Running, mental health, and me

Before I write about the magical day that was Sunday 23 April 2017, I thought I would explore a far more important and pressing topic.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I would like to write about why vital conversations need to take place around mental health. I also want to share my own experience of mental health, how it has evolved over the years and particularly recently, with the discovery of running.

You’ll have heard it many times before – a staggering proportion of the population will struggle with one or several mental health problems at a point in their lives. It is estimated that, each year, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem. The type and magnitude of these problems vary enormously, but it is undeniable that they have a profound effect each person who goes through it.

Given the amount of people that this affects, it bothers me greatly when I see dismissive, ignorant, and, at times, downright mean responses when the issue of mental health is raised, whether directly or indirectly. The fact that there continues to be a lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding mental health makes this week, and a charity like Heads Together formally declaring the 2017 London Marathon as the Mental Health Marathon, all the more important. The message is clear. We. Need. To. Talk. About. This.

Those who consider themselves not to have or to ever have had a mental illness are invited to join the conversation. The goal is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, to improve understanding, to educate people, to get people to listen… All this to help us as a society realise that it’s completely fine not to be fine 100% of the time, and to be open about it.

I have been dealing with mental health problems since I was 12 years old. Throughout the years, depression and anxiety have made appearances in my life, and in some really low moments, taken centre stage. Talking about how I felt was only ever possible with strangers – a health professional, a person on the other end of a telephone hotline. The majority of the time, however, I would often feel rebuffed, rebuked, ridiculed for what seemed (to other people, even people from whom I would have expected support) to be my disproportionate reaction to the situation at hand. If I had a penny for the every time I’ve been told I was imagining things, being melodramatic or unreasonable… This all contributed to me thinking that I was not entitled, allowed even, to be upset for whatever reason. Worse, still, that I was wrong for feeling what I was feeling.

It has only been in the past 6 months that I have gradually been able to open up and to seek help. In autumn 2016, my boyfriend asked me one morning whether I remembered getting out of bed the previous night, walking a couple of steps, standing by the bed for a couple of seconds, then getting back into bed. Having had no recollection of this, I came to the conclusion that I had experienced a sleepwalking episode. Although I am known to have a good natter in my sleep, I had never sleepwalked before. I decided to consult my GP about this, as my sleep quality had been deteriorating over the year anyway, and fully expected to be prescribed sleeping pills of some sort.

At my appointment, the GP asked questions that I had not anticipated. ‘Do you have nightmares? Do you have hobbies and are you still interested in them? How are your energy levels throughout the day? How are you at work? Do you have physiological reactions to stress?’ It then occurred to me that I was being asked questions to assess the likelihood of me suffering from a mental health problem, rather than just a sleep disorder. At that appointment, I gave what answers I could give from recent memory. At the same time, I was suddenly remembering how I felt at 12 years old, and several times again at other points in my life. As much as I had tried to dismiss those times as bad days or bad phases, I was faced with the reality that this was long-term.

Between that appointment and now, several major changes have happened.

  1. Opening up. It started with my closest friends and my parents. Then, a cognitive behavioural therapist. Then, a handful of colleagues. Slowly, I am moving out of this box I’d locked myself in, where I felt I always had to deal with my problems by myself, and that I’d be a burden to anyone with whom I shared how I really felt. I had always believed that by solving my own issues on my own, I was making myself stronger, more resilient, more prepared to face life’s difficult moments. In fact, I was only going round in circles in my head. Talking helps me take stock, make sense of what’s going on, and saves me from getting caught up in minute, and sometimes irrelevant, detail. Being listened to makes me feel valued, and if not understood, at least that I’m cared about enough to be worth someone’s time. The gratitude I have for the people who give me the time of day when things are going wrong is immense, and I hope they know how much they mean to me.
  2. Tango. I started tango 9 months before I went for my GP appointment, but looking back, it is the first activity that successfully quietened the noise in my mind. It showed me the possibility of life without never-ending worry, even if it was just for a couple of hours every week. I have also met some incredibly kind, funny, utterly loveable people in this way, and a community that is encouraging and supportive. Tango gives me an expressive outlet and and chance to progress in something – it offered me my first steps to recovery before I even knew I was down.
  3. Running and the 2017 London Marathon. ‘Is this a prank?’ were some of the first words I uttered when I found out I’d obtained a ballot place for the 2017 London Marathon. If you look back to my first blog post, you’ll see that the odds were stacked up against me running 26.2 miles in April 2017. Running gave me the same release from the constant churning of worried thoughts in my head as tango did. I focussed on my breathing, on the music, on the regularity of my feet hitting the ground. And when each training run was over, whether it was a 30-minute or 3-hour-30-minute run, that elation from achieving what I once thought was impossible (yes, I couldn’t even fathom running for 30 minutes not that long ago) was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And then, there were the really tough runs, the unfinished runs. I even gave up on one of my long runs after nearly 11 miles. Yet, I can now call myself a marathoner. Cynics will roll their eyes and dismiss this as indulgent rubbish, but running taught me that I can overcome adversity. Pain, be it physical or mental, could be staring me in the face and daring me to succumb to the negativity, and I’ve proved that I can shut it up and emerge victorious. Running is not a cure, but it helps me manage my depression and anxiety on a daily basis. That ‘prank’ turned out to be a lifesaver.



