Firstly, a happy new year to my followers, old and new. I hope 2019 is as good as you choose it to be. Whether you’ve ran a marathon or not, you’ve probably heard the phrase: “hitting the wall”.
Wait! Don’t go… my first blog of 2019 isn’t all about running. Stop! Come back!
… I’ve just found many things in life are like a marathon too. The challenge is keeping enough in the tank to reach the finish.
It’s the time of year many of us reflect and start fresh with self-improvement drives. After being ‘off radar’ for a while, naturally I wanted to share the lessons from my own marathons in 2018. ‘Warts and all’ honesty might be uncomfortable, but that’s what the mental health discussion needs.
2018 was a busy year with speaking and writing my second book. It was also the first without a major challenge after Climb The UK in 2017, which took 72 days to travel human-powered to all 100 UK counties with hundreds challenging themselves along the way.
I always need challenges on the horizon. This normally involves cycling, walking or running for a long time; usually with a few hills thrown in. The dedication required to finish the book kept me on necessary house-arrest, but was a great chance to make my marathon debut and fulfil the challenge drive in the meantime. Admittedly I had ran 26.2 solo ‘for fun’ before but was curious to know what I could do with commitment. I set sights on Manchester Marathon in April, ran 2:58:50, then ran our hometown Chester Marathon in October in a slightly disappointing 2:54:39. Either way, the elusive sub-3 hours was in the bag.
Over the summer I took it more seriously than ever, ran up to sixty miles/six days a week, logged PB times, enjoyed stellar runs in the mountains and trails with great company, won a 10km trail race (only a small one, obviously), spent my 23rd birthday making my ultra-marathon debut on the Sandstone Trail and had a belter of a day running the Yorkshire Three Peaks solo too.
Training even became more important than the eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, that has plagued me for six years. Training for a sub-3 marathon isn’t supposed to be easy. All of this came without anything close to a niggle. Then… BANG! Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic; more hobbling to the train station than crawling over the finish line Terminator-style with a broken leg and ripped bloodiest vest. Three speaking events in two days after Chester Marathon had me on my feet all day in dress shoes (not recommended) and buzzing on adrenaline that I failed to notice the pain in my left foot. Hobble to the physio I went.
The usual tricks were no joy. An X-ray revealed an accessory navicular (extra bone) in my foot. The NHS often have little sympathy for self-inflicted athletes so days later I was in London for a private MRI scan to dig deeper. Luckily there was no stress fracture but tenosynovitis, i.e. angry tendon. Yes, of course – it could be much, much worse. But our struggles are relative only to our own experiences. It was strikingly similar to an injury six years ago when bulimia first began. I was lucky to have a great physio hitting it from all angles and even borrowed an ultrasound machine – not for it’s usual purpose but to speed up tendon healing. Hopefully that wouldn’t take nine months either.
Any non-runner will tell you to ‘just rest’. Whilst resisting the urge to clobber them with the cast walking boot, truthfully, complete rest can even prevent tendons healing properly. Swimming was all I managed. Luckily there was only an hour of free parking at the pool otherwise I’d have drowned of boredom. It was a little de-moralising when you’re a sub-3 marathoner getting lapped by the ‘Bingo buddies’.
Running is so much more than fresh air. It’s re-energizing, an opportunity to think or forget, and sometimes the only thing we have control over. And it reminds us of just how good and strong we’re able to feel. Running isn’t just about exercise or burning calories but endorphins, escape, and improvement. Swimming didn’t quite do the same job.
This created all sorts of anxieties. What about challenges next year? How about the London Marathon? What if? But I noticed something much worse had started to creep in first.
We need control like we need approval, and my eating disorder became the answer to take control back. It had picked up new habits from training and only when side-lined could I realise just how bad these were. I had lost a lot of weight, and not just inevitable injury muscle loss. Watch any elite marathoners on TV and you’ll see a similar lean build without concern. But when this is achieved by under-fuelling, binge-eating, purging, obsessing and tracking every single calorie then I was running straight for trouble.
I had been quite literally running away from the problem and negative self-beliefs all year. Working seven days a week with a simple routine of write, speak and run worked a charm for hiding the problem, until motivation and energy were depleted. Life never moves in a straight line – more a series of peaks and troughs – but I expected better of myself and kept pushing to eclipse 2017’s successes.
“You’re supposed to be a motivational speaker!” cried the self-critic. My friend Chris told me: “Every dentist’s kids have shit teeth”.
Depression is the disease of hopelessness. You can’t see any further than below your nose. You stop asking for help because you feel nobody can. I isolated myself and shut off most social media, but I’m grateful that friends and family kept reaching out regardless. If I couldn’t serve any value to the world, there was no point being a fly on the wall. In fact, I had crashed straight into it and fallen into the lowest and most frightening place I had ever been. When we hit the wall, we have no choice but to get back up and start again.
By changing my view of the situation, the cloud suddenly lifted, when I never believed it would.
It’s all about changing the narrative.
Instead of asking: “Why has this happened to me?”
I asked: “What can this teach me?”
Injuries are a part of any athlete’s journey, a compromise; no matter how careful we are. Hindsight is wonderfully useless. We have to focus on what we CAN control, rather than the things out of our hands.
My GP was fantastically supportive through some unpleasant sights and last week I went for my first appointment for eating disorder therapy: a major step forward. I’ve learnt to bite my lip and accept that I can’t deal with this on my own anymore.
Being out of action was a chance to volunteer marshal at the Delamere Christmas Day Parkrun. Of course, I’d rather have been racing and easing the anxiety of Christmas dinner, but doing something positive for others turned ‘bittersweet’ into a positive instead.
After three months I’ve gradually returned to running, and ran 11 miles this week (3 when I first drafted this blog). London Marathon is fifteen weeks away (with a twist… more to follow) and there’s a LOT of work to do to get strength and fitness back. But you appreciate it so much more. This time round I have orthotics to prevent future injuries whilst addressing other weaknesses to return a stronger, healthier and wiser runner long-term.
Writing about mental health was always going to open a can of worms, though writing about the muck was much more vivid whilst knee deep. It only added integrity to why I was writing in the first place – giving hope to others in a similar position. It’s made me especially grateful to have the support and understanding of an amazing publisher, Trigger Press, with a purpose of promoting mental health welfare. I submitted the first draft last week: 144,000 words and ten months later. If it helps just one person, it was worth every sentence. Imagine getting injured now the book is done, when writing was often the only thing worth getting out of bed for? These things fall into place at peculiar times.
Six hours after pressing SEND I flew to Tromso in Norway for a week off the laptop. I don’t like the word ‘holiday’ but seeing the Northern Lights, the fjords, Huskies, and deleting the MyFitnessPal app that has dictated my diet for years, opened my eyes to the importance of self-care and taking time out alone.
Never mind New Year’s Resolutions. I’m coming into 2019 with a better narrative, new goals, more support, and new tools in the box. Most of all – knowing that these walls are sent to test us. Sometimes running straight into them might be the wake-up call we desperately need. And next time, maybe at mile 23 of the London Marathon, I’m going to smash straight through.
I’m proud to support #TrainBrave, a new campaign to inspire more athletes to share their stories and raise awareness of the risks of eating disorders and RED-s. Especially because the founder, Tom Fairbrother, inspired me to open up about my eating disorder for the first time.
If you’re looking for support, please visit their website: http://trainbrave.org
I really hope sharing this helps others speak out too – please feel free to contact me or share your experiences in the comments below.