I first went for a run as an adult when I was at university studying journalism, came back and felt so ill, I had to take the whole day off lectures. I then, after my brief encounter with the sport, decided that running wasn’t for me. I should leave it to other people, and concentrate on things that didn’t make me ill. A conclusion that at the time seemed perfectly reasonable. On telling a friend this years later, she laughed that I had to have a lie down after a run AND take a day off uni. I forget the excuse I gave my lecturer, but I doubt I’d told him running had broken me.
A few months ago I started to feel the anxiety that has followed me around since I was a teenager overwhelm me again, my job at Time to Change began to come to an end, and I started fretting about what would come next. Will anyone else want me? Will I ever be as happy as I have been? My brain screamed. Work for me involved a lot of over night stays in hotels, and with these stays a lot of time alone to think. Much of this was unhealthy time. During my second last hotel stay, when I was screaming down the phone in tears that I hated London and never wanted to come back, I realised I had to do something. I had to do something for myself and not for other people. I had to find a focus, that wasn’t always work. My existence has always been, up until then, proving myself academically with a bit of music on the side. I had always focussed on surpassing other peoples expectations of me, hence the two MA’s but rarely focussed on my own expectations. This was about to change.
When I got home, I decided that I could, maybe just once re-visit this running thing. It has worked for friends, so maybe it will help me too? That evening, I put on some running gear, fastened my trainers and left the house. I went for a slow run around the local nature reserve, stopping to say hello to the resident geese as I passed. If anything was going to make me run faster, it was those geese. Evil I tell you, but on that particular evening they looked calm against the water of the pond, a feeling I wanted to recreate in myself. I thanked the geese. My technique was pretty questionable and I sort of ran-hobbled until I found a comfortable pace and rhythm. And then when I couldn’t run anymore, I walked. But I kept going. I didn’t stop. I was slowly, but surely, although I didn’t realise it at this precise moment, running my worries away. Or at least clearing the fog that had blocked my vision. I was focusing on breathing, not falling over and making sure my feet kept moving, one foot in front of the other. I was terrified of bumping into people on this first run-walk-geese meeting. I didn’t want people to laugh. A feeling harking back to school, when exercise was something I hated most and would much rather do extra maths tuition than play netball. A thing that actually happened but probably contributed to passing my maths GCSE, so there is that.
When I arrived home from this first run, I didn’t feel any different, but I didn’t feel ill either. So, given that it didn’t kill me, I persuaded myself to give it a go another time. This another go didn’t happen for a week, as life got in the way and so did another trip to London. But it did come, and when it did, I left the house, feeling a bit like a woman on a mission I didn’t quite understand yet. I put on the proclaimers and as I ran down the hill to ‘I’m gonna be 500 miles’, I thought that this could be my new “thing”. I didn’t want anyone to know about my thing yet, but I was certain it could give me a focus, when work couldn’t meet that need. A couple of days later this was repeated, I began to run further and faster, this time listening to The Dhuks as I made my way around the nature reserve, passing the geese and dodging any dog walkers. I began to feel fitter, was able to run for longer without stopping and even ran up bits of the hill without feeling like I’m about to collapse. Physically it was helping, but mentally it made me feel different. That I could make my body do A Thing that takes some getting used to, without A) Feeling laughed at, ridiculed or that I shouldn’t be there AND B) Giving up. I’d stuck at it and now it really was a proper thing. I posted a photo on Instagram, asked friends for advice about sports bras and felt positive that running was working for me too. I have been running regularly for just over two and a half months now, a sentence I thought I’d never write.
Before I’d started running, I had joined a gym, and used it fleetingly. Running has made me go more regularly which I’m now starting to enjoy. Yesterday I ran on a treadmill for the first time, without looking like I’m trying to prevent the machine from killing me. I’ll always remember chatting to a friend about my gym concerns, and she said:
“Alice think about it this way, you’re not going there to look at people are you? So other people aren’t going to be bothered about what you’re doing, or want to look at you.”
And you know what? She’s bloody right.
Alongside the running, I’ve taken up walking up hills or just generally exploring the countryside. Getting out is cliche, but it does help, although I know that I’ve had to do it under my own steam. Someone telling me, “you should go for a walk” doesn’t make me want to go out. But if I decide to go by myself, I actually enjoy it. I’ve walked for years, and I’m no stranger to putting on a pair of walking boots and a waterproof, to climb mountains in all weathers. My parents were forever dragging us up hills in the Lake District, Northumberland or Cornwall, and I remember screaming in protest for most of the way. “WHY are you making us climb Skiddaw for the 10th time?!” we’d yell. It had no effect because we always found ourselves halfway up a mountain, no matter how much we complained, sometimes we were bribed with the promise of sweets if we reached the top. So yes, that kind of walking is very different to the kind of walking you do as an adult, when you willingly end on that mountain and appreciate things you didn’t as a child, or you might have if you stopped trying to shout the loudest for a moment. Something that was instilled in me on these family walks was a love for nature and the outdoors. I took up birdwatching when I was about 14 and asked for a pair of binoculars for my 15th birthday. Something I know wouldn’t be a priority for most 15 year olds I work with today. I’d sit for hours noting down the different species I saw, engrossing myself in bird books and learning about different birds, their habitats and migration patterns. I was captivated by nature, when I wasn’t complaining about a walk I was forced to go on, I was investigating insects, inspecting a new nest that had appeared and finding a badgers set. I could tell you about different kinds of woodland animal droppings and I knew exactly how to track the movement of bats. I couldn’t tell you half of this now, but at the time I was fixated by being outside, something that hasn’t left me. So as I drag my adult self up a hill, I feel the same sense of calm I witnessed with the geese on the pond during my first run.
Doing things for me is important, and running or exploring nature has become a catalyst for that. It has been quite a few months of change, and unfortunately grief, that running is helping me to process, and has given me something I can do, when I start to think. Historically I’ve spent a lot of time on others or looking up to people who turned out to be unwittingly bad for my mental health, who don’t dedicate near enough time to me, and as hard as it has been, I’ve recognised this and started to say no. Putting myself first and focussing on people who want me there, and want to be part of my life as much as I want to be part of theirs is now a priority. Running (albeit slowly and not very well) and my job coming to an end made me realise this and how important it really is to focus on the present.
Giving myself permission to just be and not rush into the next thing is something I should have done years ago.