And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing. – Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart
“I can’t believe I chose the mountains every time you chose the sea” – Los Campesinos: Coda: A Burn Scar in the Shape of the Sooner State
I’m originally from the coast and still get desperately homesick from the sea. The coastline in Hampshire is very flat, no cliffs to be seen and yet last summer I fell hopelessly and unexpectedly in love with the mountains. At 26, I went on my first family holiday since I was 15. I found myself in the Pyrenees with nothing much to do but roam around the mountains with my parents. Ironically, this is exactly the sort of holiday that I hated so much in my teens that I was banned from the family holiday experience for a decade.
Ten years on, I loved it. For a week, I traded London and a job that was making me sick for scrabbling about on hillsides, breathing mountain air and then immediately having that breath taken away by increasingly stupendous views. Even my parents were surprised by how easily I took to the mountains, galloping off ahead of them and then running back down to hurry them up. More mountain goat than girl. Making my poor retired mother pick her way across mountain streams so I could get a bit closer to icy waterfalls. All of this in a battered pair of old Converse which may well have been worn on that last family holiday.
Earlier this week I was browsing Stanfords (magical London travel book/map shop) while waiting to meet a friend and on a whim, ended up picking up a book with the silhouette of a woman running across the mountains. Runner, by Lizzy Hawker. Lizzy Hawker is, to me, the most ordinarily extraordinary woman. I still balk at the very idea of marathons. Lizzy is a previous 100km world champion. She has run from Everest base camp to Kathmandu more than once. She won the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), 103 miles through the Alps, the first time she ran it and then went on to win the same race on four further occasions. There are other races and other records.
How is this Comfort Food material? How can it be reassuring to read about a truly incredible endurance athlete whose running is in such a different league to my own? I think it partly comes from my perceptions of my own running. I am not fast; I’m reasonably happy with my 10k+ times but the pace of these is barely different from my 5k time, quite slow and taking a long time to slowly improve. Distance however, I seem more naturally attuned to and week on week I find myself able to run longer distances more comfortably. Although the distances that Lizzy runs are staggering (and she runs them quickly!), I find this less difficult to comprehend than a champion sprinter. I find it hard to reconcile that I will get faster but it seems plausible just to keep running.
It is in part because Lizzy seems so ordinary. Remarkably relaxed about her achievements; Lizzy is a long way into that first UTMB before she realises just how far up in the field she is. She is someone who kept running Very Long Distances and through that eventually found that she was an endurance athlete. Of course, she suffers injuries (although her body is terrifyingly resilient), she runs despite pain, she suffers disappointments. That’s nice really, making what to a lot of us are superhuman feats suddenly resolutely human. There’s extreme inspiration in her determination. If anyone can will themselves to run another 30km through the mountains whilst in pain, what excuse can there be for me not heading out into the wintery London night?
It’s a point very early on the book that resonates most strongly. Lizzy is full of trepidation as she sets off on her first UTMB, when she stops worrying, realising “we just have to keep running”. I’ve been feeling despondent and anxious about my running the past couple of weeks. I’m not fast enough, not running far enough, I’m lacking enthusiasm about heading out on cold January nights when I know that I have to train for Bath in March and Run Hackney in May. I put too much pressure on myself. I’m doing well, I’m doing better than I could have possibly expected a year ago. Still, I’m self-critical. My schedule tends to be a couple of short runs in the week after work, 1 evening of hill sprints, a long slow run on the weekend. I enjoy the long slow run. Those weekday nights, I am desperate to finish. After reading Runner, I went out (reluctantly) with the aim of doing 5km with Lizzy’s words fresh in my mind. “What more do I need to do other than simply keep moving slowly forwards?” I came home having run around 8km, not a huge distance but more than I would ever usually run on a weeknight.
Via Lizzy, I am carrying Lewis Carroll’s words from Alice in Wonderland with me on every run:
‘”Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”‘
What else is there to do? It doesn’t matter if you’re running your first 5km or the 320km from Everest to Kathmandu; all you can do is begin, go on and when you finally come to the end, stop. True of life, as well as running. There have been days where getting out of bed seems too much. Where showering or making lunch is as much of an impossible feat as an ultra-marathon. But this is not the end, I know that. Finish lines have people cheering and medals and hopefully some Haribo. So I go on. Moving slowly forwards.
I am dreaming of the mountains again, they are waiting.
“Come on, come with me, the race is about to start. The mountains are waiting for us.” – Lizzy Hawker: Runner
Some days, running is not quite enough or I can’t run. On those days I need comfort food, usually in the form of all the cheesy pasta bake I can get my tiny paws on. But also emotional comfort food because cheesy pasta bake mostly just leaves me with a sick guilty feeling of regret. This isn’t so much the classic feel-good stuff (although that has it’s place in my world) but books and music and films that reassure me about mental health and/or running, depending on which has been worse that day.
Let’s kick off “Lexie’s Reading/Listening/Watching List for the Anxious and Depressed”, an incredibly positive book/music/film club for slightly miserable people. We’ll work on the name. It should be catchier.
One of the books that I keep returning to is Matt Haig‘s Reasons to Stay Alive. I have read it three times cover to cover, and dip into sections every so often, which is quite impressive considering that it was only released in March 2015. The book in itself is a reason to stay alive and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody who has ever suffered any degree of anxiety or depression.
Matt suffered a breakdown in his early twenties and then battled depression for a long time. His book charts his way through that time, with interludes of conversations between the present-Matt and mid-breakdown-Matt, asides on mental health more generally, and snippets that have become the focus of about 100,000 Instagram and Facebook posts.
“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” – Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive
There is a comfort to be taken in knowing that this is a shared experience. There is comfort to be taken in knowing that somebody else found their way out of the labyrinth. This illness spends most of its time whispering to you that you can’t, that there is no way out, that you are completely alone and you’re just stumbling further into the darkness. Friends and family, doctors and therapists will all tell you that things will get better but these are platitudes and they mean nothing. That is what your brain insists.
Matt’s experience isn’t a carbon copy of mine, nobody’s can be. I have read this book during some of my lowest moments and cried with sheer relief at the overlap of our experiences. There are a lot of days where I need to know I’m not alone, and I need to know things will one day be better. For some reason, I just believe Matt’s words more than I believe the people who know me. I now have a deal with myself that at the desperate times where I’m afraid of even myself, I have to spend 10 minutes reading this book. Inevitably, I’ll hit a point that resonates and I start to feel calmer because I’m not alone in feeling this, no matter what my brain keeps telling me. Nothing is forever.
It prompted me to write to myself from my good days. I have far more of them than I used to and that is progress but still, in the midst of an attack, I believe I have never been calm or happy and I “know” that I ever will be again. So I have a diary of sorts, a scrapbook of letters to myself with photos to remind me that there are plenty of days without this and there will be in the future. Really, there will be.
Finally, some of the motivation to write this blog came from the following passage.
“Talk. Listen. Encourage talking. Encourage listening. Keep adding to the conversation. Stay on the lookout for those wanting to join in the conversation. Keep reiterating, again and again, that depression is not something you ‘admit to’, it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience.” – Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive