Most of us define ourselves by something. Whether that’s our job, family, hometown, or sport. Being in a box feels significant. It’s a human need to belong and fit in.
For at least 14 years and more than half of my life, I’ve been defined by the outdoors and endurance challenges. Running in particular is much more than a hobby – it’s a way of life. It gives a sense of purpose, achievement and expression by setting goals that challenge my limitations. It’s the vehicle to my work and charity fundraising. These challenges are what make life meaningful.
But what happens when these things are suddenly taken away?
I had quite literally been running away from Covid for 2 years until it finally caught me in April, two days after running the Lakes, Meres and Waters – a 106-mile route around the Lake District. Unsurprisingly, this double whammy gave my immune system more than it bargained for, but I’m lucky it came afterwards at least.
After 12 days of testing positive, + an extra week of rest, I followed Doctor’s orders and carefully eased myself back in to running. Sadly it was never going to be that straightforward. Since then I’ve been grappling with under-recovery and post-viral fatigue, and what I can only describe as a rollercoaster, both physically and mentally. Every attempt to start running or cycling again, even a gentle 15-minute jog, would trigger a relapse of symptoms usually a day or two later. In no particular order or pattern, these included a runny nose, headaches, chest pains, brain fog, sore throat, congestion, muscle/joint pain, palpitations and dizziness. At least now I had a genuine excuse for forgetting things…
Clearly the process needed more time, and this uncertainty was the hard part. I had always listened to my body and was intimately tuned in to its capabilities, knowing when I could call a favour, like running 50 miles on a strained tendon; and when to pull back. But this time I had no control over the process, and could only watch on in frustration as week by week, my race calendar fell apart faster than a Tory cabinet. This summer I had devised probably my daftest running challenge and fundraiser to date, which is now on hold and more likely to be replaced by Couch to 5k instead.
Of course, I know it could be much worse. I’m grateful it hasn’t severely impacted my daily life yet, like many others have. As a motivational speaker I’m obligated to keep positive (whilst still being human). Keeping perspective is important, but we only know our own baseline. If you’ve never had to live in a shanty town without access to clean water and healthcare, then you could consider yourself fortunate, and it’s tragic that we still live in such a world, but that doesn’t make our own challenges irrelevant.
After considering myself recovered from depression and bulimia for over 2 years, I found myself tip-toeing on the edge of a total relapse and crisis point. Relying on just one tool for maintaining my health and well-being had put all my eggs in the proverbial basket. Clearly, I had been running away from a lot of other things too. Staying resilient requires more than one tool in the bag otherwise it leaves us vulnerable when we inevitably drop one from time to time.
Removing the outdoors from my life, even for a short while, was like lifting up a bag of crisps and shaking out the crumbs of an existential crisis.
Is our self-worth and identity really defined by our marathon PB or weekly mileage?
Are we little more than numbers and medals?
Are we defined only by what others think of us?
Finding a new raison d’etre doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an uncomfortable and painful process of self-discovery, but perhaps the challenge is learning to sit with the void, rather than trying to drown the cries in the noise of our busy modern lives.
Here’s a few things I’ve learnt so far:
1) Accepting change.
The more we resist and fight something, the bigger it becomes. For weeks and months I denied that I might become a Covid long-hauler, as a triple-jabbed 27 year old. The more we worry about things outside of our circle of control, the more powerless we become. I’m not religious – unless you count worshipping the mountain gods – but I do believe that our schedules and race calendars have no meaning other than that we attach to them. Something bigger has the final say. Only when we learn to accept our situation and the lesson buried within, can we start to move forwards.
2) We’re only as good as the team around us.
I wrote down in my diary early on that I can’t necessarily speed up my recovery process, but I can definitely make it longer. I can’t afford to second-guess anything. From the outset I’m lucky to have professional support from sports & exercise consultant Dr Rebecca Robinson, and my coach Sophie Mullins. The difficult part is that post-viral fatigue/long Covid/whatever-yer-call-it: is still an emerging and unknown condition and there are no definite answers or timescales. But having the best available advice and emotional venting ground has been priceless.
3) Look for the opportunities.
Experience tells me there’s always a silver lining, even if we can’t find it at the time. I have normally come back from injuries as a smarter and more cautious athlete. I’ve recently learnt to recover as hard as I would train, and hadn’t realised how unsustainable my life routine was, regardless of what I’d always done. Stress is stress, and the body doesn’t know the difference between travel, training or work. I’ve had to confront my fear of blood tests (almost) and inevitably, any athlete with serious ambition is going to get injuries and setbacks from time to time. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far, but at least next time round I’ll have the reassurance and extra tools to get through it (hopefully).
Every setback also brings an opportunity to do new things and think differently. So, on that note…
I’ve set myself probably my easiest challenge so far – going for an open water swim every day for the next 30 days.
In a heatwave, you say? Well, sometimes the challenge is finding something that meets us where we are. Despite being a PADI Open Water diver, being in open water totally freaks me out, and I absolutely HATE the cold. It only takes a leaf/Unidentified Floating Object to send me into a flapping panic. And let’s not mention Swans…
Open water seems to be one of few things that doesn’t aggravate my symptoms (as I write this with shooting pains down my arms and forehead) and has kept my mental health afloat when everything has felt like a sinking ship. It’s also a great opportunity to catch up with friends, meet new ones, and explore new places that I wouldn’t have time for when pursuing running goals.
And if we can raise £40 per swim for Mind Over Mountains in the process, that would fund 30 bursary places on day walks for people to access time in nature alongside professional mental health support. We can turn a negative situation into something positive.
Afterwards I’ll write another blog about what I’ve learnt from the process of 30 daily dips and how many Swans I’ve fought off in one hand. For now, what I’ve learnt is that we cannot be defined by one sport, race position or number alone. Our identity is only a story we tell ourselves. We are always evolving and can write a new chapter at any point.
We aren’t defined by what happens to us; but we are defined by how we respond.
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