Article by Anita Beaumont-Clark. Originally published in the Newcastle Herald on 14th February 2015. Pictures by Marina Neil.
IF you have ever encountered a group of pink ladies running along the streets of the Hunter Region, chances are you have witnessed the Night Striders in their natural habitat.
Identified by their matching pink visors, pink cheeks and pink smiles, the Night Striders thrive on the rush of endorphins released during a group run with like-minded women.
What began as an opportunity for a couple of mums to exercise together safely once the kids were tucked up in bed, soon developed into something much bigger than its founders could have imagined.
It began when Melinda Roberts and Darlene Reis met at a friend’s birthday party in December 2010.
“We were talking about running,” Roberts says.
“I wanted to run a bit more, and Darlene hadn’t run for a couple of years because she’d had babies too, so we thought we’d get together and run.
“Because we both had children and our husbands were training in the mornings, the best time was in the evenings after we’d fed and bathed the kids.
“We started running a couple of times a week, and it just grew from there.”
A few months later, Melaine Connolly joined them.
Then through word-of-mouth, mothers from their children’s schools got involved. Then friends-of-friends wanted in. Now the Night Striders boast more than 560 members.
The group uses a referral system for membership, meaning you have to be invited by a member to join.
The Striders now run at all hours of the day and night, and members are encouraged to set up runs via the group’s Facebook page.
There are regular runs each week, such as “Ruby Tuesday” and the “Brewery Run”, but many are spontaneous: “I’m going for a six kilometre run along the Fernleigh Track on Wednesday at 6am, 6/6.30 pace, starting at Whitebridge. All welcome.”
The group has brought women together who might have otherwise just passed each other on a run.
“It has forged a lot of beautiful friendships,” said Roberts, a registered nurse and mother of two.
“They may have nothing else in common with each other, but that’s what I love about it, it brings people together who maybe would never have interacted otherwise.
“It’s pretty special like that, and all of the members are willing to help each other out at a moment’s notice.
“But the safety of having a running buddy – that’s a big thing for us.
“We wanted women to get out and run and be safe at any time of the day.”
Roberts had never considered herself a runner prior to forming the Night Striders. Now she is training for her first ultra-marathon, the gruelling Six Foot Track, a trail run which stretches from the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves.
“Running really was never my thing but now I can’t get enough of it,” Roberts laughs.
Members of all ages and paces make up the Striders.
It is an encouraging, nurturing environment.
“We happily let anyone gloat about their times, that’s fine,” Roberts says.
“But to us, it’s not about times, it’s not about competition, it’s about people. It’s about reaching your own personal goals.
“It doesn’t matter what level you are at, or what abilities you have, you’ll get the same encouragement and support.”
That encouragement can come via a “Go Strider!” shouted from a passing car, a “Strider spotted” post on the group’s Facebook page, or a little bum slap during a race when a fellow Strider passes.
“A friend said she saw a woman with her Strider visor on in a supermarket the other day and gave her a ‘Go Strider!’ in the middle of the yoghurt aisle,” Roberts laughs.
“It’s lovely. I think it’s just that feeling of belonging.”
Roberts is proud to have helped facilitate this “little community”.
“My life has completely changed because of the Night Striders,” she says.
“I think we have all realised we are more capable of things than we ever thought.
“It doesn’t matter what size you are, how old you are – get out there.”
The Striders are branching out.
“There are a few members doing triathlons now as well, and they’re the Tri-Striders,” Roberts said.
“Then there are the Night Strokers, who swim, and the Night Riders.”
The Night Striders has a nicer ring to it than the New Lambton Slappers, however.
“Darlene came up with the name Night Striders, which was much better than the one I came up with,” Roberts laughed.
Apart from a handful of male mentors, the Night Striders is an all-female running group.
WHEN you spend hours pounding the pavement with someone, friendship tends to follow.
Toni Wislang and Emma Duncan didn’t know each other before they both joined the Night Striders in January last year.
They met on a “Hippo run” at Warners Bay – which starts at Hippo Espresso at Warners Bay – and hit it off instantly.
“We realised we went to the same gym, so then we started going to the gym together as well,” Duncan says.
“Except I already knew Emma went to the same gym, because I’d seen her in there,” Wislang adds.
“I’d seen her on TV before that. I was a fan.”
Duncan, of Kotara, won the 2011 series of The Biggest Loser.
“I’m a hairdresser, and one of my clients was talking about this amazing women’s running group,” Duncan says.
“I wanted to get into running.
“I could barely run three kilometres when I met the Striders, but I threw myself into it, and I absolutely loved it.”
That July, Duncan and Wislang completed their first half marathon together on the Gold Coast.
“Four months earlier, we hadn’t even known each other,” Wislang says.
Following her Biggest Loser experience, Duncan had a renewed interest in health and fitness.
But running with the Striders had taken it to a new level.
“It’s more than just fitness, it’s family.” she says.
“They’re not just people I run with, they are my friends now too. And it keeps me on track. I post a lot of runs, because if I post, I have to go, I’m committed.
“It was raining the other day, and previously I would’ve thought that was a great excuse to roll over and go back to sleep. But then I get a text from Toni saying, ‘Lucky skin is waterproof! See you soon!”‘
Wislang says the worse the weather conditions, the bigger the bragging rights.
“Running helps with your head space,” Wislang says.
“It’s not just about your physical fitness, but also your mental health.”
Duncan recalls sitting at home on the lounge one day, feeling unhappy.
