Welcome back to our eighth and final Sofa Session of 2020 – a whole year of zooming best-in class social expertise straight to your screens.
THIS MUM RUNS THE WORLD
In 2015, Mel Bound posted on a local Bristol Facebook group asking if any mums would join her for a much-needed run that evening.
Mel included how she felt frustrated about her lack of physical activity since having kids. Mel barely expected one person to join and arrived at the park to find 75 women had turned up for a run. This Mum Runs was born.
I’m catching up with Mel – virtually of course – on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, who tells me about that first run. “We all turned up and did a 10-minute run, the one thing we were so euphoric about was that we were out of the house,
we didn’t talk about our children, we didn’t have buggies or nappies or snacks, or all the other crap you need. We love our kids, don’t get me wrong, but we need those slivers of time where you can prove that you still exist outside of being a mum”.
This is the purpose of This Mum Runs (TMR): to give mums that much needed headspace through running and community. TMR has come a long way from its 2015 beginnings and is now the world’s largest running community for mums.
Impact of Covid-19
Given the current situation, our chat moves quickly on to how Covid-19 has impacted on the TMR community. “I think we have been actually quite fortunate in a lot of ways really; we have a very well-established online community and obviously offline, we actually stopped [the runs] ahead of lockdown”. With the weekly runs put on pause, it became clear immediately that TMR was going to be vital for the mums in the community now more than ever. Mel states, “these women in a lot of ways they are going to be hit really hard, they are the ones at home trying to school their kids, most of them either furloughed or trying to work full time, carrying all of the extra burden for the whole family”. Mel mentions the increased need for headspace was showing in the messages and posts they were getting as a community “all of a sudden that was amplified, and even more important, almost like crisis levels”. She recalled the messages showing “emotional distress almost, showing how people were not sure how they were going to cope” as their outlet of weekly runs and the relief a good catch-up brings had been put on hold.
TMR was not about to let lock-down stop them from supporting one another. “How do we make our community feel connected? And how do we keep them physically and mentally well?” were the questions TMR had been discussing even before lockdown. TMR started ramping up their online content offering, daily Facebook Lives, watch parties of content direct from the NHS, providing answers “straight from the horse’s mouth” and TMR happy hours. The weekly Wednesday runs were replaced with ‘community hour’, which is a mix of virtual classes, cooking sessions and hosted Q&As, most recently with Anna McNuff who ran barefoot around the UK, and Mel herself hosting one that evening about life before TMR.
The idea being that it is time that can be protected as ‘my time’ allowing the community to connect and still provide mums with that all-important headspace. Mel confesses this has been a huge amount of work as her team had been furloughed. The ideas to stay connected have also come from members of the community themselves. Mel tells me about a volunteer from TMR in Walthamstow who has started setting a weekly post-run selfie challenge. For example, a piece of street art or something locally recognisable, is chosen at the start of the week and other members of the community will try to snap a selfie by the landmark and post the picture to the group. They may not be running together, but they have found a way to stay connected while running apart.
Becoming Drug Runners
We start chatting about how TMR has started to address the physical needs to the community. Mel tells me “some people were still going out running, but a lot of women were staying they were really scared to get out the house, either they were too anxious, they had lost their mojo, or they couldn’t summon up the energy to go out of the house”. At the same time as this was being vocalised by the TMR community, Mel was helping a local Covid-19 support community (not all heroes wear capes) that had been set up in the early days of lock-down. Mel was helping the community set up an online group that would operate effectively. Also helping in the Covid-19 community was a local pharmacist, who told Mel his main issue was that vulnerable and sick people were still heading into the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Mel realised “I have a bunch of women who really want a reason to go out for a run” and within 2 days yep, that’s 48 hours of Mel putting a post in the community group to see if the team wanted to get involved – they had 500 volunteers alongside a system known as ‘Mission Control’ step up and ready to go. Mission Control was set up by TMR volunteers, as they sorted out those who had registered into rotas, it also includes the safe and confidential process that has been agreed between TMR and pharmacy. Stand aside Houston, TMR have it covered. The idea was so popular that Mel tells me “I couldn’t even get myself on a rota, it was about 3 or 4 weeks in before I actually did a stint”.
