Charlie Webster has never been one to shy away from a challenge. From her difficult upbringing to a terrifying brush with death at last summer’s Rio Olympics, steel, grit and determination have been imperative – she sat down with runABC to tell her story of how running has shaped her life.
Charlie’s first foray into running came at high school, when she was offered the chance to take part in her first race. Her height and long-limbs made her stand out as a potential runner, but confidence was a huge issue for the 11-year-old to overcome.
“In first year at secondary school I took part in a running race, I didn’t really want to do so as I lacked the confidence, but afterwards I was asked to try out for the local running club – Hallamshire Harriers,” she explained.
“I was very tall when I was younger and very long-limbed, initially I didn’t feel like I belonged amongst the other runners and there were worries about the cost too. Eventually my mum encouraged me along when she realised it was actually cheaper than a lot of the other sports!
“Running brought an amazing release and gave me a great deal of confidence, the buzz after that first session was incredible. I was moved into the all-girls group and still at that stage I felt like I’d fallen into running – I wasn’t trying to be the best in the world, but it soon became that way.”
Growing up in Crookes, around 1.5 miles outside the city centre of Sheffield, Charlie admits her upbringing wasn’t always easy. And like on many other occasions in her life, she believes that her introduction to running was one that offered her real guidance.
“I didn’t feel like I was worth much and came from a pretty tough background, I quite often believed that I wasn’t worthy, but what I did have was a lot of grit and so much of that is down to my running – I have so much to thank running for.
“My life has been quite challenging and I’ve developed a lot of my self-belief through running, looking back to my time with Hallamshire Harriers most of the girls were older and I looked up to many of them.
“Even at 11 I was inspired by them, having that inspiration really stimulates you and it has certainly helped me move on to what I do now.
“I think I am a good example of running being a sport open to all. My mum worked three jobs, I took a paper-run, it was hard but it was doable. Growing up there were two running stadiums, the Don Valley and Woodburn Road, I couldn’t afford to train at Don Valley, but Woodburn was cheaper and only a mile down the road. Mostly we would train in parks and then get on the track at Woodburn a few days a week.
“The biggest cost for me was a pair of spikes, which my mum, my step-dad and I all saved up for – we made it work.”
Throughout her teenage years Charlie would compete as a 400m runner, before she faced another challenge – how can you provide training for a marathon if you haven’t completed one yourself? Her response was emphatic...
“I was a 400m runner through my childhood, but maybe I was always meant to be an endurance runner, since I’ve started running longer distances I have never looked back and have got better and better,” said Charlie, who was the first female reporter to present coverage of the English Premier League on Asian television.
“The most memorable marathon I have ran was in Singapore, I was over working with ESPN at the time and was also training kids for the Special Olympics. One day I was challenged on how I could train kids for a marathon, when I wasn’t a marathon runner myself, so I decided to go for it and enter the Singapore Marathon.
“I had about four to six weeks to prepare for the marathon and to be honest I didn’t know if I could do it. I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me and I cramped so badly, I had finished covering two live games of football at 3am and then had to drive straight to the start-line.
“Back home I have completed London Marathon five times now and the atmosphere is incredible, I always dreamt of living in London and now it’s where I call home. The finish is just round the corner from where I live too – so everyone piles round to mine afterwards.”
Having made the stride into long distance running with her usual mixture of steel and determination, Webster also completed her first Ironman triathlon in 2015, clocking a time of just over 15 hours, before setting her focus on yet another challenge.
To raise funds for the Jane Tomlinson Foundation, she set out on a 3,000-mile cycle from London’s Olympic Stadium to Rio de Janeiro, where the 2016 Olympic Games would take place.
She would complete the challenge, but at a huge cost – she contracted malaria, a disease that left her fighting for her life. A year on and Charlie confesses the last 12 months have been incredibly difficult.
“It has been the toughest year of my life, with some of the worst lows, but in amongst them have been some incredible highs too,” she reflected.
“I have defied the doctors expectations on so many occasions, but of course I still have some physical difficulties to overcome. Both the doctors in Brazil and in England have said it was a miracle that I survived – my consultant often remarks how gob smacked he is at my recovery, he does lectures and has included me in a few about tropical diseases.
“My running is one of the reasons that I survived, the will and determination that it has given me has been so important. I suffered extreme cardiac arrest, my heart was under so much pressure. I was told that what saved me was that I had a ‘performance heart’ – purely because of my running. It’s amazing to think that everything I learned and did as a child helped me live as an adult.
“People run for so many different reasons, but the positive impact it has on our heath can’t be underestimated. Rio has made me grab life by the horns, although that has been to the dislike of my mum, who often says she wishes I would calm down a little.
“In my head my recovery has taken a long time, I consider things differently now and in terms of work I only take the work that I believe has value to my career and will help make a difference to other people.”
While she believes her recovery has been slow, the reality is that Charlie has produced a superhuman effort to be back to the levels of health she is currently demonstrating.
Only a few weeks ago she and her close friends took part and successfully completed the Equinox 24 hour relay race – another challenge conquered.
“I love challenges and love pushing myself to my limits – I know that must sound quite weird. Our capacity as human beings is incredible and I love to see how far I can push myself mentally too – it is all about mind, soul and spirit.
“Every time I take on one of these challenges I improve as a person and learn more about myself, running is so much more than just about legs.
“The 24 hour race meant everything to me, it was a relay event and my team was made up of my best friends. I did one of the laps at 3am and all I could think of was what happened in Rio and that I was back doing what I loved – I should celebrate that – although I quite often feel quite sorry for my body.”
So what now in a career that has thrown up, more challenges in 34 years, than most will face in a lifetime? In true Charlie style, she has a number of projects – with an emphasis on making a difference.
“My career has thrown up some brilliant opportunities and only a few weeks ago I hosted an evening where I interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger, I got to hang out with him backstage, we had a cool debate about religion,” Charlie added.
“I have given lots of talks and spoken to the United Nations on two occasions – leading to a official role which will begin in April, it’s all top secret just now, but I can tell you that much.
“In the next few weeks I am launching an app called ‘Power Me’ a tool for kids to understand and deal with their feelings. Using avatars, emojis and various other tools, it takes their emotions and creates exercises and coping mechanisms.
“The app is linked to the parents’ email, my hope is that it will help empower children while connecting with their parents too.”