Red Wine Runner

A Scottish Running Blog

Running For Mental Health – When it just doesn’t add up

This week I have regrettably had to make a very hard decision, and emailed my declaration as a DNS (Did Not Start) for the Cateran Trail 55 mile race. I’ve decided to write about this rather than just sweep it under the carpet as I think there are some things that I need to say about some stuff. Usually when I feel like this, I feel a lot better after I’ve written it all down, and on this occasion I’ve decided to share it with you. This might be a difficult read, so buckle up.

A couple of weeks ago I got very ill just before running the London Marathon, and in the end I managed to run it anyway. Fuck knows how. I really don’t know; some kind of combination of ragged determination, muscle memory, base fitness, seven years of failed ballot frustration, and the sounds of hundreds of thousands of voices cheering me on from the sidelines. It was not the smart decision, but one I made independently; fully in the knowledge that I would probably pay the price with a vastly extended recovery but that it was going to be worth it. It was; I had a great time, and I regret nothing.

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You will, of course, not be at all surprised to read that my immune system took an absolute hammering afterwards, and that topping off my meagre pre-race recovery with a 26.7 mile (yes, you better believe I’m counting that bonus 0.5 mile because I felt every bloody step) run left me in a sorry state. The race was just under three weeks ago; I’m still coughing up crap, my lungs feel like they are the size of fists, and my fatigue levels have been horrible. I live on the fourth floor of a tenement building, and I can confirm that coming home from work every day is my Everest. Once I’m in, I ain’t leaving.

I’ve ran three times since London – three five mile jogs. Each has been a massive effort, and disturbingly uncomfortable. I’m getting better, but it’s taking time. I’d love to go to the doctor and clear up my fears of viral pneumonia, but I’m a relatively new  resident to the South Side of Edinburgh and every single GP practice is full with their waiting list closed… One does not simply ‘register’ for a Doctor in Edinburgh. I might go and get myself hit by a truck so I have an excuse to go to A&E…

Anyway; that’s not why I’m here tonight. I want to talk about my attitude to all of this and why it’s so messed up. You’d think, after reading the above paragraphs, that it would be a relatively straightforward decision to NOT run the 55 mile trail race on Saturday. But ultrarunners are TOUGH aren’t they? STRONG? Unstoppable?

How TOUGH is tough enough?

My subculture prides itself on being relentless. We go places people don’t go, travel distances that usually only vehicles can, and generally defy all common logic as to the definition of what an enjoyable way to spend a weekend is. People work towards this in varying ways, but often, there is often a sense of pride in showing up to a start line under-trained. For many, finishes are celebrated in overcoming hardship instead of speed. Show up hungover and out of shape yet still record a 50 miler finish, and you will be a temporary hero. However, we all know that the biggest secret to ultrarunning is that there is no secret at all – if you want to do it, you can.  You don’t even need two legs for fucks’ sake; just bottomless tenacity and an iron will to succeed.

I’m not very tough right now. Despite this, I know I could actually finish the race. I know that eventually I would get there; drag my carcass over the finish line and receive the commendation that feels so good. That won’t fix the problem though.

How STRONG is strong enough?

When I wanted to ask my friends what to do, I already knew what the answer would be; so I didn’t bother.

Woman up. Man up and get on with it. Ya big jessie. BLOUSE. Just start and see how you feel; you’ll finish anyway. It’s just running. Don’t over-think it. Shut up and just run. Tough it out – you’ll get through it.

Everything I’ve worked to train myself in since my first ultra in 2012 has been towards building a strong and resilient human. It was never about being fast, or looking fit and lean. I wanted to be unstoppable; to overcome, to be superwoman. A sufferer of poor mental health since my late teens, I’ve never quite figured out whether I’ve been running away from something or running towards it, but either way, I’ve always had to be one step ahead of the black dog which relentlessly sniffs around my heels. Ultra-running empowers me. It just makes me a better version of myself from top to toe. If you’ve finished the West Highland Way Race, there’s not much in life that can make you feel like you can’t overcome it one way or the other.

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Oh. Ok, thanks. There are a million visualisations of this bullshit quote by Jordan Belfort out there, but I picked this one because it has a lion on it, and I like cats. Screw this online viral noise…but why does the message continue to resonate?