So that was me being open. And that was me inviting you to understand that mental health is not straightforward. Dealing with mental health problems is an ongoing effort, and doing so positively often starts with acceptance and a dialogue. Reach out and listen – it achieves so much more than negative judgment and stigma ever will. And if anyone reading this feels like they need someone to talk to, I would be more than happy to listen. ❤

Training Update: Week 12

This week was going to be a crucial one, following the downer that was last week’s long run. I needed to learn how to keep going with training and not let one bad run define my training experience and that of the marathon itself! Building yourself back up after a knock to your confidence is tough to do in only a couple of days, but time isn’t waiting for me and 23 April 2017 is hurtling towards me at full speed.

Tuesday was a 50 minute recovery run, which went fine apart from a terrible stitch that plagued me throughout. I started my run aiming to adopt a different approach to running. I told myself I would pay my running app no mind, and that I would just enjoy running for the liberating, miraculous act that it is. Being close enough to the Thames to run along it is also something to treasure, so I just soaked in the surroundings, paying attention to the ducks and geese on the river and to the beautiful architecture of the Old Royal Naval College. I felt so rejuvenated in terms of my outlook on running, that I resolved to tackle my recovery runs with the same attitude every time.

After that, I was gearing up for an interval run in a city I’d never visited before. Work took me to Leeds for 2 days and 1 night, and I asked around for good running routes. I was consistently told that the canal was the best place to run, so on Thursday morning, I laced up nice and early and set off to explore.

The run went something like this: 10 minutes easy run, (6 minutes tempo run, 2 minutes walk/recovery jog) x 4, 10 minutes easy run. Once again, I slightly dreaded this as I’m no good at intervals. However, the case really must be made for running through uncharted territory and how much it boosts your running. The novelty of the location combined with the early morning sun shimmering off the water made the run a breeze. Well, I say a breeze, but that’s in comparison to previous interval runs where I thought my heart would literally rip through my chest it was working so hard. Time simply flew by. Looking back, I think the interval made me slightly more optimistic for this week’s Sunday long run. The change of scenery did wonders for me and for my mood.

Saturday evening, I went to see An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. Now, you may be thinking, “What does a musical have to do with running?” I’ve always firmly believed that dance is a sport, and I am in awe every time I watch professional dancers, of any genre of dance, perform. It boggles the mind how athleticism and control marry with artistry and a semblance of effortlessness, to create sheer magic. There is no doubt in my mind that dancers are athletes. The stamina required to train relentlessly, to give your all in every performance, day in and day out… It makes you realise that the human body is an incredible thing, and that so much of what dancers do applies to running as well!

I was on cloud nine after the musical, which was an absolute tour de force. Go and watch it! There’s a reason it has won 4 Tony awards. Here’s a taster (just imagine doing this 7 times per week, and as part of a wider show!)

Onto the long run…

During the week, it occurred to me that I had experienced that mysterious feeling of “hitting the wall” on last Sunday’s run. The time had come to look into fuelling during the run. Because of my IBS, I had always been fearful of energy gels, jellies and bars as they contain caffeine, fructose, and loads of other ingredients I am confident my tummy could not handle. I spoke with people at the London Marathon store on Bishopsgate to see if they had any experience, first-hand or otherwise, with GI issues on long runs and how to fuel adequately. I left the store with an energy gel, jelly blocks, and energy jelly beans to trial them and see what works best.

I set off today overwhelmed with apprehension about the fuelling and about the run itself. I opted for the jelly blocks to begin with, but had no idea how my gut would react to them. I did feel better and more hopeful than I did last week, though, so that was a plus.

I felt in control up until I had to cross the river at Waterloo Bridge in my third segment of 28 mins easy run + 2 mins walk (repeat 6 times), but with the quote from last week’s post on my mind, I kept moving forward by walking. By the time I reached Tower Bridge, I felt it was time to break out the jelly blocks. I knew I was going to hit the wall within 10-15 minutes. They had the texture of a Turkish delight – halfway between gummy sweet and jelly – and were sickly sweet. I was advised to take two blocks and to help them along with some water.

