I live most of each day locked inside my head. My thoughts race in cycles, often indistinguishable from one another, sometimes settling on a persistent undercurrent of dread or a quiet sense of despondency. It’s how it’s always been, for as long as I can remember anyway, so much so that I simply thought it was a part of me, just who I was, and had never considered that it might be something that could have a diagnosis and treatment. Running is the only thing that allows me to fully experience life outside. The further I go, the more those feet pound the pavement, and the more I race with my body rather than my mind, the quieter those thoughts become, and the clearer my headspace feels. It’s like opening a window to let in fresh air after a duvet day, and realising all over again that there’s a whole world out there to see.
I have dysthymia (mild long-term depression) and generalised anxiety disorder, a combination that often feels like I’m being pulled in two different directions which twist and combine to knock me from all sides. I worry about the smallest things, or rather things that are small to most people, but have never seemed that way to me. I worry about sitting still for too long in public places like parks, cinemas, and cafes, in case something would happen to me that wouldn’t have happened if I kept walking and could get away. I worry about driving, in case today’s the day I lose concentration for a second and cause an accident, or in case I break down somewhere that I can’t move out of others’ way. I worry about meetings and emails and phone calls in case I say the wrong thing and look like an idiot. But I also worry about the big things, things that most people wouldn’t even give a second’s thought to. I worry about loved ones suddenly dying. I worry that I’ll be diagnosed with a terminal illness that will change everyone’s lives without them asking for it. I worry that there’ll be devastating world-wide conflict, that the economy will collapse, or that I’ll get caught up in an attack on the tube.
Anxiety means I struggle to rationalise my thoughts, and struggle to achieve quiet or keep still, but dysthymia means that I struggle to move, to think about or see anything at all beyond those depression-tinted glasses. Apathy is the only emotion I experience in significant quantities, and I’m consistently aware that the world is less kind than it was promised to be. Yet, the two things together also mean that on the surface, it appears as though I’m a highly functioning, dare I say successful adult. Anxiety means that I feel as though I have no option but to keep trying to progress, and depression has ironically allowed me to develop skills in critical thinking necessary to a number of careers. As such, I have a Master’s degree and am about to complete a Ph.D at the age of 26. I have taught in two elite universities, have published in international journals, and have presented my research across the world. None of those successes, however, compare to how running feels.
Running is the only thing that you can do daily that helps you to visualise and complete very realistic, achievable, and effective goals on a short term basis, but that add up to contribute to huge life-time accomplishments. I’ve seen progress in my running like in no other activity, and it fills me with an almost primal hunger to quite simply lace up and go, and to push myself to see what I might achieve each day. No thoughts, no worries, no self-criticisms, just me and the outside. For that reason, running is my medicine. (I prefer to self-manage my mental health disorders with therapy and coping exercises rather than with ‘actual’ medication because drugs make me anxious. Go figure).
I started running properly about 7 months ago when I signed up to my first 10km race, not knowing if I could even walk that far in one go. I was craving a challenge, and 5km wouldn’t quite give me that (even though that’s still a long way in itself!). I’ve always wanted to be able to run and improve my fitness, and I have unfinished business with the sport after experiencing crippling fear and avoidance of athletics at school. The 400m would fill me with dread, the bleep test would make me feel inadequate, and I once collapsed during the annual 1600m sports day event. Ever since then, I haven’t had dreams that I could fly like most people, I have had dreams that I can run freely for miles and miles without feeling hampered by my fitness levels. And so, I picked a 10km race 10 weeks in the future, downloaded a plan, and plodded away 3 times a week. I made it through slowly, but still saw quite drastic improvements in my speed and distance throughout the training plan. It was a plan of firsts and milestones. Furthest run. Fastest 5km. Longest run. Most importantly, though, I had something very real to work towards, and it was something that made me feel genuinely good about myself. I eventually started to crave it on rest days too, feeling the need to let off the steam that anxiety generates, and to tease out the ‘real me’ that depression stifles. 7 months down the line, I’ve since collected 6 more medals, and am training for my first half marathon next month, my second a month after that, and my third shortly after that. It’ll only be a matter of time before I sign up for my first marathon, and push myself further than I’ve ever gone before. Running gives me something to look forward to, and something to aim towards, but it also gives me very realistic milestones along the way. It has pushed me the furthest out of my comfort zone than anything I’ve ever done, and has rewarded me more as a result.
Above: My first 10km race in December 2017.
Of course, I don’t want to overly romanticise the idea of running for those that might like to try it, and who then get out, find it tough for whatever reason, and feel like they’ve been lied to. I’ve been that person, desperately searching for something to make me feel better, that I went for a run in whatever trainers I could find, and came back feeling like anything but a runner. I was sweaty, tired, red-faced and sore for days afterwards. I don’t want to make it seem as though it’s always rainbows and smiles and a one-stop-shop fix-all cure to any and every ailment. There will be good runs and bad runs, and although running can be simple, and can provide a very real respite for those suffering with mental health, it can also be hard. It can be tough, it can hurt, and it can make you feel like you’ve got nothing left.
But it always shows you how much you’re capable of. Even now, after every run, I still come back sweaty, tired, red-faced, and sometimes am still sore for days afterwards, but over time I have come to relish that feeling. Those are the signs that I have worked my body, that I’m still trying, and that I’ve put in the effort. One run will not take you from zero to running hero, and one run will also not instantly cure anyone of anything, but it will all add up over time. The key is, no matter how far or how fast you run, to just keep plugging away, to be consistent, to work in as many rest days as you need (it’s not a bad thing if you don’t want to run every day!) and more importantly, not to give up. Before I signed up for my first 10km, I’d attempted and abandoned the CouchTo5k programme three times. I would get disheartened that I found it difficult and couldn’t run for 5 minutes in week 5, and so would simply not go out again. ‘If I can’t run for 5 minutes, how will I ever run for 5k?!’ One bad day would override the weeks of achievement, I’d stop, and then I’d feel like I was back at square one. The only thing that changed was my mindset. A longest run of 10km soon became 10 miles, and one medal became seven.
7 months later, running is now firmly my happy place. It is time for me, without the demons, to just be. I can push myself as much as I want to, further some days, less others, and through it all, it has taught me to be kind to myself. I have struggled with my mental health for at least 15 years, but it wasn’t until I took up running that I felt confident enough to talk about it openly. When my mind and body work together they are capable of great things, which only means that everyone can do it too, if they want it, and are willing to work for it. The running community are some of the most generous and supportive people I have ever met, and so even though I’m still consistently back of the pack, I am always proud to be a Runr.
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