Running For My Mind, My Mother and My Future

I honestly couldn't stand running.

"She'll play for England someday", is apparently what my Dad said when I was born. Whilst I never became a GB sportswoman, I was a very sporty child and I did drive my parents mad by trying out every sport available to me, from speed skating to fencing. Well, nearly every sport. My mum was a runner, and despite her best efforts to get me to do the Race for Life and go out for a run with her, as a teen, I absolutely hated it. I would complain about side stitches and being out of breath, and we definitely got in nagging arguments about it. I was a sportsperson, but nowhere near being a runner.

Mum got ill when I was around 12/13 years old. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and despite her concerns over the lump in her breast, the doctors told her it was just a cyst. In the time between her noticing a lump and her getting an official diagnosis (around 9 months), she had trained for and ran a half marathon (Great North Run). In the time that she was going through chemo and radiotherapy, she still tried to run, but at the same time, she was managing expectations and she just couldn't do what she used to be able to do. She had good days and bad days, but she always put on a brave face and I still saw my mum as invincible. Even during her last rounds of chemotherapy, she took part in a 300-mile group bike ride to raise money for local charities.

My mum died of secondary breast cancer, which spread to her liver and bones in August 2010. I was 18 and I was going to university in just under two months.

Grief is heart-breaking and surreal. It's completely alien to you, until it's something you've experienced. I think those that haven't experienced such grief think it's all crying and feeling intense emotional pain, however in my case, it surpassed that and I was just completely numb.

I wrote in my diary at the time, that it felt like I was a deer in headlights, completely shocked and paralyzed. I still went to university, I struggled a lot, having to call Samaritans in the middle of the night in my first term, because of the thoughts I was having. Luckily, I was very aware I needed help, and I went to a counsellor; although realistically, this was only the start of my grief and ways to manage it.

Throughout the next three years, I lost my sporting identity, and whilst I still continued playing some sport, I succumbed to the usual student lifestyle of drinking, late mornings and not eating entirely well. I've never been overweight, but I felt unhealthy, sluggish and I manifested body image issues. So much that in second year of university, I changed myself from a red-headed, pale skinned girl into a fake-tanned, brown-haired person I didn't recognize.

Starting off slow.

I got into running after my first year of working in London, in September 2014. I was with an ex-boyfriend at the time, I was commuting back and forth for a large proportion of my day, and my health wasn't at its best. I shared an office with a lot of sporty people and this prompted me to think about starting to run properly, despite having tried on and off over the years. My ex-boyfriend was skeptical that I'd keep it up (probably one of the reasons why he's now an ex!), so I entered the Reading Half Marathon. Bearing in mind that I hadn't even ever done a 10k race before, I had around six months to train for it and not much knowledge on what I needed to do, apart from build a base and up my mileage. Luckily, as I did have a sporting background, this made it a little easier on me, however I was anxious about upping the mileage. Starting off, I got some good shoes, kept the mileage low, and I began to build up fitness again (definitely different from the fitness that I had from other sports I did). I remember the first times that I ran 5k without stopping, and it was such an achievement to me.

I also have to admit that I started running because of my ongoing negative relationship with my own body image. Looking on it retrospectively, I didn't feel loved in my relationship and I think I used running to gain control of my mind and my body at the time. I didn't feel great about my physique and even though I wasn't overweight, I used running to try and be "more toned", "thinner", and all the, in light of it all, superficial things. However, as I kept going, it did become more than that to me. It became a way of de-stressing after a long day. It became a way of feeling stronger and having agency over my body, rather than focusing on aesthetics. Most of all, and it took me a few months to realize it, it was also a way (nearly 4 years after) to deal with the grief of losing my mum. As my mum ran, it did make me feel closer to her. As the miles crept up and I felt stronger, my mind also felt stronger and running was the addition to my life that I so sorely needed at the time. It was the opportunity to have me time and to feel myself, amongst the commuting, working in London and being in a relationship that retrospectively, was not good for me.

My first half-marathon.

About four weeks out from my first half, I developed what I think was ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome), which to my annoyance did push back my training a bit, however come tapering time, I felt okay and I decided to push ahead with the race. I felt nervous on the day, and my boyfriend went into a faster starting pen, so I was alone at the start. As the gun went off and I started running, I was still nervous, but I gradually got into my groove and I didn't stop running.

