APRIL 2016: You may be forgiven for thinking Karen Amsden looks less like a runner and more like she belongs on stage as the frontwoman of a punk band. Actually, she is both.
Karen has been jumping around on stage since her teens, and is the lead singer in punk band Hagar the Womb. The running, however, is only a relatively new pastime.
She joined RunBrighton’s marathon-training group back in November last year, her bright pink hair catching my eye the second she arrived for our first group run of the season.
Performing regularly at Saturday night gigs, Karen has impressed me with her attendance record at the early morning starts of our long Sunday runs.
I was intrigued by the connection between two quite diverse hobbies. How does she mange to burn the candle at both ends? What possessed her to get into running? And how has she found the whole marathon experience?
Karen, tell us about Hagar the Womb.
Hagar the Womb is a punk band, re-formed 5 years ago after going our separate ways for around 25 years. We originally formed at age 17, in the toilets at Wapping Anarchy Centre. There’s never been any money in it – just enough to pay for cider to keep our lifestyle going. Our highlight was doing a session on the John Peel Show on Radio One, and we made a single and an EP. In fact, we’ve just released a new split single, with Anthrax, called Hated by the Daily Mail.
And your background in sport? What did you used to do to keep fit?
At school, my friend and I were so unwilling to participate in any sport that we were allowed to sit on a spare hockey pitch and talk about boys! I had no interest in sport. I thought it was something you watched rather than did. The only activity I took up was when there was free swimming for the unemployed. From when I was 18, I swam about a mile every day in Lewisham, and that went on for a year or so. I’ve never liked the idea of team sports, other than watching football; I sort of supported Liverpool because John Peel did. My real interest was going to gigs and staying up late, but for most of my life I’ve not really done much exercise.
So, when did you first start running and what was the trigger to get you into it?
Five years ago I did Race for Life after my father-in-law died of cancer. I hated it, got drunk and was sick. My trainers were put back in their box.
Then, three years ago, I took part in the Road to Rio Challenge, with some work colleagues at the Brighton Council office. The idea was to tot up all our combined miles each day, with the aim of walking the equivalent distance as that to South America. I was shocked that I only walked a fifth of the recommended daily number of steps. It was a real wake-up call; I needed a way to get more exercise, particularly as I was taking the bus to and from work every day. A friend suggested running, and parkrun.
Also, as we were back performing with the band, but getting older, I realised I needed to be fit to jump up and down on stage. Band lifestyle is quite unhealthy… sitting on trains, late nights, drinking, eating junk food. I needed to get fit to be able to pogo!
I started doing parkrun in Hove Park and, for about a year, I was regularly second from last, with only an 80-year-old behind me. But I was impressed how friendly everyone was. I enjoyed the satisfaction I got from completing it each week, as well as chilling in the café afterwards.
I joined Fitso Fitness, and went on to do a couple of 10k races and also the Great South Run. In 2015, I completed my first half-marathon. Steve (my partner) and I had no knowledge of how to train for that – all we did was run up and down the sea front.
It was when I signed up for Brighton Marathon 2016 that my friend Simon said I should train for it with RunBrighton.
To build up from zero exercise to completing a marathon in such a short space of time is a tremendous achievement. What keeps you motivated? There must have been a few Sunday mornings over the winter when you could quite easily have stayed in bed and given up on your marathon goal?
I like routine, and having the combination of Fitso on Wednesdays, parkrun on Saturdays, and RunBrighton on Sundays, ensured I kept going. Once I had signed up and committed myself, there was no way I was going to stop. What also really helped motivate me was that I had agreed to run the marathon to raise funds for a local charity I’m involved with called Stay Up Late. They campaign for the rights of people with learning difficulties.
And the mental and physical benefits to me have far outweighed the horror of getting up early on my Sunday mornings.
What would you say has been the most positive effect of your training and of completing your first marathon?
I now have thighs of steel, which I often inappropriately invite people to feel! And I’m amazed how all the training seems to have cured my long-term insomnia problems.
Also, the friendship groups developed within RunBrighton has been fantastic.
And some of my friends have now done their first races, taking the view that if I can do it, so can they!
Karen, it’s been great to watch your never-give-up attitude, week in, week out, on the RunBrighton Sunday runs. How would you say RunBrighton has helped you on your journey?
The support and knowledge of the ambassadors has been incredible, helping me to understand how to prepare for the marathon.
When I ran the half marathon last year, I was horrified when I saw the hill towards Ovingdean. But, having trained with RunBrighton for the marathon, I felt completely prepared, knew exactly how to pace it, and really enjoyed the event.
What has surprised you the most?
I can’t believe how much I enjoyed the whole experience. At RunBrighton’s advice, my longest training run was just 18 miles. I visited Preston Park the day before the marathon to try and visualise the race; I cried as I was so daunted by the prospect of running over 26 miles. But I actually felt really comfortable all the way round and, when I finished, I felt I could have run further.
Before the marathon, I had only ever intended to run just the one, but the following day I immediately signed up again for next year.
So, are you going to enter other races before next spring? What’s your next running goal?
Before the marathon, I never thought I’d become interested in distance-running, but I now think I’d like to train for an ultra – maybe 50 miles.
For this autumn, I haven’t yet decided whether to do a full or half marathon. I’ve signed up for RunBrighton’s summer season though, as I need to keep my thighs of steel! And, as Murakami says in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “Muscles are hard to gain and easy to lose”.
Karen, congratulations on completing your first marathon. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you in the RunBrighton group. And I’m delighted you’re going to be joining us for our summer season. Good luck with whatever autumn event you choose, and with the goals you set yourself going forward. Oh, and do let us know when Hagar the Womb are next playing in Brighton!
If you’d like to find out more about the Stay Up Late charity, or to get involved, please see http://stayuplate.org/
By Mike Bannister