How I Took on Mental Illness in a Marathon – and WonAdventuremarathonsmental healthRunning April 18, 2018
Whether it’s London, Boston, Manchester or another, they say you can’t run a marathon without telling everyone. Each April brings a sudden spike in those joining the 26.2 mile club, where entry involves weeks and months on end, the heart-ache of injuries, ballot rejections and other setbacks. It’s a Marmite affair of physical endurance that takes over your life, juggling the training with daily commitments, and for many, the added pressure of hitting charity sponsorship targets by shaking pennies out of your loved ones. But for most, the experience, sense of achievement and physical and mental health benefits make it every bit worthwhile.
Whether we run in under three hours, four, five, or simply aim to survive the distance intact, doesn’t really matter. You’re probably pushing yourself just as hard and suffering in equal measure. You could argue that a six-hour runner is on their feet and tolerating the pain for twice as long as the three-hour runner. Whilst climbing Everest might be reserved to a more exclusive club, completing a marathon becomes relative to our own abilities, and takes on a different meaning to everyone individually.
Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, it wasn’t so much the distance that phased me. I had already completed the distance in steady training runs and knew my head was already pretty good at suffering after my previous adventure challenges. The interest lay in the time that I completed it in – specifically breaking the elusive three-hour benchmark. 3:00:10 would simply not do. This might seem absurd, but only another runner would understand why ten seconds is everything; all or nothing.
I wanted to ensure I could commit the time required to have a ‘proper’ go, so it wasn’t until January that I entered Manchester Marathon. This only gave sixteen weeks to train. It was a steep learning curve, having only trained up to half marathon distance (and Everest) before, and 26.2 demanded a whole new approach with different sessions and nutrition. But like any new hobby it was this learning experience that made it so rewarding. It was bizarre how much one straightforward run inspired the same dedication and preparation that I had applied to much bigger endurance challenges; lasting days, weeks or months, like #ClimbTheUK last summer. If you’ve ever bought shoes from Inov-8 you’ll have noticed the mantra printed inside the box: “Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated” … couldn’t have put it better!
Marathon training became an addiction. But it became therapy for another too. In January I had set a second goal for the year: to finally beat my mental demons, specifically depression and an eating disorder, which I have suffered with regularly for five years.
There’s much more to be said about this, and that’s why I’m currently writing my second book about it.
Name the therapy and I’ve probably tried it: from private counselling to nutritional therapists to medication. I’m not saying therapy isn’t effective. That would be very unhelpful because therapy often serves an essential role in long-term recovery for many and speaking out is the first and most important step. Admittedly, it might take time to find the right therapist for you and that’s why I fundraised for Young Minds last year to help better support be available for young people who need it. But I do believe that the reason to stand up, fight back and recover, must come from us. Nobody else can find that reason for us – though they can help us dig it out – we have to find it ourselves.
Over the last sixteen weeks there have been lots of these low points, which create all sorts of negative beliefs about yourself, and depression saps the motivation to do anything about it. What was the point?
At times it was like having two broken legs. Often it would have been all too easy to just kick back and surrender. But when we can motivate ourselves to run at race pace for thirteen miles and run twenty-two alone in -1 degrees with the ‘Beast from the East’ we are continually disproving the false beliefs that these demons drum into our heads.
The marathon gave that reason to fight back. A reason to get out and prove myself wrong. Something to focus on, to feel good about, and to hold me accountable for: I could only let myself down if I didn’t get the shoes on and get out. If not for training, some days there would be no reason to leave the house, and nothing to look forward to. Training runs – plus the stretching, nutrition, getting changed, post-run lethargy, social media selfies thinking we look good (we know we don’t but who cares)– added so much to my daily routine that there was simply less opportunity for the eating disorder to take control. With the marathon, I had a reason not to let it. Everything revolved around the training. Asking the question: “will this help me run a sub-three marathon?” was usually enough to keep in control. Visualizing the finish line in the coming months, then weeks, then days; was a much better image than binge-eating and purging junk food. On the bad days, the endorphins of a good training run were a huge lift, even if that was the only achievement of the entire day. Most of all, food was essential to re-fuel and repair my body from the addiction of running six days a week; rather than to fuel a sugar addiction and cope with low mood or challenging situations.
From the start line itself, everything went almost perfectly to plan. At half-way I called to my dad on the course that I was on target. Seeing friends, family and team-mates both as spectators and fellow runners gave something to distract from the gradual increase in discomfort – thanks everyone for your amazing support. At mile eighteen a fellow runner said aloud that he saw ‘a big wall ahead’. I’m not sure if he was referring to the 3:00 pacer who suddenly veered off the road to get down on one knee to his girlfriend… I was anxious when I too might succumb to hitting the wall, like those walking at the road-side, seized up like ironing boards with the sudden onset of cramp. Considering my track record of two disasters on Everest and two failed expeditions, the lack of drama seemed far too suspicious. But if we start looking out for the bad things, we create them in our minds.
People often say that marathons start at mile twenty. Luckily, the dreaded wall never came. The pace was maintained with some effort, the nutrition hadn’t backfired (literally); the legs were getting heavy, but still ticking over. Catching up with a team-mate further ahead, also on a sub-three mission, gave us both a boost. All we had left to do was hang on (…and ignore the ambulance speeding past in a flash of blue).
In the last two miles I clearly had left a bit in the tank. My average pace was 6:44 – faster than I had trained for – and only got faster. But it was better played safe than sorry on this first go. Eventually the finish arch appeared; far in the distance, but close enough for comfort, and the visualisation now became a wonderful feeling of realisation. It was in the bag.
Crowds piled up in a wall of noise to both sides. There was no need to hold back the emotion; no shame in welling up with joy and/or relief; no hiding the beaming Cheshire Cat grin. It was a moment to reflect on the hours spent training alone (when I should have been writing), the helpless frustration of injuries, the dramatic stomach disasters as I realised energy gels weren’t for me, the annoyance of rubbish shoes, and recurring thoughts of “how the bloody hell am I going to run this pace for 26 miles?!”.
Uncertainty became certain. With one final surge, I stopped the watch. 2:58:46.
I was 375th out of nearly 10,000. But one thing for certain was I had beaten my mental health by miles. And I had clearly enjoyed it enough to run an extra 0.3!
But there was a much bigger success than the time = because I had beaten my mind too. Getting to the finish line took mind and body working together, with a bit of added luck, and depression couldn’t strip away this fact however much it tried. I realised that I was the owner of a damn powerful machine. It hadn’t let me down despite the abuse that an eating disorder inflicts. For once I could truly appreciate that our bodies are our biggest assets – how on earth could I possibly damage an engine capable of achieving these things?
Let’s be realistic. I’m not saying that running a marathon is going to magically cure anything. The problem is still there, only much smaller than it was before. Some days these negative thoughts rear their ugly head and it feels back to mile one. But life is not meant to be easy all the time… and nor is a racing a marathon. There have been slip-ups since and probably always will, but it’s these peaks and victories that tip the balance and make the bad days manageable. By setting ourselves challenges, we find reasons to make better choices. To choose damaging my body with food; or training, improving and ultimately making my body stronger. If running helps us make the better choice even half of the time, then I’d say that’s a pretty good deal.
It doesn’t have to be running, or even a physical challenge. We just need something, anything, that gives us a reason to stand up and fight back. Thing is, I never actually ran a marathon – I just ran a mile 26.2 times. When we find our reason, we just need to keep going, one mile at a time.
P.S… And of course, I’ve already entered another!
How does running affect your mental health? Are you running a marathon this year? Please leave me your comments below and subscribe for more blog posts about mental health and the outdoors!