How running gave Katie Piper strength, resilience and sanctuary
Katie Piper is a writer, activist, television presenter and model. She entered the public eye in 2009 in the Channel 4 Cutting Edge programme called Katie: My Beautiful Face, which documented her experience as the victim of an acid attack that left her needing pioneering surgery to restore her face and vision. She’s a mum of two young girls, and juggles motherhood with a busy role as a TV presenter and founder of the Katie Piper Foundation, a charity which works towards a world where scars don’t limit a person’s function, social inclusion or sense of well-being.
Katie talks to us about how running helped give her a level head after the devastating attack and how it’s helped build her self confidence over the past decade.
There are so many reasons to start running but for Katie it was loneliness in the evenings that pushed her into it. She explains, “Ten years ago I was living in a flat on my own and it was quite isolating. I wanted to get healthy but I didn’t really have the confidence to do a team sport thing at the time so I thought I’ll step out the door and try it, and if it goes wrong no-one will know!”
That’s the thing about running. It can be such a perfect low-pressure option for people who aren’t con dent enough to ‘go public’ with their exercise. Even though you go outside to do it, there’s an anonymity about running in the early mornings or dark evenings, or putting on a cap and shades and keeping the paparazzi of your life at bay.
But for Katie there was much more to think about when she started running.
Because of the injuries she sustained to her respiratory system during the attack in 2008, the doctors said she should only do light exercise and nothing too taxing. She explains: “I have a shadow on my lung, my oesophagus has a stent in, and my nose has been rebuilt with cartilage from my rib meaning that it’s quite restrictive and narrow in there.” In terms of running, this means that Katie can only really breathe through her mouth which makes it all a bit harder. And in addition to this, the areas where you have had skin grafted lose the ability to sweat so it’s harder to regulate your body temperature when exercising.
This didn’t deter her. “I have spent years being told what I can’t do anymore and I think I thought, do you know what, I’m just going to do this and make it work.”
So, off she went.
“I started in a really amateur way just wearing an old pair of Nike Air Max trainers and I didn’t research anything before setting off,” Katie laughs. “I was living in West London at the time in a flat on the river and I got started by running home from my office; I found it easier to run if I was running to actually get somewhere.
“I built up from just running halfway home and jumping on the bus, to being able to run both to and from work each day. Then I started adding on a few streets to make the distance up to 5K, and I just got the bug! Soon I was running every day, running at the weekends. I thought I should do it for my charity, to raise money, and I built up to half marathon distances and also started to make it social. I did parkrun, and also began running with my friends. My confidence grew and it became a big part of my life.”
She just got on with it. She didn’t even use the Couch to 5K app; she just did it herself. “And I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it to be honest. I guess that was because if I didn’t carry on with it, no-one would know. It’s strange really – I just think I was a bit nervous about doing it, and it seemed a low-risk way to start.”
There’s a simplicity about just running to work and back along the river, and giving yourself tangible targets like reaching your destination without stopping or walking. And it certainly works well for some people to avoid obsessing about precise times and distances at the beginning.
For Katie, she found the meditative and cerebral benefits of running came surprisingly quickly in her journey. “The thing that worked for me in keeping running was distraction. I’d start thinking about problems and sorting them out in my head as I ran and then I’d end up forgetting about the running. The problems were just general life stuff – this and that – but thinking them through stopped me obsessing about the running.”
“And then, when I started to track it,” she lights up, “I realised my regular runs were actually more like 7K, not 5K, and it was amazing to find out I could run further than I thought I could. It really made me realise I had to believe in myself more!”
As she built up her distances and started entering races to raise money for the Katie Piper Foundation, she looked back on the progress she’d made and it started to have a more holistic benefit to her life. “I was so sweaty and breathless when I started but I’d come so far and it made me think that maybe I could improve other areas of my life that I doubt myself in. Running empowered me to realise that I can do things alone and that I’ve got more in me than I give myself credit for.”
A new high
So Katie did her first race – a 10K in Richmond Park – and experienced all the feelings runners feel on their first race day, from the horror of being overtaken by a big banana, and the wonder at someone who looks twice your age overtaking you on the second loop, to the pride and euphoria at crossing the finishing line. “I remember loving the natural high; it wasn’t like the high you get from alcohol or online shopping and I didn’t know until then I could get that feeling naturally!”