What had become very clear throughout this process to Mel was the profound sense of fairness the community have: “they have worked out a system that makes sure it’s fair so everyone can have a go and gets a chance to go for a run. If someone doesn’t get a delivery that day, they are rolled on to the next day to make sure they get a go, I think that says everything,” Mel beams through my laptop screen.
I think that really does say everything about the TMR community. This community is the embodiment of “in it together”: on top of the fact they have created an initiative to help more people in a time of crisis, they are also thinking about how to make the system equal. If that’s not solidarity, I don’t know what is.
TMR is famously a highly engaged community, but I wondered whether this had changed over lockdown? “Our engagement level has reached to more than 90%” Mel states, which is already a number any brand would be envious of. It becomes even more impressive when you realise there are over 100,000 members.
What makes TMR so engaged? Mel thinks it is because “we are a community that is built in a lot of ways on vulnerability – when it started it came from a place that was quite painful and I share a lot of myself, which allows other women to do the same”.
Mel has had back surgery and had to learn how to walk again after the birth of her daughter. She shares her story, which allows other women to share theirs. Vulnerability closely followed by kindness are what Mel chalks TMR’s success down to. The fact it is a community dedicated fully to supporting each other is the kindness Mel refers to.
We chat briefly about how rare it is in women’s communities to find that unwavering support as they sometimes have the tendency to get competitive. Mel draws the parallel that being a new mum can sometimes feel like that, when joining some new parent groups, everyone seems to know what they are doing, and it can feel really competitive. Drop-off culture is real. It was experiences like this that drove Mel to ensure that TMR was completely different.
Does Mel have any advice for people wanting to create an engaged online community? The first thing Mel recommends is “it has to have a really clear sense of purpose. Whatever that is, it could be you like walking your dogs or baking sourdough, whatever that is, you have to be single-minded about that, that’s the first thing. TMR’s purpose is to empower Mums to be healthier and happier, this single-minded purpose makes the tough days much easier. The second thing – this is quite a geeky system thing – is how you set the community up and making sure you are optimising the group and using all the tools that Facebook give you to create a brilliant community… I can do a whole session just on that!”.
The third piece of advice Mel has is don’t try and do it on your own. “This was a massive learning for me in the early days, as community leadership wasn’t a thing”, Mel says “I didn’t see myself back then as a community leader, I was just someone who wanted to go out for a run and get some headspace and it took a long time for me to put a team around me and learn how that team should be structured”.
It took Mel a couple of years to work out what help she needed online, “you need moderators that can support you, otherwise it very quickly becomes a 24 hour a day job”. Selfcare comes into this as well – we’re all guilty of checking our emails outside of work – but Mel states “it takes over your life if you’re not careful, the burnout rate [for community leaders] is really high”. Mel tells me “you get up in the night to go to the loo and you check your inbox and it has about a thousand messages and you are replying in the middle of the night…that’s not even a joke – I have done that and I know I am not alone in doing so”. Mel’s advice to combat this is to have a team around you with clear roles and responsibilities and with clear time boxed off away from work.
Ups and Downs
So far it might have seemed like TMR had been a walk in the park (pun fully intended) but there have been challenges along the way. Mel tells me of a post in the community group, eight weeks into starting TMR, which Mel remembers every word of. “She said she was really enjoying being part of the community, but the way she described herself was ‘I am a porky, unfit mum of 2, I have been sat on the sofa for the past 20 years drinking wine and I can’t even run for a bus so I can’t come along, I can’t join in’. That was a floodgate moment, hundreds of people saying they felt the same”.
Mel describes feeling gutted by the post, “gutted that we weren’t being as inclusive as I thought we were being, but also really sad to see so many women feeling like that – and, critically, a really deep empathy as I had been on both sides. I had been super fit and active, but also been totally inactive for 3 years feeling like I never would be again. I really got where she was coming from.” In the thread under this post Mel remembers a comment from another mum saying she had a book on running and they could meet up in the park to learn together. “Not in my group, I will come and help you” was Mel’s response.
