For years running kept Julie healthy, but bone disease left her needing a hip op and unable to pound the roads. Undeterred, she's vowed to walk this week's 10k Runher
In 2010 teacher Julie Balmer, from Dundonald, won Runher, but now osteoarthritis means she'll never run again. She talks to Stephanie Bell
As she walks and jogs her way around the 10k course, Julie Balmer will be an inspiration to the many hundreds of women taking part in Friday's Belfast Telegraph Coastal Runher.
The local primary school teacher, who is a Runher veteran and former champion racer, will compete this year against the odds, having recently undergone major surgery to have a hip replaced.
Julie (38) was bitten by the running bug when she took part in her very first Runher in 2009 - an event which she was elated to win. The all-female event inspired her to pull on a pair of trainers and have a go.
From being a non-runner, she developed a passion for the sport and went on to excel in marathons as a semi-professional racer. Indeed, she was considered to be one of Northern Ireland's leading female distance runners, regularly blazing a trail at half marathons and marathons.
She was the first Northern Ireland woman to cross the finishing line at the 2013 Belfast marathon, and clocked up incredible times at both the Dublin and London marathons.
However, tragedy struck last year when Julie was preparing for the championship section of the London marathon. Suddenly she felt a pain in her left leg, which turned out to be stress fractures in her hip.
Julie's newfound running career looked bleak, with medical advice telling her that she might never race again.
And there was another bitter blow to follow later that year when further tests showed that Julie had developed advanced osteoarthritis - with a hip replacement the only solution.
Remarkably, despite considerable pain and discomfort, Julie did take part in last year's Runher events, walking and limping her way to the finish line in both the coastal Runher in May 2014 and the first Titanic Runher 10k in October.
Now, she is still in recovery from the March surgery, but no less determined to get on her feet again and be part of this month's coastal Runher.
Julie, who teaches in Alexander Dickson Primary in Ballygowan, lives in Dundonald with her husband David (39), an IT consultant. She says:
I ran my first Runher 10k race in 2009 and, to my amazement, I won it. From these first few strides to the more recent limps, I have enjoyed every footstep of these races.
Runher has a very special place in my heart and it has been a privilege to be involved in it for many years - from its beginnings through to the wonderful event that it has grown into now.
Runher is the reason I began running competitively six years ago, and it will continue to be my favourite event.
I think what makes Runher special is the spirit: we are all women together; young, old, fast or slow, walking, jogging or racing, everyone is united.
I count it a privilege to have won it many times, with second and third places, too. All those runs were so precious to me - sadly, they will now never be possible again. Yet I'm blessed to have changed the medical diagnosis of "never" running again, to now be able to jog slowly or jog and walk.
I was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis in 2006 and was encouraged to start running to help strengthen my bones. I quickly found that, not only did I love the feeling of having the wind in my hair, but I was able to maintain a good pace - and was a natural runner.
After several years of training and competing, I was thrilled to learn that my bone density had greatly improved.
I cannot believe that my home is a now a treasure trove of medals during my brief, but exciting and rewarding running career.
And, although it has been cruelly cut short, I am still a big part of the racing fraternity, an active member of my local club, North Down Athletics, where I hope to encourage and inspire other runners.
Running gave me the opportunity to make some truly amazing friends and I was honoured to meet, and race against, several world-class athletes, including Mo Farah, Wilson Kipsang and Jo Pavey to name a few.
It was last March, as I was preparing for my place in the championship section of the London marathon, that I began to feel an extreme discomfort in my left leg.
Following an MRI scan, I discovered I had suffered stress fractures in my hip. This broke my heart, as well as my plans to run the marathon.
I was told to maintain my fitness and focus on strengthening my bones and muscles through other types of fitness training.
I still managed to make it to London, if only to support my husband and friends who were running.
It was very refreshing to be on the supporters' side of the barrier, without any pressure to meet a target time, however, I did miss taking part.
My physiotherapist provided me with daily strengthening exercises, which gave me substantial pain relief, and this enabled me to walk the coastal Runher in May 2014, and the first Titanic Runher 10k, the following October.
It was at this event I had the honour to be joined by Dame Mary Peters. Her encouragement and support helped me through the pain and discomfort to complete the route, although, by now, I had a considerable limp. It was shortly after this race last October that an orthopaedic surgeon broke the devastating news to me that my hip had deteriorated and I had developed advanced osteoarthritis.
I was told I needed hip replacement surgery and that not only running, but any form of impact activity, would not be possible.
Although I was shattered by this news, I began to reflect on how fortunate I was that this was localised arthritis in my hip.
It was very minor compared to my many friends who had suffered much worse health issues on a daily basis.
I also thought about my time running and was grateful for the competitions I have raced, the places I have seen and, most importantly, the countless friends I have made.
I was determined to be in the best possible health for my operation so I continued to perform my physio exercises and maintain my fitness.
I underwent surgery just nine weeks ago on March 5 - one year to the day that I stopped running.
I am still very much in the recovery stage and still struggle everyday with extreme tiredness, and it is only recently that I have been able to drive again.
I am currently recuperating at home, but again Runher has given me something to aim for. I want to be fit and able to walk the full 10k on Friday. Runher has provided a positive focus for me.
I was tremendously fortunate to get my surgery so quickly. The operation was extremely successful and the surgeon told me that had I not continued my fitness - in the form of non-impact exercise and weights - that I would have been wheelchair-bound long before my operation date.
My fitness also helped my recovery and, after my six week check-up, the consultant told me that I could begin to do impact exercise again and, to my amazement and joy, he said I would be able to run again.
It will not be at the level I was once at, but I will be able to enjoy the wind in my hair and freedom of the road once more.
Although I will never be able to run marathons or achieve the pace I once ran, I can participate in running at a lower level again.
This is a dream come true and I am delighted to be able to walk and jog the May Coastal Runher 10k challenge again this year - the difference being I am now pain-free and without my limp.
The different locations of the Runher races and the breath-taking scenery they offer are a big part of the appeal to me.
I find all four courses - Stormont, the Holywood to Crawfordsburn coastal path, Titanic Quarter and Carnfunnock - challenging, especially Stormont hill and the aptly named "heartbreak" hill at Crawfordsburn, which never gets any easier.
It's my favourite race of the many dozens I have competed in over the years, because of the atmosphere, the pre-race warm ups, post race activities for supporters, the stylish T-shirts and goodie bags, all of which make Runher unique. There is a special feel to Runher, I do feel it is like a family.
I really do hope to be able to continue to walk and jog for many more years with my new hip, in many more Runher events.
Thank you team Runher for giving me and many others a training goal, a focus and, most importantly, a sense of belonging; the opportunity to take part alongside other women, at whatever level, at whatever age and in whatever health we are able, with acceptance and a sense of achievement."
Still time to register online...
- RunHer is an all-women running event of either 5K or 10K taking place on Friday, May 22. The 10K event will start at Seapark in Holywood and the 5K event begins at Rockport School. Both events will finish in Crawfordsburn County Park
- To register go to www.runher.co.uk. Registration costs £20 and is available for those aged 12 and up for the 5K event and those aged 15 and up for the 10K event. Registration includes a RunHer t-shirt and goodie bag
- Also at www.runher.co.uk you can find videos of the coastal route, training plans and picture galleries of previous RunHer events