I braced myself for intense cramping and made a mental map of which toilets were on the route home. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the cramps never arrived! This spurred me on, and allowed me to focus on not giving up even though my knees were screaming at me to stop. If I ever felt like giving up, I would walk for a minute, then start jogging again.

Nearly 3 hours and 26.8 kilometres later, I flopped down on a bench outside my local supermarket, utterly spent. My head was racing not with thoughts about my run today, but about the run last week, and how defeated I felt then. After remembering that, I looked back at what I had just achieved, and felt like this whole week was a success in overcoming the bad run and the proverbial wall. The change in outlook, learning about fuelling during the run, discovering new places, the power of dance… It appears I have found the 4-part remedy to the bad run blues!

Next week’s long run will be the longest of the entire plan, and I intend to cover 20 miles. You will find me at the Marathon store stocking up on jelly blocks!

You can sponsor me for the London Marathon 2017 by clicking here. I am running to support Anthony Nolan and Crohn’s & Colitis UK.

Training Update: Week 11

I had a completely different plan for this post, much like I had a completely different plan for my long run this Sunday. I had been hoping to end the weekend on a strong note, by conquering yet another longest-run-ever.

For the week’s first training run, I was exhausted but riding on the high from finishing my first half marathon the previous weekend. So 40 minutes of easy running came and went, and all was right with the world.

As the interval run on Friday loomed, doubt set in, particularly because I hate intervals, and this upcoming one was going to be tougher than any interval run before (10 mins easy run, (5 mins tempo run, 3 mins recovery run/walk) x 5, 10 mins easy run). Still, I went out thinking I’d take it one interval at a time. I managed it, but rather than being elated at having overcome the negative thinking, I focussed instead on how wiped out I felt for the rest of the day.

Then today’s long run happened. The target was 2 hours 30 minutes, and between 14 and 16 miles. I set off feeling tired mentally and physically, and had already told myself that I was more likely than not to give up when the moment came. At 2km, a nasty stitch made an appearance, and it took a really tough kilometre to get rid of it. Even then, it still lingered as a mini stitch for the remainder of the run.

Just as found my stride, it started to rain. Cue my cursing the Met Office for the gross misinformation (they had said it would only be overcast for the entire day). Rain on a 30 minute run, I can definitely cope with that. But for over 2 hours? Hell no. Especially not when I decided to cross the Thames at the Millennium Bridge, which has the slipperiest surface.

I crossed the bridge and had to stop as the area outside the Swan at the Globe was shut off to pedestrians for a couple of minutes to allow for filming. While it was fun to witness the action, it did screw up my rhythm. Coming to a standstill made me acutely aware of the growing pain in my hip flexors and my knees, and also of how tired I felt. It all started to go downhill when they opened up the South Bank again to pedestrians.

At 16km, I had to stop and walk, and with the rain intensifying, I was just sick of the entire thing. I rang my boyfriend to get encouragement or to ask for a lift (still not sure which of the two was my true reason for calling), but he offered to come and fetch me. He said wouldn’t be another 10-15 minutes, so I agreed to meet him 1km further on. I ploughed through until 17km and simply couldn’t put one foot in front of the other anymore.

The relief when I stopped was quickly usurped by regret. If I could still run another kilometre after that call, why couldn’t I have run another 5? What I perceived 5 minutes prior to be an all-consuming intense pain was now a dull ache. I was disappointed in myself for not persevering. After all, I had previously pushed through awful stitches, mind-numbing leg pain, stomach cramps (and the emergency pit stops that came with them), snow, and I had always finished what I set out to do.

Then I realised this was my first real bad run. When that dawned on me, the disappointment increased hundred-fold. The marathon is only 6 weeks away, and I’m supposed to be rising up to the challenge of the weekly long runs, not giving up on them!

Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up. – Dean Karnazes

Having reached out for encouragement and support, and read around the topic of bad runs a bit more, I have had a nice shot of positivity to kickstart the process of bouncing back from today. As a beginner, the novelty of training for an event provides a really steep learning curve. I am sure that more advanced runners have experienced and overcome the mental setback of a run that just didn’t go well.

I am still feeling slightly down about the whole thing, but Week 12 starts tomorrow. It will be a clean slate, and a new opportunity to prove that this cannot and will not stop me in my tracks. I look forward to reporting back next week with insights on how I conquered not just a certain distance or duration, but most importantly the shock of my first bad run.

Onwards and upwards!