In the depths of January “the worst possible time in the year to start running”, Mel laughs, “it rained, hailed and snowed most weeks”. Mel spent eight weeks with 20 women training them, “I helped them go from zero running, zero confidence to being able to run for 30 minutes non-stop”, with the main aim of the women feeling like they could join the weekly runs. Mel describes the transformations they all had over that period, “those women, shedding decades of feeling like they couldn’t do it and I went through quite a major life epiphany where I thought: I want my life’s work to be helping these women”.
That was were Run 30 started.
Changing the Program
Mel tells me how flawed ‘couch to 5k’ programmes can be for women who have experienced long term barriers to exercise, TMR used these programs in the early days. “The majority of women, by the end of the program, even with a physical coach, do not reach 5k by the end of the program, they can run for half an hour but not for 5k”. “They get to the end and they are like I can run for 30 minutes but not for 5k so I have failed”, with this insight Mel changed all TMR programmes. “From that moment on we made all of our runs about time, not pace or distance”. Run 30 led to Run 60, running for 60 minutes non-stop, which led to Run Strong which helps women increase their pace and start to take actions against potential injuries that may occur as they start to run more. TMR had been coaching these programmes in Bristol for about 4 years but Mel wanted this to be available to any women who wanted it. This led to TMR developing Run 30 into an app. “We have women in New Zealand doing it, women in Canada and Singapore and all over the world” Mel tells me. The idea is to progress the app and enable it to help women set up TMR Runs community wherever they are so they can support the women in their local area as well. That’s right, TMR is upscaling.
With the sporting industry in flux at the moment I asked Mel if this has impacted on their funding as a business. “In a weird way it has actually picked up momentum for us, the last 4 years that has been our biggest challenge, I think because what we do is quite simple but also quite radical”. Mel talks me through how some investors struggle to see the value in TMR . “We are (a) a female founded business, (b) a business that is for women, (c) a business for mums, God forbid anyone would invest in mums”. “Luckily we have an excellent partner now in Bristol Private Equity Club who have bought into our vision and purpose”.
Mel tells me more about TMR’s funding, “until recently unlocking public finding has been a challenge, but by demonstrating real growth and impact over the past 18 months we [TMR] have recently secured funding through Sport England which is going to be a gamechanger in terms of accelerating our digital and physical community growth. Partnerships with brands who share our values and commitment to women’s grassroots sport are also a key priority for the future.”
“We are trying to reach millions of women and also trying to create wholesale behaviour change and mind set change around exercise for women, this is huge”. By showing real impact and demonstrating their purpose and values during Covid-19 funding is becoming unlocked for this community, something which will hopefully continue to do so in the future.
How some investors struggle to see the value in TMR. Luckily we have an excellent partner now in Bristol Private Equity Club who have bought into our vision and purpose.
Post Covid-19, how does Mel see the community changing? “The last 6 to 8 weeks has been very focused time on the community”. “The building blocks were in place anyway, but it has enabled us as a team to put a much stronger framework around our online team in particular and giving real ownership to those local community leaders”. Mel goes on to tell me about TMR’s focus for the next few months, “our focus is to strengthen our existing digital communities and accelerate the rollout of new digital communities, as well as putting plans and technology in place to support women getting out running with us again, and safely. Getting the TMR app into as many women’s hands as possible is a key part of this too”.
The impact of that Facebook post in 2015 is astonishing. Did Mel ever think this would have happened when she posted online all those years ago? “I lurch from one pinch me moment to the next, it blows my mind even now. What I knew back then was, I didn’t know where it was going to go, I couldn’t have imagined all of this, but I knew it was something. It felt like something significant”.
After chatting to Mel for well over an hour there was only really one thing to do after our call. I grabbed a pair of old leggings, a random top, my trainers and headed out for a run. I beamed at every woman I ran past. By the time I got back to my front door it had dawned on me: TMR have been in it together from the beginning, providing support, humour when needed and headspace for each other. It has taken a global pandemic for the rest of us to realise what being in it together really means.
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