Well God knows I’ve failed but He knows that I’ve tried

The blog has been on hold of late. As some of you know, I made some fairly drastic changes to my life this summer. After spending my entire career so far working in law in varying capacities, and a couple of years in London, I finally accepted that I wasn’t happy and that no job, boyfriend or any amount of running was going to fix that. I tried so hard to make it work because I was afraid that leaving law and/or London would mean that I’d failed but neither of those is right for me at present and that’s okay.

I’ve moved to Surrey, CsFbAxjWIAAn0lA.jpgabout halfway between my life in London and my beloved south coast in Hampshire. I’m only 40 minutes on the train from Waterloo (as opposed to 20 when I lived in Wimbledon, so hardly the ends of the earth!). I have easy access to so many beautiful trails and the North Downs Way is only a few miles from my front door. I’m now the Marketing & Development Manager of a charitable organisation just outside Guildford, only months after questioning why I wasn’t doing just that. It’s tough starting again. I don’t have friends here and there have been a few nights of crying about feeling lonely and worrying that I’ve done the wrong thing but that will settle.

So, to running. I must be doing loads of it, what with my newly found work/life balance and access to beautiful countryside. Actually, no, much like this blog, the running has also been on hold partly because I’ve been questioning my participation in the running community and its effect on me. I recently reread a piece that Gary wrote for Run247 about Strava and whether it influences the hows and whys of our running. Are we upping the distance, the pace, the elevation, because of how it will be perceived on Strava, rather than because that’s what we want or because it’s a sensible approach to our running? It’s called the Hawthorne Effect, in which we modify our behaviour in response to being observed.

Running is supposed to help control my anxiety but of late I’ve found that anxiety is controlling my running. I worry that people are seeing my uploads to Strava and judging me for not running further, for not running more frequently, for not running faster, for how high my heart rate is. That isn’t true of course, it’s a mixture of severe anxiety and a touch of narcissism to think anybody cares. Still, I stroll back from failed runs wondering: what will make me more of a #stravawanker, auto-uploading the 1km run where I cried and didn’t have the heart to carry on, or deleting it and presenting a curated perspective of my running? I’m finding it hard to run well when I’m devoting precious energy to a cycle of self-obsessed worrying.

All of social media gets a bit narcissistic though, doesn’t it? Blogs and tweets eventually morph from ways to engage and share content, to becoming attention-seeking extremes. Perhaps because all runners have a slightly competitive nature whether against each other or themselves. Runs suddenly become brilliant or terrible; there are some who seemingly never experience an average run. “I went for a run today and it was absolutely fine” doesn’t make a story, and if you’re shouting into a void of millions, it’s stories that get picked up. That tiny niggle following a couple of miles becomes DOMS or requires ice and KT tape. The next run is a comeback and is carefully documented as such on Strava, and Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Run, report, repeat.

It’s easy to get addicted to the attention that comes to those stories and so it self-perpetuates which is why we all know people who now can’t get home from a run without uploading 4 posed-but-natural selfies over every channel available. If you don’t share what is essentially the exact same photo of your face, in your living room, every time you run, how will anybody know that you’re a dedicated runner? Even though the photo doesn’t involve the people you ran with, the place you were running or indeed anything else that documents that time/day/run in any way whatsoever. If your run is spent wondering how you’ll present it to the masses on Twitter and Instagram, it becomes less about enjoying running and more about enjoying your own narcissism. Which is fine, you do you, but I don’t particularly want to follow you and don’t pretend that you’re talking about running instead of “look at me! look at me!”

It’s all left me feeling uneasy of late and I’ve had to curate who I follow and who I allow to follow me because the way that some people use social media to talk about running brings out the worst in me. Anxiety leaves me overly introspective. I am prone to catastrophise. I worry a lot. I seek validation and praise (honestly, try working with me, I thrive on praise). Seeing that unhealthy behaviour endorsed in others is not a good example to me and is harming my running and my mental health.

