 there were too many people to fit on her driveway. The pilgrimage to the Barlow residence redirected to some new premises in the village.

At around the same time, Sam enrolled on a ‘Leadership in Running’ course. It is a route 70 other volunteers have since taken, helping establish a robust coaching structure.

Shepherds watch their flock

At every Fitmums & Friends session there is now an option of running one, two, three, four, five or six miles.

Traditional running clubs may organise a four or five-mile run one evening midweek, which everyone will be expected to complete, but, for the most part, do not offer the same predetermined variety at beginner level.

“What we do is cater for someone who is currently sitting on the settee with only a vague idea that they might like to start running,” says Sam, who goes on to explain that the single biggest advantage a Fitmums training run can provide compared to your average running club is the shepherding system.

“The system is integral to what we do. You can have a bunch of three-mile runners who all jog at a different pace. So, because of that pace issue, they would not normally be compatible to run with each other. The shepherding system means we can support the people at the back, who are just struggling to get round, but set challenges for the front end of the pack, many of whom might be ready to step up to four miles but lack the confidence to do it.

“The idea is the run leader will shout “regroup” and the front of the pack will run back and a little way behind the chasing group, meaning those who were at the back are now at the front for a period of time. They end up running a longer distance but at their own pace. We recognise that there is nothing worse as a runner than having to run slower than your natural pace.

Shepherding is our bread and butter. It’s what creates the support and camaraderie. These are the people who hated sport at school and who were always at the back but, under this supportive structure, they are given their chance to run at the front.”

Truly life-changing

Which leads us neatly on to the additional benefits that being in such a well-structured social running environment brings.

The committed goal of losing weight and getting fit may be high on the priority list of many members but transforming body shape and tuning up your cardiovascular system is only the half of it.

The mental benefits can also be immense. Members regularly feed back that their self-esteem and confidence levels have soared, producing a feel-good factor previously missing from their lives.

There have been stories of women having the confidence to leave dangerous relationships or become better equipped to fight off post-natal depression, and others for whom the experience has helped launch careers in coaching.

The member testimonials make for inspiring reading.

Katrina writes: “Since joining Fitmums and keeping myself active my weight has fallen off, helping me reach my target weight in June this year, losing a total of five-and-a-half stone. I’m now looking forward to my wedding in August and also the rest of my life feeling happy and healthy. I truly believe I have all my friends at Fitmums to thank for this. Without the weekly support from everyone I would never have been able to achieve my dream.”

And Lynne writes: “I was met by my run leader and introduced to the rest of the group running one mile and off we went. Possibly the toughest 15 minutes of my life but also the first 15 minutes of my new life. I went home on a complete high. So that was me hooked. Quick trip to the sports store the next day to get kitted out and I counted down the days to my next run.”


What’s in a name?

There is one question I have to ask Sam, which has been nagging away at me from the start of our conversation – the name. Does it not alienate men and put them off joining?

Sam laughs and I sense there is more to the moniker than meets the eye.

“The name came from my son, who was five years old at the time,” explains Sam. “People kept meeting up on the driveway for a run and one night he said to me, ‘Is it Fitmums tonight?’ and we all said, “Is it what?” So, he created that name, but we were always certain from the beginning that it would never be about females only.

“In the early days people said, ‘Well, do you think it should be called something different?’ I did think that men wouldn’t want to come and run in vests emblazoned with ‘Fitmums & Friends’ on the front but, my God, you should see them. They are proud as punch to be wearing those vests, which are blue for the guys and bright pink for the ladies. 

I generally thought a bloke wouldn’t wear them, but they are passionate about being an ‘and Friend’. There’s nothing better on race days than shouting to the men, ‘Go on Fitmums’. They love it.”

Money matters

The future’s bright, the future’s pink!

There are currently five Fitmums & Friends clubs in Hull and East Yorkshire, with the latest addition to the family in South Yorkshire. Seeing her plans to expand the network of clubs beyond their immediate catchment area finally reach fruition was an exciting development.

Sam also revealed there is interest in starting up clubs in Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire.

The only financial support they currently receive is from East Riding Council, who wanted to form a club in Beverley, and from the Humber Sports Partnership, to help support ongoing management of Fitmums in the Humber.

Every club has a chief coordinator, who is a volunteer, and a whole tier of volunteer run leaders. There are also leaders assigned to the fitness walk and junior sections of the club.

Sam’s dream is to have a Fitmums HQ. “I can’t wait. That’s what I really need. I’m bursting out of my house at the moment,” she says.

“It’s hard for me juggling my NHS job with managing it all. There’s an enormous amount of work, including the website which I also manage, along with my admin support, Vickie [Hillier].

“So that’s where I’m at now. I’m desperately seeking some more permanent funding that will enable me to leave my NHS job so that I can manage it, because what makes the difference is the level of input and detail that we put into all the clubs.

I’ve said to people that there’s many a day when I’ve thought I can’t cope any more but you only have to go to a club one night and people rush to come over and tell me their story and I can’t turn away from that.

“I think, ‘if people here are getting those rewards then there are so many more people out there who could benefit’, so I’ve just got to keep on going.”

So, there you have it. Sam’s best bits condensed into a 2000-word article that proves she has the X factor in abundance. She has been on one heck of a journey already but Sam, Fitmums members and everyone who has read this article will be praying that her adventure is far from over.

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