Norfolk runner shares her journey from marathon finisher to elite

A selfie of Anya Culling while out runningBy Kate ScotterBBC News, East

When Anya Culling went out running during the first coronavirus lockdown, it was all about getting in some "mental health miles".

Fast forward two years and, after a dramatic improvement, she is now one of the best female runners in England.

"I just needed to get out of the house", says the 23-year-old, reflecting back on how her running journey started.

Always sporty, Miss Culling had competed for Norfolk in hockey and cricket. She had also done a couple of running events before and the London Marathon in 2019.

But it was not until the lockdown period that she started to run "seriously".

"I completely fell in love with it," she says. "It's the most contagious thing in the world."

Anya Culling with her coach Nick Bester

She says she would use her "hour a day" to get out running around the forest and trails near Watton for "mental health miles".

"I was so slow my brother used to run with a 20kg bag of dog food in a backpack to make it harder for him to go at my pace," she recalls.

But once lockdown restrictions eased and she returned to London, where she has lived since she was 18, her running took off.

Anya Culling running the London Marathon 2022

She says she met her coach Nick Bester while running around Battersea Park and joined his running club.

"That helped me a lot with my running because I had this community and support from so many people," she says.

Last weekend she was the first female in the Run Norwich 10km (6.2-mile) race, with a finish time of 34 minutes and 43 seconds, setting a female race record in the process.

She was also the third British female to finish this year's London Marathon in a time of two hours and 36 minutes — almost two hours quicker than her time in 2019.

"That was the most insane day of life, the best day of my life; I'm still on cloud nine," says the former Wymondham College pupil.

Anya Culling

Miss Culling says from running the London Marathon in 2019, which she completed in four hours and 34 minutes, to this year's event was like a "different world".

She says she listens to running-related podcasts, has learned about what trainers to wear, how to fuel herself and now runs 100km (62 miles) over six days a week — although she still "loves a party", she adds.

"The balance is why I've kept at it," she says.

"I never once said 'I'm going to do this running thing', I naturally picked up the pace because I enjoy it so much and have kept running more and more."

Anya Culling running Run Norwich

The former Dereham Hockey Club player says although she still plays hockey, running brings her "so much happiness".

"I love taking myself out for a few hours and exploring new places and having a bit of Anya time.

"I'm also a really competitive person so I love doing track sessions with other people and keeping up with the boys," says Miss Culling, who works for a sports advertising agency.

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Miss Culling, who ran the Rome Marathon earlier this year in two hours and 43 minutes and Valencia Marathon in two hours and 52 minutes last year, says the 26.2-mile (42km) event is her favourite distance.

"I don't have a change of speed, I just keep going," she says.

Anya Culling at a training session

Miss Culling says she is yet to plan her next race but her London Marathon time should mean she will line up with the elites next time, and her long-term goal is to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2026.

She has also just qualified as a running coach herself and 90% of her athletes are women.

"I want girls to really believe in themselves; it doesn't matter how fast you are, just enjoy it and believe in yourself," she says.

"You are trying your hardest no matter what level you are at running.

"I tried as hard in 2019 as I do now and I remember being as proud of myself after that first marathon as I was of myself when I finished the London Marathon this year."

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