Helen Gaunt aims to inspire women of all ages – AW

    A Q&A with the fastest British masters female athlete at last month’s TCS London Marathon

    Helen Gaunt stood on the start line at last month’s TCS London Marathon alongside three out of the four fastest women in history, including world record-holder Tigist Assefa.

    As one of 16 women in the elite field, Gaunt was the only female athlete in the 40-44 age category. She more than held her own, running 2:38:40 in blustery conditions – less than ideal to run a quick marathon – on the streets of the British capital.

    For Gaunt, a decade on from her first London Marathon, it was vindication of her decision to start running over 26.2 miles in her 30s.

    After having just represented England and finishing third at the recent Great Birmingham 10km, Gaunt is now plotting her next major goal and is targeting a sub-2:30 marathon towards the end of 2024.

    Her personal best over 26.2 miles is the 2:35:38 she recorded at the 2023 London Marathon. All of this is after having three kids, including twins.

    Gaunt wants to inspire women of all ages and in a Q&A with AW, opens up about how she has overcome adversity, her work/life balance and the feeling of being in the elite field for the first time at the recent London Marathon.

    Helen Gaunt (Getty)

    How did your journey into running begin?

    At school I think the PE teachers suspected some ability, they tried to encourage me a few times to join the running and hurdles squad. But I was self-conscious about being naturally slight and a late developer, I didn’t want to do something my friends weren’t into for fear of standing out.

    My younger sister Susan ran cross country for English Schools and my dad was a runner too, picking it back up as a veteran with the local Harriers and making the podium in his races.

    Then, later on life?

    I got into running in my 30s and a friend twisted my arm to do a few races – it all started with a 5km Race for Life (where I came third!) in London, followed by a Clapham 10km and then the Silverstone Half-Marathon. I really got into the half-marathon training and saw potential to get quicker. Another friend encouraged me to join Serpentine Running Club, which is where I met my husband Martin – he’s run an impressive 16 marathons including 13 consecutively in London.

    His personal best is 2:35:56 which I narrowly beat by 18 seconds last year! Our kids Sam, Izzy and Benjy are already getting competitive themselves, chasing their own PBs at Tonbridge parkrun.

    I ran my first marathon right back in 2012 BC – before carbon and before children … I started at a blistering pace, hit the wall, but came in at 2:56, the time the group coach had projected I could run! I only ever intended to do one marathon and sub-3 was my goal. I sadly lost my father to cancer in 2013 and then decided to immerse myself in marathon training again. In 2014, I ran a much more measured 2:49 with a negative split in London.

    When I did that I felt there was more there and at the time it gave me an elite place in international marathons. So I then had this burning desire to get back to it once I had kids. I ran through pregnancy as my midwife said it was safe and kept myself fit to see what I was capable of when I could get back to competing. I believe I’m still on that journey.

    Helen Gaunt (Getty)

    What was it like to have kids and then come back and run so well in the marathon?

    Coming back to running after pregnancy and childbirth, I had postnatal diastasis recti (abdominal separation) to overcome after my twin pregnancy. The risk was that training would worsen it. I saw a physio and had neuromuscular electrical stimulation therapy and taping for abdominal strength recovery and did core physio exercises twice daily for 15 months before picking up club training.

    I kept these exercises up for 24 months – I was embarrassed to still be experiencing leakage when sprinting. It cost me my first Masters England qualifier at Chichester 10km, where I was embarrassed in a sprint finish right in front of the Marshal taking times on a clipboard!

    It was a bit of an unknown for me [having kids and coming back racing]. I knew what shape I was in over the half-marathon during that 2022 season before my comeback marathon in London in October.

    However, during that London Marathon I had a sudden sciatic nerve spasm right down my left leg at mile 20, my toes curled, it was scary and it caused my calf to cramp. That then impacted my final 10km during the race. I had just bounced up a slight incline on my toes and must have set off the spasm – I’d been feeling good!

    I thought that if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start again so I had to change the way I was running to a mid foot style because I was worried about my calves.

    The sciatica problem had flared up that season which stemmed back to twin pregnancy, but I think the spasm was partly caused by not taking on enough hydration, which I know compromises the nervous system. I wasn’t used to drinking from cups in races and so I got none of the electrolytes inside me! In future races, I have then tended to overcompensate when it has come to hydration so I need to sort that balance out!