This isn’t to disparage the use of social media or the blog community as a whole. I still think it’s ace and 98% of the people I have met through it, aren’t affected by this post.

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Acceptable selfie, because it commemorates a time and place and people. It is not me alone in my living room.

I would never have met two of my absolute favourite girls if it weren’t for Twitter and now Fiona and Jodie are the first people I’ll go to about great runs and terrible runs, about boy problems and career moves, and the day won’t come where I see them and don’t take 20 photos. I love reading Carl’s reasonably new blog because it’s so refreshing to read something so measured and to see enduring positivity when faced with injuries. I haven’t seen my friend Owen in person since the year after university, but when I was first contemplating leaving London, it was envying the photos he takes while running on the South Downs and the south coast that really started to sway me. I could go on and on with recommendations of great accounts to follow. I adore every one of you who checks up on me to see how my new life is going, how injuries have healed and how races went. I still want to see every single photo of every medal you all get, all the beautiful views you see on your runs (preferably location tagged!), and your gloriously sweaty faces beaming in delight on trails and by landmarks. I’m just bored of people who use running as a way to indulge their need for attention and who tenuously connect unrelated content in order to tap into the running community.

When I moved house I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying which encourages you to discard items that don’t “spark joy” and I’m trying to apply that approach to running and how I talk about it. From here on, I want to post more photos that spark joy in my followers (so expect a lot more views of the Surrey Hills). I want to write content that people enjoy, although I accept that this blog is partially about mental health and isn’t always easy to enjoy. On those days, I hope it’s helping someone. And I want to be honest with what I say, no more catastrophizing, or exaggerating. So to end, this week I went for a run and it was absolutely fine.

(N.B. If you’re seething because you think this post is about you, then it probably is. I make no apology for that; if you decide that a post about narcissism is about you then you’ve proven my point with delicious irony.)

 

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London Calling – Vitality London 10,000

Oh hi there readers, long time no see. The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed there have been very few (read, zero) posts for a while now. I haven’t been running and I also haven’t been feeling too anxious, so there’s not been much to write about. Never fear, that’s all about to change.

Remember that time I was really sick at Bath Half? My running never really recovered from it. It turned into a couple of months  of misery, feeling breathless, sick, faint, and slow every time I ran and after several doctor’s appointments was diagnosed as an arrhythmia. So that explains a lot. This had not been the case when I signed up for a bank holiday weekend of racing, and convinced several friends they really wanted to do that too, and so I turned up to run a 10k, having not covered the distance in weeks on end and having lost a lot of (read, nearly all) aerobic fitness.

I was supposed to run the Westminster Mile on the Sunday but ended up staying out on the Saturday night so promptly wrote that off. I still love wine more than running. At 7am on a bank holiday Monday – an hour earlier than I get up for work – I was struggling to eat some toast and commiserating with friends via text about being awake. Thankfully, nobody seemed to quite remember at this point that it was entirely my fault we were doing this.

I met TeamPaella (or, friends I’m running in Valencia with this winter, to the uninitiated) in Green Park and was immediately a bit surprised by the scale of the operation.

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TeamPaella

I live in London but hadn’t appreciated what a large event the Vitality London 10,000 is. As a side note, just how many races do Vitality want to sponsor? It feels like a lot of my year was supposed to be sponsored by Vitality until I had to miss a couple of races. It was a surprisingly chilly day (although I still nearly boiled while running, as is my way, despite shorts) and so we delayed heading to bag drop and having to cast off layers for as long as possible. And that’s how we ended up with a lot of pre-race selfies.

I actually found it to be a relatively bland route. It’s essentially a narrow loop from Pall Mall to the City and back, and aside from running through Trafalgar Square close to the beginning, and the last km starting with the Houses of Parliament and finishing with Buckingham Palace, I don’t find it very inspiring. I suspect some of the London magic is lost on me considering the City end of the loop is really just my lunchtime wanderings (we in fact were within <100m of my office at one point). I can’t fault the support and entertainment all the way along the route however, I don’t think there was a quiet point on the course.