Just as I was coming up to the last 1000m of the race (right outside the stadium, where the half marathon finished) I heard someone shout "Go on, Petal!" from the side of the road. I was thinking to myself, there's only one person that calls me petal. My dad had travelled down, from Yorkshire, to see me in my first half, I had no idea he was coming and this totally blindsided me. I shouted "Dad!" back at him and was hit by a wave of adrenaline and I (stupidly) started sprinting off, despite having a bit to go. 100m later and I felt a wave of nausea come upon me, and I had to go to the side of the barrier, as I thought I was going to throw up. Luckily, it never happened (probably because I had the tiniest breakfast before, out of nerves) and a woman supporting on the side said to me "you've only got 600m to go, you can do it!" This broke me out of my thought pattern and I carried on, soldiering towards the end in a half-run/walk. I made it across the finish line and I felt myself well up; mostly out of being exhausted, but also the happiness that I'd completed my first half. I can't thank that woman at the 600m to go barrier enough.

I ended up finishing in just less than two hours and five minutes. The sporty, competitive side of me wanted to get a faster time, but in hindsight, I'm just happy I completed it and it was the start of a lot of other races, and discovering what running meant to me.

Getting through heartbreak and an MSc.

At the beginning of 2016, my long-term boyfriend split up with me, and this marked the start of a new phase of running for me. At the time, I was relieved, but also crushed at the same time. It was January, there were dark nights and I was in a different job that I was working all hours and not enjoying. The night after the break-up, and on probably about 4 hours sleep, I headed to the club night at the track (I'd joined the club the summer before) and just put all of my emotion and energy into running.

The following few months on the run up to my second half, I'd never been so focused to run. I ended up getting an 11-minute PB in the same half marathon and I was ecstatic. I felt fit and healthy, stronger than ever, and independent. In the summer of 2016, I left the south to return to my home city, to do the Masters' course I'd wanted to do since second year of my undergrad.

Throughout the Masters' course, I was working hard, but I was also dating again and experienced some hiccups. My running was the way I dealt with all of this; the workload, the guys that weren't treating me well, it all didn't matter as soon I was outside and had my running trainers on. It was my therapy, my de-stressor. Running was there for me at a time when the going got tough. I was still doing races and I made a lot of headway in shorter-race PBs, times I thought I'd not get for years. Eventually, running was also a way to let me take control of the situations where guys weren't treating me well and gave me a new sense of self-respect.

This isn't to say that I didn't take breaks in my training. When things were going well, either through meeting a new guy or being productive with my work, I struggled to find the balance between running and other aspects of my life. However, when things took a downturn (i.e. a ghosting or work was getting stressful) running was still there for me. I still picked it back up and it was the mental release and therapy that I needed.

I successfully applied for my PhD, which I'm now nearly half way through. My field is in psychology and more specifically, looking at behavioral processes. Studying this subject area has not only allowed me to read up on a lot of behavioral science and why we take up exercise and sport, but it's really forced me to look at my own practice and my own values towards sport and exercise. Running has really been under the spotlight for me.

Managing expectations and redefining running.

I'm now in an amazing relationship with a very supportive partner and a lot is going on around me. I'm moving house soon and there's a lot of work to be done on my doctorate. To be completely honest, I'm finding it hard to fit running into my life right now, however I try to be active and fit running in where I can. Sometimes it's hard to keep something up when you've got so much going on, but I know that when things calm down, running is going to make a comeback into my life.

My running journey has spanned years now. I definitely have used running as a coping mechanism for challenging areas in my life and I still do use it for that sometimes. I got diagnosed with general anxiety disorder around a year ago and running is helping me on my mental health journey. However, there are so many layers as to why I run, and I'm still working out the relationship I have with it. It started off being a body image thing for me, then it's helped me to deal with grief, it's given me so much strength and independence and helped me nurture my own mental health. Running is hard and unforgiving (especially if you're going out in a rainstorm in the middle of December), but it's given me so amazing things in my hour of need, and my hour of success.

So, thanks for reading. The two points I'd want anyone to take from my story is the following:
1. Running is amazing and people do it for so many reasons. Working out your relationship and values towards running may help you focus specific goals, long-term plans and how to work through those challenging moments in your life.
2. Taking breaks is normal. Life gets busy sometimes and you're only human. Just know that running will be there for you when you need it.

If you are struggling with any mental health problems in the UK, related to general life or sport-related, here are some amazing charities that can help:
Samaritans - tel: 116 123 (UK)
Mind - We won't give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets both support and respect.
Train Brave - raising awareness of the risks of eating disorders and RED-s.

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