By Lydia Willgress @lydiagoesrunning
“What are you grateful for?”
It’s a simple question but not an easy one to answer. As each day passes, and we battle to balance work, life and everything else in between, it’s natural to take things for granted.
It’s the same in running. Often, people talk about the fact that running is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. But the concept of mindful running, or using a run to build gratitude, is less familiar.
We are currently living through trying times, confronted every day with an uncertain reality. In the last three years, we’ve been faced with multiple crises – from war to the coronavirus pandemic. Official figures have shown an increase in anxiety and a reduction in life satisfaction, feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile, and happiness.
So how can the running community help this?
An idea was born
Mark White, a 39-year-old runner and social entrepreneur, says the answer lies in combining movement with gratitude. He founded Run Grateful in 2020 after being inspired during lockdown to run a mile an hour, every hour, for 24 hours. But there was a twist. In between each run, Mark posted about experiences and people he was grateful for on social media. Mile two was dedicated to his friend Dan, “more like a brother” than a friend; mile 14 to the “lessons I’m learning through ice baths and breathing”; and mile 20 to his Nanna Jax (who he put through “hell” during his teens). He was blown away by the response.
“Unbeknown to me I never knew it was going to lead me to where we are,” he says. “Mindful running has been a massive part of my running journey; I’d had many years of my life where I put pressure on myself so when running entered into my world it was a nice opportunity to do something just for me.”
He set off on his 24-hour run with no expectations. But “people were feeding back on how great it was and how much they were enjoying the challenge. I thought it would be amazing if other people could experience it”. It was at that moment he realised the ‘creative process had started”’ “The rest is history,” he laughs.
Run Grateful aims to connect the world through gratitude and movement. The team believes “gratitude is not just good medicine or a simple strategy for leading a happier or healthier life. It drives an intrinsic sense of purpose and desire for change – and it may even help our desire for happiness and pursuit of better relationships”. Research has also shown that gratitude may help to reduce anxiety – from helping those who practice it to become less self-critical, to minimising stress. Plus, it’s a great way to mix up your running.
World Gratitude Day
Since Mark’s challenge, Run Grateful has encouraged and organised a number of 24-hour events, bringing together people to run, learn and practice gratitude. This year’s World Gratitude Day (21 September) was no different, with runners from London and the south east invited to join the team at a floodlit track in Ilford to take part in a marathon like no other.
The concept was the same; 26.2 miles across 24 hours. As the clock struck midnight, the group came together for our first run – a simple 5km. We then settled into the pattern of a mile an hour, but before we stepped onto the track each time we were encouraged to think about what we were grateful for, hearing from each runner about their lives and experiences.
Alice Light, 46, was one of the runners. Her running journey started in 2020 with Couch to 10km, before she trained for her first half marathon the following year. She’s since completed a 100km race.
“I started running to help find peace with the past and move positively into the future,” she explains. “The event was hard mentally for me, but a beautiful time to slow down and stay focused on one goal without the distractions of daily life. I am grateful for my body for giving me that opportunity.”
The moments before each mile saw many people thank each other – mostly strangers until a few hours before – for being there and for their support.
The time between runs saw offers made of blankets, food, water and beds in campervans. It was a community formed overnight, brought together by a love for running and an acceptance that running 105 laps around a track was not a normal thing to do on a Wednesday.
“It was an experience I’ve never felt before,” another of the runners explains. Jermayne Taylor, 31, started running to keep fit after quitting football, before being inspired to run a marathon after his granddad died from prostate cancer.
“The event really made me dig deep, but more importantly it offered moments of reflection to really be grateful for the people in my life and the life I’m fortunate enough to lead,” he says. “Practicing gratitude is ashamedly something I’m not good at day-to-day whilst being caught in the rat race, so this opportunity really allowed me to take a step back and reflect.”
Using our superpower
Run Grateful’s ultimate goal is to have every runner in the world run or walk a grateful mile in their lifetime. Whether you’re taking part for 24 hours or 24 minutes – it doesn’t matter.
“Not everyone can run or walk,” Mark says. “So, how can we use this as a superpower? Moving with gratitude is something you can do at any time – whether that’s once a week or within a training run, it doesn’t need to be extreme.”
This mile can be done at any time during your day, fitting around your schedule. But before you set off, you should think of a person or thing you are grateful for.
Mark started by looking around himself and saying out loud the things he could see (“lamppost, fox, car”). “I started to be mindful and that would help to bring me back to the moment,” he says. “If there was something going on in my life, I also used to create a positive mantra and then just say it over and over in my mind.” To help support you, the team has developed an app, which means you can dedicate miles and spread the word to friends and colleagues.
Supporting the community
Based in Hackney, the team also wants to work with the local community, developing worksheets and a framework for how they could get 10 and 11-year-olds thinking about movement and gratitude.
With thanks to the London Marathon team, they used these materials to work with primary schools across Tower Hamlets for a week last year, inviting more than 1,200 Year 5 and 6 pupils to “rise with gratitude”. They helped to support classes with 15 minutes of gratitude per day and “at the end of the week, we invited them all to do a grateful mile, whether that was walking or running it, dedicating that mile to something or someone they were grateful for.
“It’s an area where Run Grateful is looking to grow, with a desire to spread awareness of the concept amongst all age groups. “We want to grow in scale and accelerate once we get the right partners in place,” Mark explains. He’s already thinking about delivering the worksheets in different languages – and has plans for a 24-hour event in a different country “so we can immerse ourselves in other realities, points of view and learn how others immerse themselves in gratitude”. Plus, there may even be an advent surprise on the cards.