I crossed the finish line in 1:04:30, which is a good 8 minutes away from my PB. A lot of me is sad and frustrated. A smaller part of me recognises that this really is fairly reasonable, given how much time I’ve had off. I was purposefully very cautious during the race both in terms of my pacing and building in a lot of walking because I was concerned about actually finishing, so I’m hoping13315358_10154282147228307_934729089664403536_n now that I’ve broken through the psychological barrier of completing the distance again, I can start picking up some speed. I was rewarded for my efforts with some fairly excellent supersize bling, a finisher’s shirt that I actually like and might use (rarity!) and a goodie bag which included food and suncream (those who follow me on Twitter will know I’m militant about the sun). I sped through the most efficient bag collection I’ve known, and returned to Green Park to meet everyone who helpfully loitered despite all finishing about 15 minutes before me. It’s okay, they passed the time taking photos with their medals, they were happily occupied. Didn’t even notice I was gone.

We eventually met some of the others of the ukrunchat crowd (after much milling around letter B of the charity stands desperately trying to spot people in the crowd) and headed to the pub; a happy end a delightful bank holiday weekend.

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And I am done with my graceless heart, so tonight I’m going to cut it out and then restart

9 months on and I still can’t walk past your office. I tried today. I went to an interview in the City that I think went well. Spring looked like it might finally be arriving in London and so I walked back to the station. It’s been a while since I enjoyed that walk.

And the second I stepped on to the Millennium Bridge and crossed towards the south bank, I felt sick. It was too close to lunch. The risk of crossing paths with you was too great. I should have got the tube. The entire length of the bank, my eyes darted over every passing stranger, absolutely terrified that eventually I was going to lock eyes with you.

When your office came into sight, I started to run. In 3 inch heels. In my smartest interview dress. Sprinting, the sort of effort I can only keep up for a few hundred metres. Damage limitation, the faster I’m past, the less chance of seeing you. Ridiculous really, you might not even work there now.

I’m done with it. This fear, this misery, it ends here. Today.

Parklife

[Written as part of Time to Talk Day, part of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. As part of this, England Athletics have worked on #runandtalk, which seemed apt given the content of this blog. A friend from Southwark parkrun asked if I had anything suitable to share for the occasion. “No,” I said “But I’ll write something”]

One in four people will experience a mental health problem this year. Four in four people have mental health. Just like physical health, we all vary in how “well” we are and that wellness varies dependent on more factors than I can list. Sometimes you’re the picture of health. Sometimes you feel fine but problems are lurking, the mental equivalent of bad cholesterol. Sometimes you’re aware of a niggle, the emotional version of a bad knee or a slight cold. Once in a while, the devastating life changing illness or injury comes along. That’s exactly like a physical devastating life changing illness or injury except nobody can see it and nobody offers tests or scans that prove “You’re Sick”.

I’ve spent most of the past 10 years with a mixture of anxiety and depression, dancing back and forth over the line of niggly problems and devastating illness. Just as it improves physical fitness, running has done wonders for my mental health. We don’t wait to need a filling before we head to the dentist (not strictly true, I do); we shouldn’t wait for a problem before considering our mental health. So this post is for the four in four.

At 9am on a Saturday, in various parks, you will find hundreds of people running a 5km course. Across the country this number adds up to several tens of thousands. Welcome to parkrun. Your Saturday mornings just changed forever.

