Marathon runner, fitness coach, community activist and canal enthusiast, Haroon Mota is a man of many talents. Well-known in his home patch of the Foleshill area of Coventry, he’s now working to help improve the health and wellbeing of local people. That includes promoting fresh air and green space available to the community on the newly improved towpaths of the Coventry Canal.
Haroon tell us: “I’ve lived in Foleshill all my life. Ten years ago, I started marathon running and discovered that the Coventry canal was a wonderful place to get outside and see where the towpath takes me.
The canal is a huge blessing – a hidden gem. It’s flat, there’s no traffic to worry about, it’s totally free to use. And it’s always pleasant hearing the birds and seeing all the greenery, especially once you out into the countryside at Hawkesbury Junction, just a few miles out of the city. For anyone wanting to get active, it’s a great place to come. You know, when you live in a city, there’s not too many green spaces like this about.
One thing I like most about my training is the mental space it gives you. Running, walking or exercise isn’t just about physical health but about mental health too. Being on your own. Having time to reflect and contemplate. To count your blessings. Just to be happy by being outside.
Right now, I’m working on a project called ‘Go Foleshill’ which is a Sport England funded pilot program being delivered by Coventry City Council, the Positive Youth Foundation and my own organisation for ethnic minority groups, the Active Inclusion Network.
I started the Active Inclusion Network during lockdown, to try and help encourage and empower people to get outside. It began as an online community, but people wanted more so we began to run events. We took a big group from #muslim.hikers, up Snowdon. And we’ve got #muslim.runners and #muslim.cyclists. That led to me getting involved with Go Foleshill and working on the canal.
We’re working to get Foleshill residents, particularly children and families more active, particularly in light of the huge health inequalities in our area. Being an athlete, I guess there’s no better person to encourage other people to get out and use the canal. Especially when it’s largely people from my own community that we’re trying to reach. It won’t be easy though, because there is a stigma attached to the canal.
In my youth, I never went onto the canal, even though I walked past it every day on my way to the mosque. In my community the canal is considered to be a place where there’s lots of rubbish, where there’s no lights, where it’s a bit unsafe. So I totally appreciate and understand people’s reservations. We’ve got a nice stretch of canal, but there’s a huge disconnect with the people that live beside it.
So the goal for the project is finding innovative ways to try and bring people out to the canal. And right now, with the Coventry City of Culture 2021 and after the improvements the Canal & River Trust have made to the towpaths, there’s lots of activity on the canal. I’ve never seen so many people out walking the dog, fishing, running and cycling. It’s good to see.
Some of the initiatives that are really helping to introduce people to the canal are a floating library that moors up in Foleshill every Thursday. It’s giving people a reason to get onto the towpath and they interested to what’s happening. We’ve been working with all the primary schools in the area and the local mosque, which actually backs right onto the canal. We want children and the whole community to create a cultural art mural facing the canal. And there will be the random string festival in November at the Canal Basin, which will be a 4-night light show on the water.
Once we help people feel comfortable by the canal, then we hope the walking, running, fishing cycling groups will follow. We’ve already got Let’s Fish sessions up and running and we’re working with British Cycling to give people ‘learn to ride’ sessions along the canal. These really help to build up people’s confidence, because it’s easy to ride five miles up to Hawkesbury Junction and back. But, initially, people might not want to run or walk that kind of distance. So we’re slowly building people up step by step.”