I’ve DNS’d a couple of races in the past due to poor life management, but never like this. I have never actually been not capable of doing the race I’m signed up for. I’ve never not been strong enough to commit to the starting line, and this actually has nothing to do with the fact that I’m getting over the flu. I have spent so much time this week going over my ‘excuses’ for not doing the race and trying to figure out if I was looking for an excuse to punk out, or whether I was legitimately not up to it. It’s really hard to figure out if you are ok when your day-to-day average ‘ok’ line is pretty low anyway, and when ‘ok’ in an ultra means showing up at a check point dehydrated, with a mild concussion, and hallucinating.

It’s hard to extract the part of yourself that needs to be looked after, when looking after yourself often means going for a run. At times, running is both my killer and my cure, my light and my darkness, my blessing and my curse.

west highland way race 2015

I want to be her again. I want to be that strong, that tough, and that happy. Doing this race will not make me her. I am trying to become a person which I spent years building, but lost again after just a few short months when I got too exhausted to keep ahead of the black dog who chased me. Showing up on the starting line on Saturday will not bring her back. She can come back, but just not right now.

west highland way race 2015

Taking a step back, this still has nothing to do with the flu. Why did I get so sick and for so long? It’s because I am exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted. In three weeks time I will have been living alone in Edinburgh for a year, separately from my husband as we live our little lives as two insignificant victims of the oil crash in Aberdeen. It’s been a year of constant travel, constant stress, constant arguments, constant attempts at planning, constant attempts to support each other, occasional hope, and constant failure. I could write a book about everything he, I, and our associated friends and family have been going through regarding this,  but I suspect you can probably imagine how shit it is and you’d be absolutely correct.

Last weekend in the Algarve - A rare occasion when we've spent the whole weekend together in the last year

Last weekend in the Algarve – A rare occasion when we’ve spent the whole weekend together in the last year. Nice big happy, social media smiles on our faces…

Situational sadness with seemingly never-ending stress is one thing, add that on top of clinical depression and crippling anxiety and you’ve got a hell of a ride. To this end, I can’t do the Cateran Trail 55 this weekend because I don’t think I can handle the journey. I’m not tough enough, strong enough, or stupid enough right now to take this on. I know I’m not fit enough to phone it in, so in order to complete it I would need to dig incredibly deeply; probably into a place where I’m just not willing to go right now. I spend enough of my time cloaked in stress, sadness and exhaustion that I just can’t face voluntarily going there.

I was attempting to try and fix everything with a big long run on Saturday, but I may as well bring a knife to a gun fight.

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You may have heard that it’s Mental Health Awareness week – so I guess this is my contribution. There’s been a lot of talk recently about how running can help your mental health and there is no doubt that it can work wonders, but it is not a cure. For me; what comes up must always come down, there is a yin to every yang. When you rely on something to fix you, when you can’t or won’t do it, then you need to have something else to keep your head above the water.

I’m sorry I don’t have the answer. I’m sorry this isn’t very positive. In this new world of talking about our difficulties and being so open about our mental health, for those of you who don’t suffer; know this – It is not all happy endings, #mindovermarathon, and victory montages at the finish line. Not all of us survive this and it is not something that ever ends in a lifetime – until it does… 127 people a week in the UK took their own lives in 2016, and female suicide rates are at their highest in a decade [source] . This isn’t a bandwagon or a popular campaign. It is not an emoji, a hashtag, or a shareable Facebook picture for #AWARENESS. For 1 in 6 of us it is life, and the strongest suffers will probably never let you know.

I have no idea how to end this post, other than with a link to the Samaritans, and a request that you keep looking out for one another. Be kind. You never know what battles people are fighting when your back is turned.

Contact the Samaritans here.

 

40 Comments

  1. Hey, I didn’t tell you to man up, I told you not to do it! R&R in spades is what you need, both mentally and physically, see you tonight x

    • Sorry; I have worded that poorly. I was actually considering making a restricted facebook post to ask people what they thought, but decided against it because I didn’t want the man up stuff. That’s why I ended up brain-dumping to you privately, because I value your experience and knowledge a lot!
      Thanks again, and see you later xx

  2. Rest up. You will be tough again. I am not as tough as you but I have my ups and downs and I tell myself I’ll run a marathon still. Life comes at you and it’s much harder than we expect at times!

  3. You know you’ve made the right choice and clearly a tough one. You are tough, strong and amazing and don’t ever forget that. Wonderfully honest blog that has me in tears reading it. You will get that brilliant smile back and will battle out some long races, epic achievements and get through life. Getting through the last year is testament to that. It’s not about sucking it up and just doing it, so what’s right for your body, mind and long term health. X

  4. Thank you for sharing this.

    I think it’s important to acknowledge that it isn’t all happy endings. Your honesty is oozing from every word typed.