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The view from Lee on Solent parkrun

For the uninitiated, parkrun is a free, weekly, timed 5km run that happens at venues primarily in the UK but across the globe. All you need is a pair of trainers, to sign up on a website and print off a barcode that’s used to help determine your time. No further cost, no need for fancy gear. It’s a phenomenon and those of us who participate regularly can verge on evangelical about it. For the four in four, here are ways that parkrun has contributed to improving my mental health:

Exercise

The benefits of exercise to your mental health are well publicised, although nobody seems quite sure of the exact science behind it. When I first began running, I lost a little weight although I didn’t have much that I needed to lose. It improved my posture. It forced me to reassess my diet. I drank more water. I drank less alcohol and caffeine. I started sleeping better. My skin, hair and nails suddenly all looked healthier. It was the first step in completely overhauling my physical health and that has impacted on my mental health in an extreme way.

The key thing that exercise has granted me however, is confidence. As a 26 year old woman, I finally really like my body. That’s sadly, quite unusual. I’ve slimmed down and I eat whatever I like without (much) guilt. I have legs that are now strong enough to carry me for 10 miles at a reasonable speed and they’re about to make it to 13.1 miles. The best thing of all is seeing photos both during and after any run. My hair will be scraped back, I’ll be devoid of makeup, I’ll be exhausted, I’ll be decked head to toe in clashing neon. Despite all of that, I think some of these photos are the absolute best photos taken of me because it’s when you really see pure bright-eyed happiness in my face.

Sense of purpose

This came in two stages. First, the ability to run 5km. I could (just about) do this when I started attending parkrun but it was a bit of a struggle. Being able to run the full 5km without stopping was a massive achievement, as it is for a huge number of parkrunners. Parkrun is not just for “runners”, it’s for everyone. Sure, some people go sprinting round the course in an agonisingly fast time but there also plenty of people who walk/run it.

Once I could run that 5km, then came the relentless quest for PBs (personal bests). At the end of each parkrun, you receive a text with your timed result. Here begins a maddening relationship of trying to improve your PB. Every week you wait for that text; some weeks it disappoints you, some weeks it elates you. If it elates you, then you just try to beat it again the following week. It’s strangely futile because although you’re incredibly happy, you’re never quite happy enough. There’s always a new goal in mind, the next barrier to break through.

It’s interesting that no matter my lack of motivation or enthusiasm in other aspects of my life, the drive to be a better runner doesn’t fade. I don’t necessarily always back it up with the motivation to train enough to get there but the goal remains. Sometimes the only thing in my life I’m striving towards is a new PB. But that’s something at least. It’s a spark in the darkness.

 Community

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The start line at Southwark parkrun

Loneliness is a routine issue that’s brought up in connection with mental illness. It’s isolating. Loneliness extends well beyond that of course; to the old – as we all know from John Lewis’ Christmas advert in conjunction with Age UK, to parents who feel their life now revolves solely around their child, to young people surrounded by friends in the greatest cities on Earth. I never felt so lonely as when I moved to London. Strange, to feel alone with 8 million people around you.

The parkrun community is a) massive, b) wide ranging and c) welcoming. Constantly on the lookout for new participants, each parkrun begins with a new runner briefing where all new runners to that course have the concept and the route explained to them. No shame here in being the new kid. There is also no one demographic to parkrun. Children run it with their parents (and indeed it has proven so popular that there are number of junior parkruns springing up), parents run it pushing buggies with sleeping babies inside, the young and old alike run it. From people embarking on their first runs, to those who have run ultramarathons, they all flock to parkrun and that’s part of what makes it so great. Wherever you are in the pack, you’ll be cheered over the line. Fellow runners offer their support and advice. Eventually (and surprisingly quickly) you make friends. Recently, when some drama in my personal life made me nervous and reluctant to attend, it was that community who supported me and coaxed me back.

The community is such that no matter where I am in the country, I can turn up at the local parkrun and be welcomed readily as a parkrun “tourist”. I seem to pack my running shoes no matter where I am for the weekend and end up chatting to strangers about running and the other parkruns I’ve attended.

It’s also very easy to be involved through Twitter and Facebook. So many individual parkruns now engage through social media that there’s an extra layer of participation. Even outside the hour on Saturday mornings, the connection to the various parkruns I attend lingers on throughout the week because I continue talking to the people involved and the organisers. I see photos of friends and people I recognise, I see increasingly brilliant statistics about the number of participants and volunteers and PBs set that week. It’s a little like a club, that will have anyone as a member and that I’m incredibly proud to be part of.