She kept on building her distance until she was ready to enter her first half marathon, the race she is most proud of to this day. She recalls, “If I think of how I started – wearing crap trainers and jumping on the back of a bus when I couldn’t do more than 1K – I’m so proud of where I got to. I never had the belief in myself that I could run a distance like that but I trained alone and ran it alone on the day. I didn’t even tell my Mum I was doing it until a couple of days before and she came along and watched me. It was a great achievement for me.”
So, in the beginning running helped Katie with isolation and loneliness, and later it definitely helped her process the anger and irrational emotions she was feeling after the attack and it gave her more of a sense of balance in the years following. “What motivates me to run is the good feeling afterwards. I love the freedom of it – that’s enough motivation for me.” And, although she’s not motivated by entering races, the money she raises through races for her charity is incredibly important to her.
After quite a few years of regular running, it took an abrupt back seat to the demands of motherhood. “I really lapsed when I had kids,” she says. “I found it so hard to juggle being a mum and working too. I just jogged with the pram but didn’t have the commitment to running that I’d had before.”
Then, after Katie had her second child, she signed up with a personal trainer at the gym and used her runs to get her fitness back. It certainly worked but she remembers how it took the enjoyment and spontaneity out of running for her. Something that’s only come back in 2020, this weirdest of years, and now her girls are aged 6 and 2.
Time to run
Katie echoes many of us runners’ mixed emotions when the world ground to a halt this spring. “When lockdown came, I suddenly found I could go running every single day and it really brought a welcome change to my life.
“Before, when I was trying to fit running into my busy life, the best I could do was going out at 5.30am with a headlamp, ankle and wrist lights and a few mums from school.” With all their clashing schedules, they could only manage one 7K run a week together, being going home, showering and cracking on with the day. And the runs were always in the dark!
But suddenly, everything stopped – clubs, school, social life, and she was working from home – and she suddenly got given the hitherto mythical gift of More Hours In The Day. “In lockdown, I’ve been running more and doing new routes, seeing where my feet take me – and doing it all in the daylight! I’ve been listening to podcasts while running and in some instances I’ve found myself running further just to be able to listen to the whole episode! Having more time and less structure has been nice. I tend to stick around the 7K mark for distance but I’ve been playing about with my pace and my routes and integrating hills for variety.”
Katie has been blessed when it comes to the classic injuries we get from running but she does need to be more conscious of her body when out running. She reveals: “I’ve had many running accidents over the years because I’m blind in my left eye and have slightly damaged vision in my right eye. I’ve smacked into tree branches and tripped over obstacles on the ground because I just don’t see stuff! In fact, maybe I shouldn’t run alone and especially not at half five in the morning in the pitch black!”
With characteristic tough-cookie charm, she smiles: “I’ve had injuries but I just think it’s part and parcel of running – which I love – so I just get on with it.”
Due to having skin grafts, Katie has lost the ability to sweat in certain areas of her body, so finds it hard to regulate her body temperature when running. She says: “Lots of people don’t do running, especially if they’ve had a full body burn, because they can’t cool their body temperature down enough to be safe.
“It’s quite weird for me, because other areas of my body overcompensate. My hands, face, chest, neck, back and bum are skin-grafted so at the end of a half, they will have stayed pale white and without a bead of sweat, which means I can wear a full face of makeup and it will stay immaculate until the finish line.
“But… it’s weird, because while my face stays dry, my shoulders are bright red and soaking, and my scalp is so wet. At the end of a half, my foundation will be in place but my legs and the back of my knees will be absolutely dripping!”
Katie Piper’s top running tips
Being wise beyond her 36 years is a benefit of a life experience that Katie would never have chosen, but it has given her a depth and a warmth that has made her so popular with her audiences, whether they’re the ones cheering her on the race sidelines, watching her on Strictly, tuning in to her roster of well-loved TV programmes or those who have been supported by her charity.
It also makes her excellent at giving advice to runners who are tentative about taking their first steps. So here are Katie’s top five tips for all new runners:
- If you’re starting out, know that it’s not an exclusive club. The pavements aren’t owned by anyone else – they’re there for everybody.
- Every runner you see, no matter how professional they may look, started at the beginning. Running is a journey for everyone and nobody is born a consummate runner, so leave your preconceptions or snobbery behind when you set out.
- If you start to talk to people on your runs, there will always be an interesting story about why they run, or why they started, and you’ll soon start to feel the joy of that mutual nod or “Good morning”.
- People run for all sorts of reasons, be it for mental health, a bit of freedom or whatever. It’s a very healthy community to be a part of.
- If you don’t get started, you’ll never begin. Take the plunge.