    I’m sitting here now and the floodgates have opened and I am crying into my morning coffee. Because sometimes I don’t feel okay. I have suffered depression on and off over the years and I suffered PND after Rose and a lot of the time, 3 years on, I still don’t feel okay. A lot of the time I do but a lot of the time I don’t. I thought about resharing my PND post, maybe I will later, I don’t know, it’s important for people to know that sometimes it doesn’t go, it can lay dormant, it can come back, sometimes it doesn’t go away and that doesn’t always get acknowledged. Running helps me most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t, recently I’ve been using it as a tool to batter my own self-esteem. I feel great for doing it, then I analyse and shout at myself for being so crap. I have no idea why.

    I am sorry that you’ve had such a tough year. For what it’s worth, I think you’re right not to do it. Doing it because we can, sucking it up, isn’t always the healthy choice or the right choice. I hope you get plenty of rest and recovery and thank you for sharing this post and making me realise that I’m really not alone.

    x

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Helen. I’m sorry I got your morning off to a sad start! You’re right though – a lot of feelings do pack themselves away and it’s so important to deal with them before they stagnate and flare up at the worst possible time.
      I hope the rest of your weekend is looking up x

  5. Dave Waterman

    May 12, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Take care of yourself however best you can Rhona. Races will be there when you feel ready.x

    • From reading some of your previous blogs I have to say this comes as a bit of a surprise, as I thought you were superhuman. However it’s good to see that you are mere mortal like the rest of us and DNS sounds like the right decision on this occasion. I am just 9 days away from my first ultra of my life and your honest words have given me strength to believe I can succeed and achieve my next goal. However I am also amidst some health issues which I don’t know whether they will escalate out of control or not yet, but anyway after the ultra I am taking a running break for a few months to see whether things calm down. If all is ok and I survive the ultra who knows I may be targetting the Highland fling and Cateran trail myself.
      Thanks Rhona and I know you will overcome this hurdle and wear your superhuman cape again soon.

      • I am indeed, only human 🙂 I’m sure you will feel like a superhuman after your first ultra though! Taking a break to reset after the race will allow you to figure out your next steps. Good luck!

    • Cheers Dave. Hope to see you around soon x

  6. Louise Andrew

    May 12, 2017 at 9:17 am

    Hi, I don’t know you and I don’t normally read your blog – a friend shared a link to it and I couldn’t read and not comment.
    I can identify with a lot of what you say. In some way the best and worst thing that happened to me was realising that there was something I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It came 36 miles into the Caledonian Challenge when I realised that I could probably push on to 54 miles but if my knee kept getting worse in the next stretch it would be difficult for me to be picked up and I might do myself long term harm. I’ve always prided myself in pushing on, getting things done, being tough and it threw me for 6. It gave me a licence to say I can’t in other areas of my life and it made me doubt myself.
    Throw in other life stuff, a divorce that I probably hadn’t really dealt with, fertility issues with my new husband, miscarriages, prem baby,
    PND and also in Aberdeen and life has become very complicated. I’ve had to accept that taking anti depressants is a sign of strength in recognising the issue and dealing with it and not a sign of weakness.
    So why am I telling you all this? Well, I think it’s really important to know that you’re not alone. But also because there is a way through. Getting better has made me challenge my thinking in everyway and in some ways getting better has been an endurance challenge in itself. Why I am so much harder on myself than other people. Where is that kindness? I’ve tried different activities that aren’t so demanding yoga, surfing, walking and running just for the love of being outside. The amazing running community that is RunMummyRun has helped me enormously, these ladies are smart, kind and unfailing supportive!
    I really hope you start to feel better in every way soon. I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said will be helpful, I do hope so x

    • Thanks for writing and sharing your experiences. It sounds like you’ve had a tough time of it but I’m glad to hear you’re seeing through to the other side. This is something I’ve dealt with for over 15 years and it never gets easier when you’re in a ‘down’ phase, but at least you know that eventually, the mist will clear.

  7. ❤️

  8. Brave Girl Rhona, you of course made the right decision not to run, lots of rest will do you much better. Chill out time! Then when your better some nice easy base building in the countryside, to feel the running love again.

    Running is a double edged sword for mental health, isn’t it? Great when you are sticking to plan, but really difficult when you miss targets.

    Great blog, hope you get well soon.

  9. Although you owe nobody any explanations, you’ve definitely made the right decision. You’ve had a tough year.

    I hope that you feel better soon, the GP situation in Edinburgh does sound like a complete farce.