Routine

There’s a lot to be said for routine, it brings some structure when perhaps the rest of your life feels like it’s crumbling away and being swallowed by a sinkhole. Personally, I am not a morning person and so really, parkrun is a fresh type of hell. Being somewhere by 9am? On a Saturday? Madness. Most weeks see me complaining about how early it is, especially on the weeks when I volunteer and I have to be there even earlier. As I pointed out in my most recent tweet on the subject, I actually get up earlier to volunteer at parkrun than I do for work. Arguably that’s because I have a dreamy commute but hush.

When ballerinas pirouette, they focus on a fixed point to fend off dizziness. That’s what parkrun has become to me, my fixed point and my anchor. No matter how bad work is going, no matter how much I’ve dreaded social commitments, no matter the other things falling apart, I know that 9am on a Saturday is there. The worst case scenario is that I have to get through 6 days until then. It’s amazing how much that can help, knowing there’s a glimmer of positivity on the horizon.

What’s more is that there is so much Saturday left afterwards. Did you know Saturday existed before midday? I didn’t. A day that was often previously lost to feeling sorry for myself is now wide open because I’m awake and I’ve conquered the hard part of getting out of bed and then out of the house.

Volunteering

It’s easy to feel like a burden when you struggle with mental health. People tiptoe around you. You screw up a lot. It gets tiring. You offer very little back to anyone in return. I know in my heart that I’m one of the most loving, supportive people available to the people I truly adore, I really am. It doesn’t stop me feeling like a leech every time I ask for help.

Parkrun is organised by volunteers, that’s one of the ways that it remains free. Every week, people drag themselves out of their warm beds to shiver on part of the course wearing hi-vis. Hi-vis is cool. Thank the volunteers when you run past them because they have no chance of a PB that week and a tiny bit of them is dying inside. Also they’re wearing hi-vis and it looks really stupid.

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Hi-vis is cool; I look exceptionally glamorous in it & I will not be told otherwise.

Without the volunteers, parkrun couldn’t happen and all things considered, it really is a staggering effort that is put in by people up and down the country to put on these events every single week, come rain or shine.

The idea is that for every five or so parkruns you participate in, you volunteer for one, giving back to the community that you’re now part of. There’s a wide range of roles available, from marshalling, to handing out finish tokens, to acting as a tail runner making sure there’s no man left behind. I do genuinely believe I get as much, if not more enjoyment out of volunteering as I do running. I have made friends through it but most importantly for me, I get a sense of self-worth. I know that parkrun needs my efforts to exist and seeing the huge amount of enjoyment it provides to literally hundreds of people running past me results in so much satisfaction.

After a long week of feeling useless, I can stand about on a drizzly Saturday morning and know that in that moment, I’m doing something on behalf of 300 other people. That has to make you feel a little better about yourself.

I’m sure there are more ways that parkrun has helped me feel “normal” again but I could lovingly ramble on forever. I encourage anyone, from any walk of life to attend your local parkrun which you can find here. I’ve never come across anything so welcoming and that provides so much benefit to so many people. Anyone in south/central London who would like to attend but is nervous about trying something new, give me a shout and I’m more than happy to come along with you some Saturday morning, I’m a very friendly creature and not all that fast so I’m the ideal running mate for newbies.

With thanks to all the parkruns who have hosted me, but mostly to Lee on the Solent, Wimbledon and finally Southwark, for providing inspiration. The nicest bunch of people you’d ever want to meet.

Links:

Time To Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

Mind: http://www.mind.org.uk/

Rethink Mental Illness: https://www.rethink.org/

Parkrun: http://www.parkrun.org.uk/

Southwark Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Wimbledon Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter

Lee on the Solent Parkrun on Facebook and Twitter