It’s somewhat ironic that I’m taking part in an event that uses running to promote mental health when running has played such a complex – and, at times, detrimental – role in my own. I was, and am, a goal-chaser. I had fixed ideas about the times I wanted to hit, mileage and distances I need to do, events I wanted to PB in – and when I achieved those goals the joy was palpable, heady and addicting. I was hooked.
I started running as a 25-year-old who’d just got her first proper grown-up office job and thought she’d better do something to compensate for the amount of time suddenly spent sat at a desk or in the car. (There is a clue in the word ‘compensate’, but we’ll get to that.) I’d never been ‘sporty’, even used to pretend to have an injury to get out of cross country runs at school. But then something happened. I realised in my early painful but exhilarating attempts to run laps in the local park – in £13-trainers and a sports bra that was worse than useless – I like this; I can do this.
Fast-forward a year and I’ve run my first half marathon (and spent significantly more on kit), gliding slightly uncomfortably under – what feels like – that all-important sub-2-hour mark. Now it’s on. I want to get faster and better because this was so joyously exciting and I need this feeling again. There is not much in life that you can quantify and measure in such a way (there is one other notable thing, for me, but we’ll get to that). To set a goal and be able to track your progress in minutes and seconds. To keep getting under your next target. The thrill when you hit it getting ever-more short lived as you yearn for the next, and soon, you realise, you’re telling yourself that whatever it is you’ve just achieved isn’t good enough. That self-deprecating narrative that you should have done better – will have to do better next time – becomes so familiar it feels like it must be true.
Before too long, whatever I did, it never felt like enough. I thought that determination was always a good thing, that taking it easy on myself was making excuses, being weak, and that not hitting my goals made me an unforgivable and irredeemable failure. I flogged myself through two marathons in three months, convinced that anyone who tried to tell me that I was overdoing it just didn’t get it. I repeatedly told myself that I didn’t have a problem, that I did need to be thinner to be faster, and that I was losing weight in the healthy pursuit of a valid goal. (Right, okay, full honesty time: I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder aged 19. I love running because I love running, but at times I have also very much loved running because, misused and combined with extremely disordered eating habits, it can help me to achieve what I believed to be the other worthy goal in my life: losing the next X kgs.) Finally, I looked ‘like a runner’, as anyone who didn’t know me well, and was unfamiliar with my rather more solid and fleshy natural frame, would say. To my husband and family, I looked like a sad waiflike shadow of myself.
Now, aged 31 and after a year or more of struggling with injuries and gaining the amount of weight it’s possible to gain when you stop starving yourself and find that you literally cannot stop eating, I’m starting to hit the kind of mileage I used to knock out in the bad old days when my desperation to ‘look like a runner’ grew to overshadow all the joy I once found in running. (Untangling this relationship was – is, I should say, as it’s an ongoing process – a massive challenge, but worth it because I love running and want to keep doing it, just, you know, without the amenorrhea and other assorted physical and mental health risks.)
It feels completely different now; I run because I want to. And, when not in lockdown circumstances, with two amazing clubs, full of wonderful people who’ve helped me to learn that sociable ‘chatty pace’ runs are a good thing, and that it’s not all about PBs. I’m trying to learn to channel some of the support and kindness that they routinely show each other into my own internal narrative. If you’d told me that one day I’d be able to enjoy a 20-mile training run with friends from my club, that I’d talk breezily and with excitement about what we were going to eat when we’d finished – that my brain didn’t automatically start doing the calorie maths to figure out whether I would strictly ‘earn’ that takeaway – that it wouldn’t be the end of my world when the marathon that was supposed to follow that training was postponed, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. But, thankfully, things have changed and that happened.
Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read this far. I wanted to be frank, possibly for my own sake in exorcising (exercising?) some of my demons, but also to say to anyone who recognises any of these thoughts and feelings that there is hope and that you deserve to be kinder to yourself.