Her parents were told she would never walk – but inspirational Gillian Craig refused to give up on her dream of running.
The determined Northern Ireland woman has cerebral palsy, but her disability wasn’t going to stop her from achieving her ambition of completing a century of 5km Park Runs.
In March 2019 Gillian made her landmark run, and actually exceeded her expectations by going on to finish 115 runs.
When she marked her milestone 100th, she was met by her “Park Run family” at the finish line to celebrate with tea and cake with proud friends, family and fellow runners keen to recognise her incredible strength over adversity.
In the space of less than four years, from the moment she tried to do her first run, she ended up completing an amazing total of 575km of race track.
“For someone that wasn’t meant to be able to walk, it kind of blows your mind,” said Gillian.
“They didn’t think I would be able to have a normal life, to be able to walk or have a job or be independent. So to be able to go out running was like being accepted.
“In the Park Run I was just me, you’re not a person with a disability – they just see it as you and I just ran with the ability that I have. I think it’s a feeling of being included.”
The 40-year-old, from Magheramorne near Larne, Co Antrim said she could never have achieved the milestone without a mix of support from other runners and her gritty will to defy her medical condition.
She said: “I had to wear splints in my legs because my condition gets worse as you get older. At first I thought, ‘why did I even start this, there’s no way I’m going to get round here’.
“But every week I just kept building and building and the support I have had from other people was amazing.
“It hurt and it was not easy but I would have this thing in my head, you have to have willpower and determination. There were some weeks I struggled but I just wouldn’t let it beat me.
“I knew once I started it I had to get to the end, that’s just it. If you’re going to start you have to finish and it’s just having that determination.”
Six months after reaching her personal goal of Park Runs, Gillian was forced to hang up her running shoes under the advice of medical professionals.
But just a month later, she swapped the track for the gym and found herself doing strength and conditioning, throwing herself into exercises like boxing and rowing that she never thought possible.
She said: “I actually got to a total of 115 runs and I would have liked to have done more, but things happen.
“My last Park Run was in August 2019 because the medical people kept telling me it was going to come to an end sometime, but you keep blocking it out and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just keep going after my 100th and see how many runs I can get.’
“But then my legs got so bad that I was going to a physio and she said, ‘I hate to tell you, but I think you’re going to have to stop.’
“So I thought, ‘Right, we’ll have to look at something else.’
“And then I got introduced to Inspire Gym and its owner Chris McNaughton. He actually got in touch with my brother and said that I was an inspiration to Larne and they had seen how much I had done in trying to encourage the community to get out there and exercise, so he gave me a lifetime’s membership of his gym.
Since joining in September 2019, Gillian does personal training twice a week – focussing on the rowing machine, squats and learning how to balance – and then goes on her own on a Saturday morning.
She beamed: “I used to wear splints when I ran but now since I’ve got into the gym I got rid of the splints in October 2019.”
“I can see a big difference, there’s a big change in my legs. They are straight, they’ll not stay straight all the time, but obviously the gym has made them a lot straighter and given me a lot more balance and co-ordination.”
But Gillian admitted that, despite the gym opportunity, having to say goodbye to her running career was a bitter pill to swallow.
She explained: “Don’t get me wrong, the running is always in the back of my mind. I was actually on the Park Run committee and I was like, ‘You’ll have to take me off, I can’t even come down and watch it.’
“I can’t even help because it’s kind of raw. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the gym and I have a real thing for the gym now and a real buzz, but I said to my Mum that running will always be in the back of my mind because I never thought I was going to have to stop it.”
Having overcome the challenges of her disability to achieve her running dream, Gillian is a firm believer in using mental strength to overcome physical issues and pain.
She said: “I’m a Christian and I go to church and I was like, ‘Well God made me this way. If I want to get out there, I have to just think this is the way I am and get on with it.’
“People would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it’ but I just have the determination and willpower. I just look at the finish line and believe I can get there.
“I just get out there and I say to my Mum, ‘I believe in myself’ and it’s the same in the gym. It’s all about determination believing in yourself.”
Gillian wants nothing more than to inspire others by sharing her fitness journey and has already enticed mum Senga, dad Thomas and her brother Thomas to join her at the gym – and hopes that anyone reading this will follow suit.
She added: “I always think that even if it’s not a physical disability, it might be mental health issues and you can exercise for your mind too.
“When the door opens, if you don’t try the thing you’ll never know. There’s plenty of running clubs out there that are willing to give you a chance.
“Everybody’s different and it doesn’t matter what ability you have, the Park Run’s open to everybody whether you run, walk or jog. The people are so friendly, if you just come down and give it a go once, I guarantee you’ll come back.”