    I had a huge amount of support from the crowds that day, especially on the embankment. I also received a lot of messages via social media afterwards to comment on how I had pushed through clear pain!

    Helen Gaunt (LM Events)

    You then ran an amazing personal best of 2:35:38 the following April?

    I actually went into that next marathon race eight days after a nasty road bike crash! I went head over handle bars and was taken by ambulance to A&E for five hours, put on a drip and sent for X-rays. I had concussion, bruised ribs, an offset jaw and dental damage. I couldn’t bite! I got fixed up by an emergency dentist the next day who reset my jaw, repaired my teeth and put a bar in to support the front row; I went back the day before the marathon to get the bar removed.

    My sports massage therapist taped my ribs that week to help drain the bruising. And I went round the expo to pick up my race number in a mask to hide my facial abrasions! There must have been a lot of inflammation in my body after the accident. I did a 10km test run a few days before the race and as my legs felt ok I decided to go ahead, smashing out a personal best of 2:35! I was left thinking surely I could go faster under better circumstances, and I still believe I can.

    How was it to be part of the elite group at the 2024 London Marathon, on the start line alongside the world record-holder?

    This was different and new for me. It was the first time I ever used drinks tables and had to learn on the go. I was running with a bottle for longer than I was used to as well, due to advice that I had about how many carbohydrates to take in the race from drinks and gels.

    I was slowing down to pick drinks up a little and it was a real case of getting used to it on the go! However, it was amazing to have the elite set-up there as you could take your own specific mix. It was a great learning curve for me because in order to what I want to achieve what I think I’m capable of, I need to put myself in these situations and run with the elite field.

    To warm up with these ladies and to stand on the start line with them was incredible. I joined the huge round of applause! You felt like you were in a moment in history. Ultimately, nerves are great for the adrenaline and it was a magical moment to run in what I think is the greatest marathon in the world. I felt like I was in the shape of my life but conditions didn’t lend themselves to a personal best performance.

    I’m keen to put the training block to use in Berlin or Valencia marathon later this year as I believe I can deliver a 2:30 pace if it all comes together – there are a lot of moving parts with the marathon but I’m learning every time from the experience you only truly get through racing.

    Helen Gaunt (LM Events)

    How’s the work/life balance?

    I’m currently working full-time in community health improvement for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, leading a team of health advisors. I also have my own business in personal training and nutrition coaching and I’m an online running coach working with people competing all levels from 3000m up to the ultramarathon.

    When I had children, I did my diploma in personal training snd nutrition and qualified as an England Athletics coach specialising in endurance.

    It is a real juggle but I do like to be busy! It’s a case of usually training early in the morning or in the evening.

    How was it to compete in your second England vest at the recent Birmingham 10km?

    My first England Masters vest came at the Bristol 10km, where I ran 35:41 a few weeks before my comeback marathon two years ago.

    Last week in Birmingham, I finished third overall to make the podium and was first in the FV40 age category. This was my second quickest 10km to date, clocking 35:35, completing the winning team for England alongside Gemma Steel and Carla Davies.

    It was a pretty undulating course around the city centre with a lot of sharp corners, I ran the first 5km a bit longer than I should’ve done, and the second half a bit quicker, which might explain the negative split of 18:15/17:20!

    My best performances at 5km and 10km have been at Battersea Park where I’ve run 17:09 for 5km and 34:41 for 10km – the plan is to get back there this summer!

    Carla Davies, Gemma Steel, Helen Gaunt (GRC)

    How do you think what you’ve done can help transcend boundaries and inspire others?

    I want to show that as women get older or have children, we can still condition our bodies to perform. It’s about putting the work in for yourself and not feeling that age is an inhibiter. When I first went to Tonbridge for my first track session, I felt slightly intimidated, being an older athlete in a club environment.

    I started off in the masters training group and and then found my way into the performance group where I’ve found the training suits me nicely. You will find a group that fits yourself best. It’s all about believing you can.

    As a personal trainer and running coach I often work with women who are coming back into fitness later in life after having children or around busy careers. It’s about showing that if you establish the right habits you can get stronger, fitter and turn things around. Age is not necessarily an inhibitor and you never know where it might take you!

    I want to inspire and motivate girls and women to have the confidence to get into – or back into the sport. I’m very much on board with the This Girl Can mentality! I get a lot of satisfaction from having running in my life – it’s a juggle but it gives me balance to carve out and retain some me-time and personal challenge alongside family life as a mum.

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