I’m writing this whilst sitting on my bed at 11.47am on a Saturday, a week before my first Marathon at Brighton, a painful hip and a sore leg, and all I can think of is “I AM running 26 miles next week” whether my body wants to or not. Because my mind wants to. And for once, I’m putting it first.
As a teenager I loved sport. I was a regular on the hockey pitch for school and town, played cricket for a youth team, studied PE at GCSE. Throughout this though, my main focus was on my body. As a teen, 60 minutes of fierce hockey two or three times a week did wonders for my figure – something that when I found college, alcohol, work, boys, I dropped and the weight piled on. The following 15 years were a cycle of fitness for weight – joining a gym to lose weight when I was single at 19 and travelling a lot with work, rejoining when I was 22 and due to get married to fit in a dress. I tried running a couple of times, found the treadmill dull, but liked the change in my shape. By the time I was mid-twenties and separated with 2 young children though, any thoughts of getting out to a gym were far-fetched so I relied on a wii-fit and step machine in my front room, again to get to a certain clothes shape.
I was diagnosed with Aspergers and Anxiety at the ripe old age of 33. I’ve known since I was a teenager I was “different” – always struggling with social situations unless they were on the pitch where rules and reasons were clear. I realized that the fussy arm feeling and heart racing you get when you are in a near miss in the car wasn’t something everyone got just standing in a queue at a coffee shop. That the reason I needed to follow the same routine each morning with my alarm, breakfast, route to work, wasn’t just me being organized, but a necessity to get through the day, otherwise I’d panic I’d left a door unlocked, hair straighteners on, iron plugged in.
In 2015 I started running. This time I wasn’t running for weight. I didn’t join the gym for a dress size, though I still weighed myself religiously and tried to change my body – after all, runners were slim and muscly, weren’t they? I joined races, hating the crowds, but loving the methodical plodding, the feeling of passing the finish line. I still remember that first run outside when I made my boyfriend come with me, scared of being laughed at as I plodded on. That feeling when I got home though? The adrenaline. The endorphins. I was hooked. I started noticing the changes to my happiness more than my waist line.
From then on I didn’t run with people. I ran alone. I went out whenever I got the chance to – which living with two kids under 10 alone wasn’t often. But I would go for my routine 5k round the block. Even going the morning of a big university exam to “clear my head”. It was then that I realized how much running helped my head. Suffering from fibromyalgia and hypermobility, sometimes my body doesn’t want to run, but my mind needs it. Even just a 10-minute jog round the block was sometimes enough. Someone once asked me what I thought about when I ran. Nothing. That’s what I think about. Nothing. I can’t get into arguments in my head, or bogged down by stuff, when I’m constantly watching my step, checking my pace, watching for cars. It’s the one time my mind is free; free from Uni, from work, from being mum, from housework. It’s the one time I am free.
Running for me is my escape. I’m always juggling everything, putting my trainers on and heading out the door for an hour is my way of forgetting everything. My anxiety goes when I run – you can’t skin pick when running, you can’t obsess over saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. And running alone meant I didn’t have to worry about social situations – after my big race at the Olympic Park in 2015, I knew I hated big crowds, so I avidly avoided big runs.
But then in 2016 I discovered Instagram. An avid internet user, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t found it before. There were whole groups of people like me. Putting into words what I’d been thinking for months, years. And I have built some brilliant friendships with some people on there. I can be me. I can post about my highs, about my lows, and there are people there. I can run alone – still one of my happy places - but also run with people, something I have grown to love. Yes, running and Instagram have helped me with my social boundaries and friendship building. Who’d have thought it? But in 2017 I made a split second decision to sign up for a half marathon four days later (having only run 10 miles before) with an instagrammer who had posted about it. And the minute I saw them in the toilet line and got a hug I knew I’d broken that boundary – I almost cried when I crossed the finish line, not because of the run, but because these “strangers” cheered me over the line and invited me for lunch afterwards. Running has become my social life. I’ve run half marathons, 20 milers, 5ks, all with friends I’ve met through there. And they are friends. How else can you run for 4 hours in their company? And even though I’m not fast, I’m not slim, I’m not perfect, I feel accepted. Even if I need to do my routine 3 weeks before a race!
And that’s why I will be at Brighton next Sunday. In a crowd which quite simply petrifies me. But knowing I have at least 3 other friends feeling the same around me. Squeezing my hand. Pushing my body to its biggest challenge ever. Because my mind deserves it. And Its why I’ve signed up for Runr’s Miles for Mind in May. I have no races planned, May is all about recovery runs. About runs for me, and the miles I’ve come in my own mind since starting running. And it means I can do what I’ve been trying to do for the last year on Instagram; support others like I was supported. Celebrate them, console them, help raise awareness of mental health support and needs. Because running quite literally changed my mind.