I can’t do this, I’m not strong enough. I’ll just say that I’d had enough, it was too hard. Real runners know how it feels. I’ll say I got a stitch. I’ll say I had a niggle. They’ll understand. They are runners after all. We all have a bad race and here was another of mine. But I was so close. So close to running sub-90 minutes. That magical mark that many runners aspire to. Three months of training has led to this day. Can I dig any deeper? I can’t!! Can I find a bit extra? An extra push? I don’t want to do this again.
Ten miles run and my mind was playing tricks with me. The sub 90 pacers who I managed to stick with for more than an hour were quickly disappearing out of sight. The group of 20 that started so enthusiastically had now become five and I had dropped off the pace. I knew I should have run my own race but I stuck with them – two miles, three miles, five miles, eight miles………….I was struggling now and at my limit but that’s how I should feel. I tried to make the calculations in my head but it was hurting. I felt delirious, completely fatigued. I roughly worked out with 3 kilometres to go, that I could still do it. It’s still on. I CAN do this.
My own running journey began as a young child. I was sport mad but athletics was the one sport that grabbed me. Whilst all my mates were obsessed with kicking balls, I would rather run. Athletics was my football and living in London, I recall going to watch the first ever London Marathon in 1981. In those days, you could stand at the finish line and watch the thousands of runners complete the ultimate, endurance event. That year, two runners crossed the finish line first – together – underlining the sportsmanship with which the inaugural race was run and an anecdote for anyone in the future perhaps, that any runner who crosses that line has also won. I was truly inspired and although I did not fully appreciate the nature of their achievement, I was hooked. I knew that one day I wanted to run The London marathon myself (and I have twice) but I may have run my greatest race yet. Every runner has their own story, their own reason to run. And after 40 years, I have my very OWN reason to run.
I was recently diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I was not the sort of person who would suffer with their mental health. I have had a great life; well educated, a successful career, widely travelled, a loving partner, supportive family and friends. But I AM that person. Whatever that person is. It all kind of crept up on me, took hold and I just could not shake it off. My symptoms began in May 2018 and were varied – I kept crying all the time for no reason, I felt helpless, worthless, couldn’t concentrate, was moody, aggressive and my sleeping became very erratic. I was struggling to talk with people and would shudder with anxiety every time my telephone rang, never wanting to pick it up. I could not even open a text message for fear of what it might contain or worse still, what it might want from me. In the very darkest moments, I felt suicidal. I didn’t wish to take my own life as the conscious me knew that I have a great life with a wonderfully supportive partner, family and friends who love me BUT in the darkest moments, when the pain was almost too unbearable, I just wanted the feelings to end. And quickly! Why was this happening to me? Where did it come from? How can I get better? These are questions I asked myself. I wanted to understand WHY and I wanted to feel better. I guess I was on the start line. I felt worried, nervous, anxious, wasn’t sure where I was going, had fear of the unknown – similar to those feelings we have at the start of a race. I quickly made an appointment with my GP and just burst into tears as I entered the room. I told her how I felt and I will never forget the kindness and understanding she showed me that day. Cleverly, she spoke about my brain being (another) muscle that is torn, that needs fixing and that we need to repair it and then make it stronger. What a fantastic metaphor for a runner! Alongside medication, I threw myself into self-help books, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and group counselling. I attended a group session a few days after my diagnosis. I arrived and registered and was lead into a room with other people struggling with their “mental health”. A very smiley lady spoke to us for what felt like an hour but in fact it was only 15 minutes. I gazed out of the window, my mind was wandering but the respectful me tried to listen to what she was saying. It was just noise. She didn’t know me or my situation. She didn’t know how I felt (although I now realise she did). I remember very little else about that initial meeting apart from another lady talking about diet and how important a healthy, balanced diet is for your mind. And how physical exercise is so important for your overall health and well-being. Even if you can walk for 5 minutes per day she said. Did she not realise I have run 30 miles this week? I was already ticking all those boxes which worried me even more. I walked home alone, feeling like my time had been wasted, that I wasn’t like the other people in the room, that I didn’t need them or their advice. What works for some, does not work for others and that’s fine. Group counselling just wasn’t for me but I know many others who have found it invaluable.
And so I found what worked for me. I got myself changed, laced up my shoes and went for a run.
It was a warm summer day and I remember the green leaves blowing in the wind as I pulled the back gate to. I started my watch and I was off. Running. Just moving my body in the action I knew so well felt amazing. I wasn’t running fast. I wasn’t bothered about the pace I was running at but I felt a sense of freedom and a release. It was like nothing mattered any more. None of the pain felt real any longer. As the miles ticked by I consciously turned back to run home. It wasn’t long before I approached my house and the leaves. I felt well again. But this was only the start of my race.
A luminous 13 sign flashed into view as I pushed up the last hill. I was hurting all over but knew that I was almost there. The echos of “come on” and “keep going” got louder and the applause grew as I increased my cadence and began to pump my arms. I hoped I could muster a sprint finish. I could see the clock which read 1.28.30. It was ticking……1.28.45…….1.28.50………I pushed as hard as I could and YES, I DID IT!! I was tired and choked at the same time. When I doubted myself the most, I had done it! Bent over, I looked at my watch which read 1.28.55!! “Great finish” said a voice and a medal was enthusiastically placed around my neck. I did it I thought. I actually did it!
Those first few minutes after a race are always a bit chaotic but are also when the running community is at its finest. Runners encouraging others, supporting their club mates, cheering the man in the Rhino costume, sitting around, stretching, naked torsos, some cooling down, ALL sharing the story of their race. I couldn’t wait to share mine. I managed to see the two pacers so shook their hands and thanked them. They probably didn’t realise what they had done for me but they appeared grateful for the acknowledgement. I had to collect my bag, warm down, hydrate and stretch. It is nothing unusual for a runner but this time it felt different. I really felt that I had won my own race. And best of all, I did it by myself.
Now I have had time to recover and reflect on my achievement, I feel this is a turning point for me in my race to improved mental health. One thing I have taken from this race is that I am stronger than I think. And YOU are stronger than you think. If you, yourself are struggling, just remember that you are not alone. So many of us are walking that tightrope. There is no shame in asking for help. It is OKAY to not be okay. Take the first step. Speak to a family member, a friend or your doctor. There is lots of helpful information out there. You WILL be okay.
And if you feel that somebody close to you is struggling, speak to them, support them, don’t take no for an answer. Some of the people closest to me did not know what I have been going through. Just because someone is laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not in pain.
Depression and anxiety are REAL. Maybe I didn’t believe it before? Maybe I judged people with mental health problems? But I’m converted! Converted to speaking out, converted to helping others, converted to getting well again.
There are many more steps to run for me yet but I’m nearing the end of this “race”. I only hope that others can follow the pace that I have set.
Mark West is an active mental health blogger and campaigner. He is a member of Solent Mind and is running 100 miles in May for the #mentalhealthmatters campaign. You can follow more of his story on Instagram run4mh (run for mental health)