Are you a runner? A fancy-dress lover? Unfit and looking for inspiration to change? Let the Spider Runners spin you into their web! This supportive virtual running community, set up by Mike Bullock and his partner Susan Mansfield last August, really does have something for everybody – and it’s based right here in Fairfield. Mike tells us more…

My own running journey

Like many people who realise their health has deteriorated, I took up running when I hit 30 – initially under the cover of darkness as at 18 stone I felt hugely self-conscious! I’m not a natural runner, but I stuck to it for a while before joining a gym (which only lasted a couple of months), and then a local running club – where, thankfully, everyone wasn’t stick-thin and super-fast, and it felt safe to get involved. I met lots of like-minded people, lost five stone, and developed into a decent club-runner.

Everything was going well until I suffered a serious back injury that stopped me exercising for a whole year. When my surgeon told me I’d never run again, it felt like my whole support structure had evaporated. I became depressed, and gained weight. I was incredibly fortunate that my running friends didn’t abandon me at this point. Instead, they gathered round and took me out for walks on beautiful countryside trails. This was less damaging to my body, and good for my mental health. Gradually, I set myself goals to get back to running – which I did, and it honestly saved my life.

 I know I got lucky, having friends who cared about my wellbeing and gave so much to support me. To repay their faith, I worked hard, pushed through a lot of pain, and I have since completed 74 marathons and 71 ultra-marathons. This is all testament to the power of having a supportive community around me.

Fast-forward to 2022. I’m now 52, and I spend most weekends exploring the UK with my partner Susan (also an ultra-runner), doing ultra-races and challenges. We are currently looking forward to running a 24-hour race in July and a 36-hour race in November. In the second, ‘Escape From Meridien’, I’ll be wearing an orange convict’s boiler suit and chained to Susan’s wrist with a 1m chain for the whole 36 hours! I’ve got no idea how we’ll cope with this, but experience tells me that if we push ourselves outside our comfort zones, even a little, then we become stronger in the rest of our lives. Most importantly, there’s a community around us that will give us the confidence to keep going. There’s an ongoing theme about community here!

How Spider Runners came about

In the last year or two, four things happened to set us on this path. Firstly, we had some bad experiences with running clubs, finding they were too focused on speed and performance – this was great for the fast members, but there wasn’t really any support for people (like me all those years ago) who will never be fast, but just want to improve their health and mental wellbeing or run socially to meet new people.

Secondly, we spoke to a lot of people who felt excluded from run clubs – people from different ethnicicities, with disabilities, older people, parents who struggle to fit exercise into their lives, and so on.

Thirdly, COVID hit, and we saw so many new people starting to investigate the trails around Fairfield and further afield. And fourthly, we set out to run the 190-mile Hertfordshire Way together, which gave us time to think how we could help put all this together – put something back into the community, get people to investigate their local trails and meet (restrictions permitting!) like-minded people to share the experience with.

Actually there’s a fifth thing: we realised how many of our running friends just loved eating cake! We spend our weekends running to a cake shop then running home (The Bakehouse in Letchworth is our favourite for the blondies) and it seems we’re not alone.

So…Susan and I decided to set up an online running community to bring all these things together. It’s called Spider Runners because I grew up loving Spiderman, and our ‘thing’ is that while Susan and I do race some pretty gnarly ultras, regularly taking part in 24-hour races and multi-day events, we try to make it all about having fun (usually dressed as spider-people). I think that’s really important if you’re trying to introduce people to trail running as notjust-for-the-elite – and it’s actually quite refreshingly different from being obsessed with times and splits on our Garmins.

An ever-expanding web

When we set up our Facebook page last August, we didn’t have a clear vision. We just knew we wanted to support normal everyday runners, and give them the confidence to take to the trails and maybe run a little further than they have before. At first, we chatted about absolutely anything remotely running related to see what people were interested in. Favourite topics were post-run cake (oh my goodness people are passionate about cake!), new routes to try, running trainers, and, most importantly, support for people starting out or struggling…

We never imagined we’d have over 2,000 members in the first six months, not only from all over the UK but from nine different countries! We’ve now expanded beyond Facebook to Instagram, YouTube and Strava, and we run our own events both online and in real life. It’s all free to get involved in, although sometimes there’s a charity fundraising element – because that’s something we’re passionate about too. The group has run multiple fundraisers for MIND, and some of our openly autistic members are currently completing a challenge for the Autism Society.

Supporting and inspiring people to run is still a large part of what we do. We ran a feature last November called ‘Why we Run’ and I honestly cried for two full days as people shared their stories. There were people running to cope with bereavement, divorce, mental illness…stuff like this from normal people, we’ve always believed, is so powerful to encourage us all to run, regardless of pace or ability. We now have regular live interviews with some of our inspirational members – and we’ve recently launched a mentoring programme, too, so that anyone in the community can partner with a mentor and get one-to-one advice and encouragement with their running. We’ve signed up 12 mentors so far.

Virtual events

We ran virtual Family Scavenger Hunts through all the lockdowns (we had quite a lot of Fairfielders join in with the last one just before Christmas) and there are regular Virtual Challenges – the most recent of which was to collectively run 80,150km in less than two months (that’s twice around Planet Earth). We’ve also just launched the Piece-of-String Challenge – a cunning idea where everyone runs a distance each day with the aim of hitting the secret distance we’ve sealed in an envelope at the end of the challenge! Nobody knows the distance they’re aiming for, but each day there are new clues to get you closer to the target. Apart from being fiendish fun, it encourages people to get out and exercise every day and share with the community online.

In-person events

This is where living in Fairfield really gives you an advantage. You may remember that there was a family fancy-dress run around Fairfield on Boxing Day. That was us! That was just a tiny taster. If you like dressing up as much as we do, you might want to join us on a Park-Run Takeover – where we choose a particular Saturday morning Park Run and descend on it en-masse, either to run it together (loads of people who’ve never met come and run dressed in superhero costumes…what’s not to love?) or to offer support to other runners by marshalling it.

We also run inclusive Last Sunday of the Month (LSOM) trail runs – always 8–10 miles somewhere beautiful and always finishing at a cake shop! These are for all abilities and move at a sociable and chatty pace with nobody ever left behind. We’ve recently recruited eight coaches around the country, so we have LSOM runs not just in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire but also in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Cornwall. And because inclusion is so vitally important to us, you can be a Spider Runner even if you’re not a runner. Our Mental Health Walks, over 4–6 mile routes, attract lots of families as well as people suffering mental health challenges, who can join in on the walk while chatting openly to supportive friends.