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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.