“I was thinking, ‘What can I eat?’ Then I remember looking through Facebook and someone had put up a post: ‘Anyone want to go for a 10k run?’
“I thought, I can sit here and eat, and feel miserable, or I can go for a run and it will probably lift my spirits. And it did.”
Wislang, a partner in a law firm at Kotara, was motivated by the Striders even when she was holidaying on the other side of the world.
“I went to Europe for six weeks, and I got back two weeks before our first half marathon,” she says.
“I did a couple of 5k runs, but one day my husband and friends were going to see the Catacombs in Rome, but it was Sunday over here.
“I thought, ‘Nah, everyone else is doing their long run back home, so I’ll go for a run today too’. I ran 10ks one way, then thought, bugger, better run back now. So I did 20 kilometres. I could see the Striders’ posts on Facebook and follow what they were doing.”
“I talk to Strider girls every day of my life now. Prior to joining the Striders, I didn’t have a friend who would run.
“I could ring up my closest friends and ask them to come to the pub for a drink, and I know without a doubt the four who would be there,” Wislang laughs.
“But if I rang the same four and asked them to come for a run, I’d get nothing.”
Being in a running group like the Night Striders was motivating.
“There is always someone in front of you who inspires you to run a bit faster,” Wislang says.
“And there is probably someone behind you that you are inspiring as well.”
The friends are using running their first full marathon in July as a good excuse to raise money for Beyond Blue.
(You can donate via give.everydayhero.com/au/emma-123).
Running beside each other several times a week, and talking on the phone every day in between, has meant the running buddies have shared highs and lows.
“Sometimes life can be dishing out onions and you just need to run it by someone, we’ve all seen each other upset,” Wislang says.
“Sometimes you’ll get there and say, ‘Can’t talk, just want to run today,”‘ Duncan says.
“Then as soon as someone says, ‘Are you OK?’ You might ball your eyes out and talk it out while you’re running.
“It’s great therapy.”
Wislang has also experienced the generosity of the Night Striders.
A friend was going through a particularly tough time last year.
A short post on the group’s Facebook page later, and Striders were offering that friend accommodation, furniture, clothing and gifts for her kids for Christmas.
“The amount of support was amazing,” Wislang says.
“The first person to put their hand up to help is usually a pink lady,” Duncan adds.
THEIR motto is “No Strider gets left behind”. Faster runners loop back to collect slower runners, and in case of an emergency, there is always at least one mobile phone carried on a run.
Striders will also shout out to fellow runners to point out potential trip hazards or traffic, as when running in a group, it is easy to take risks and overlook dangers.
“A lot of people don’t see running as a team sport, but I do,” Boolaroo’s Simone McNamara says.
“I think everyone is with you whether you finish first or last, everyone is there supporting you and cheering you along the way.”
McNamara joined the Striders two years ago, shortly after the arrival of her second daughter, Kara. Born with a congenital heart disease, Kara had been in and out of hospital since birth.
“I’d been helped by so many charities along the way, and I wanted to give back. How better to do that than to get fit and run?” McNamara says.
Since her first running event – the Colour Run in 2013 – McNamara has raised more than $12,000 for HeartKids NSW.
“Last year I ran my first half marathon and raised money for John Hunter Children’s Hospital.
“I raised $3680, and as the top fund-raiser, the event organisers doubled the amount.
“All up, I raised $7360 for the hospital.
“If it wasn’t for the Striders there is no way I would’ve been able to run those events.”
“Some of the girls ran it with me.”
“The girls are so supportive. It’s like running with your best friends.”
“You chat along the way and it makes the distance go so much quicker.”
NIGHT Striders come in all shapes and sizes, ages and paces.
There are the “Tortoises” and “Snails”, who take it slow and steady.
Then there are those like 30-year-old Kirby Clarke, who last year ran 10 marathons, plus a “couple of ultras, and a 100-kilometre race”.
“There was a couple of half marathons in there as well.
“The past couple of years have been pretty big,” Clarke laughs.
Clarke was bitten by the running bug while backpacking in Canada a couple of years ago.
“I couldn’t afford to do anything else, basically,” the pharmaceutical sales rep says.
“When I run that many in one year, I don’t turn up to all of them trying to get my best result.
“I’ll pick one or two in the year I want to peak for, and the others I’ll do as a training run.
“It’s hard to go for a 40k training run, but if you’re doing it as an event it’s easier, and you get a nice medal at the end.”
Clarke travelled to Disneyworld in Florida last year, where she participated in the Dopey Challenge.
“Every day they have a different event around the theme parks, and if you do the 5k on the Thursday, the 10k on the Friday, the half-marathon on the Saturday, and the full marathon on the Sunday, you get an extra special medal at the end,” Clarke laughs.
“I did them all with my friend Pip. It was really fun.”
When Clarke started running, her goal was to be able to run 10 kilometres.
“I’m just a normal person, I don’t think I have that much talent.
“I’m just motivated to do the training,” she says.
“When you hit one goal, you start looking for the next one.
“I suppose it is a bit of a paradox. The reason I started was because running is a free sport.
“For a free sport it is amazing how expensive you can make it when you start doing a lot of international marathons,” she laughs.
You can follow Clarke’s running journey via her blog, marathonbarbie.com.
Clarke cherishes the friendships she has made through the Night Striders.
“You spend more time with some of your running buddies a week than you do with your own partners sometimes,” she laughs.
“When you’re training for an event you can be running an hour or so a day, four or five times a week, plus a four-hour run on the weekends.
“I’d be lucky to spend that much time with my partner each week.
“It is a lovely little community.”