It was with significant doubt in my mind that I arrived at the start line of the South West Coast2Coast challenge on an overcast Sunday morning in July.
Earlier in the year I signed up to run an off road half marathon to raise money for Dorset Mind, the local branch of the MIND mental health charity.
Having been a “wannabe” trail runner for the past few years I felt that perhaps I could push myself a bit further. I’ve been curious about what happens mentally when I run. How the mind often begs to give up long before the body does. How my mood can either improve or sabotage my efforts.
I’m not one of these runners that is pushing for a best time, or to lose weight, or to compete. I run because I’m learning about how my mind behaves, how I cope with the challenge, but also because it’s another way to spend time in nature. Connecting with the seasons, the weather and the wildlife when I’m running off road gives me such nourishment. It can almost feel primitive, and I imagine how our earliest ancestors must have run as far as the eye could see, to hunt, survive and navigate the land. I love to run wild, get covered in mud, have brambles in my hair and feel the fresh air in my lungs.
But standing at the start line in Exeter, I am feeling like a fool. My naive curiosity has morphed into crippling doubt as I watch what appear to be well toned athletes, in all the latest sports gear, casually chatting about the last Ultra challenge they smashed, and how they’re looking for a sub 2hr time today.
All the reasons I shouldn’t be attempting this are loudly shouting at me.
“I haven’t trained enough. I haven’t followed a nutrition plan. I am not a ‘proper exercise’ person. I am stupid”.
It is fair to say that no-one in their right mind should attempt a half marathon without having trained. I know this. I’ve read all about it. So why on earth was I attempting it?
Perhaps I am not in my right mind! But the intensely annoying fact about most mental health conditions is that it attempts to thwart your efforts and sabotage success. I hate this SO much, it somehow gives me the determination to fight.
I’ll be honest. I did begin training. I printed out a schedule. I put it on the fridge. I ran all the distances and days I was supposed to. I reached my fundraising target. I was on track. But then it changed.
The last training run I did was a few months ago. A 16km run that made me physically sick. I pushed myself SO hard that it made me ill. I felt like a failure. I wondered what the hell I was doing to myself. Had none of the self compassion based mindfulness I’d been taught in recovery even sunk in? Was I being too hard on myself. Was I just deluding myself? Was I simply using exercise as another way to badly manage my problems, a healthy ‘disguise’ for badly treating myself.
I became so depressed that I wasn’t able to keep going. I doubted my own judgement. Doubted my motivation. I began feeling like a failure before I’d even got to the start line. I felt SO under pressure and anxious about what I’d signed up for. I’d simply backed myself into a corner. Even worse was knowing the irony that I’d raised this money for a mental health charity, but probably wouldn’t be able to complete the run because of my mental health!
I considered cancelling. I didn’t HAVE to do it did I?
But here I am at the start line. Just showing up.
I’ve had enough of the stories running riot in my head. They are not helping me in any way. I need to focus on the positives. So I start to tell myself a new story;
It is a Sunday morning, I’ve nothing better to do. I’m just following a route from Exeter to the South Coast along a beautiful canal, river and estuary to the sea. I can quit if I want to, no one knows I’m here other than my husband. (I deliberately didn’t remind anyone of the date). There’s a lovely cool breeze on my skin, and I am willing and able to run a while. Due to COVID we can start whenever we like so as not to be running on mass. I give myself permission to walk if I need to. To stop every 30 minutes, drink some water, have a jelly bean and look at the view. Most importantly, even if it takes me ALL day then at least all the money raised will be validated. All I have to do is try and finish it. I might even enjoy it.
I won’t bore you with the run itself, and how I managed my thoughts. Let’s just say that I was shocked at how hard it was NOT to let my mind spiral into negative thinking. It was like a wild animal and I was gaining it’s trust. But what did make it endurable was the scenery, the wildlife, the breeze. Being mindful of my breathing, my body and the way I was moving, I was in the moment, DOING it.
When I saw the finish line and heard people cheering it was slightly surreal. I didn’t feel a part of it. I was watching myself cross over the line hardly believing it was happening. My husband had got lost with Sat Nav and wasn’t there to see me finish. But I was quietly pleased. I didn’t want cheers, or pats on the back. I wanted a moment to witness how it felt to feel free of negativity, free of fear. To stand in the middle of a field, feeling alive and like anything is possible.
Needless to say I am relieved I completed it. I’m glad that I raised money for a charity that I truly believe in, I’m pleased that my body was able to withstand the challenge and that I didn’t injure myself. But what I’m really happy about is that I didn’t let my mental health prevent me from starting it, let alone finishing.
PTSD, anxiety and depression can be debilitating at times. All I want to do is hide away from the world and be left alone. Any kind of pressure or stress and I begin to panic. But the pressure I put on myself is the most evil, unkind and unhelpful type of pressure.
It’s so frustrating when you want to achieve, and you want to reach your goals. But sometimes it just feels impossible, and we can’t seem to get there. But what I am learning is that in order to do these things, I must practice a bit of self compassion. I must be kinder to myself. Tell myself a the more gentle version of the story, that enables me to feel the courage to try.
The story I told myself of the space, freedom and nature I could invite into my journey to the finish line is what helped me to get there. I will never forget that and every time I look at the medal, it will speak to me of mental freedom. A reminder that the journey is as much a part of the destination, and you can’t have one with out the other.