    Look after yourself Rhona x

    • Thanks Emma. I’m definitely out the other side of the sickness, but I really need to get a Dr sorted 🙁 I believe I can call the local health board and they assign you to a practice if no-one will take you. I guess they are the only people who can over-rule the bulldog medical receptionists!

  10. Take care of yourself, and be proud of yourself – you’ve clearly thought long and hard about making the decision that is best for you, and that is the mark of a tough person. Stay strong xx

  11. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. I cannot begin to tell you how timely it is for me and I am grateful to you for saying what I have already been thinking but massively guilt-tripping myself about. I am in a bad head space at the moment and running has very much taken a back seat as a result, even though it would be beneficial as an endorphin release. Its a viscious cycle isnt it? Thank you. And look after yourself – sending a hug xx

    • I’m glad that this came at a good time for you but I’m sorry to hear you’re in the same place. I think for a lot of amateur ‘athletes’ as soon as we become slightly less capable than we were once (for whatever reason) we are so hard on ourselves. It’s not our job, it should enhance our life, not take over it…but that is so rarely the case eh?

  12. Big hugs from Sweden, I know some if those feelings all too well And have to agree, running is both a blessing and a curse sometimes. X

  13. Kirsty Burnett

    May 12, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Sounds like you have made a wise decision. I can totally relate to things you have said in your blog – so well written. I hope you get the “doctor” situation sorted out. I know what you mean about the bulldog receptionists. The practice that I used to go to had one of them!!! I am in Edinburgh quite a bit, when I am not too busy at By The Way – we should meet up for a drink/run. All the best, Kirsty x

    • I’m terrified of Doctor’s receptionists. They make the process of needing urgent or even non-urgent care so awful; I’m yet to come across one who has been remotely caring!
      It was definitely the right decision to not run – I had a great weekend marshaling with the gang.

  14. The right choice for all the right reasons. Thank you for sharing this. It is important that we can talk about mental health more openly. You just keep yourself ahead of that black dog and know that you are always in the thoughts of friends and family. Have had a bit of a year of it myself and I know how easy it is when you are exhausted for things to slip. Can’t wait to see you back to being superhuman. Sending love and hugs albeit virtual xx

    • Thanks Carol. It definitely was the right decision; the weekend spent marshaling was so much fun, and I feel renewed and ready to start back at training with a fresh start.

  15. Brave post Rhona. Having had to pull out of London 5 days before the big day this year I feel your pain. I’ve been in floods of tears and actually wished I was dead a couple times. Stupid I know but that’s just the way my daft brain works. I’m an all or nothing kinda gal. People just don’t get it. I hope everything works out for you xx

    • That must have been so hard, Marie. Really glad to see pictures of you running at Baker Hughes this weekend though; I hope whatever’s been holding you back has gone away xx

  16. Thank you for writing this, Rhonda. Too often we’re expected to ‘suck it up’ and be ‘resilient’ and all this other crap that treats us like robots rather than humans. You do what’s right for you, your sanity and your health; there will be a million other opportunities. Take care x

  17. Rhonda? I meant Rhona, blooming autocorrect!

  18. Best running post I’ve read so far, thank you from the bottom of my heart…. . I still don’t know if I am running away or towards something….not sure if I will ever work it out too. This is so close to my heart and I feel like your soul sister…tears are in my eyes writing this. Take it easy on yourself….it’s never easy to give up a race. I salute you!

  19. tartanpimpernel

    May 12, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    This struck so many chords with me. I’ve followed your blog for a few years and your amazing achievements. Your honesty puts you even higher in my estimation. Mental health is a taboo subject which needs to be talked about. Those who suffer in silence should not do so. Recharge your batteries. Come back stronger. Wishing you all the best.

  20. I’m managed to read your blog without crying. Your strength came through in every word. I feel empowered and I complete my races (not ultras) at the end of the month because I will push to the finish. However I have also given myself permission to DNS if that is the right thing to do. I am sorry I’m not as eloquent as you but I wanted to say thank you for your candid and straight forward honesty. I’m so glad someone shared your blog on Run Mummy Run

  21. A brave and honest post. Right decisions are rarely easy decisions and right now it’a far more important to look after yourself than to put on a facade to tough it out through a race. Those events aren’t going anywhere, and when you do feel stronger they will be waiting.
    I could tell from your posts that things have not been good for you in recent times and, as someone who regularly sees young people struggling with mental health issues, I wish there was more I could do to help. There is no magic cure but I hope writing this post made a difference for you. Hang in there!

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