Note: This post is longer than others to date, and is a one off. We’ve had an editorial check-in and decided this is the right post to write this week. I’m on holiday for the next two weeks and the posts that I’ve written to cover the weeks I’m away are a) shorter and b) less of a personal download, in case this flavour of Self Curious isn’t your bag.
I’m a late bloomer when it comes to running. And when I say “bloom”, I don’t mean “excel”. I mean “find my own stride and get maximum benefit from something I didn’t think I could do before”. No mile I have ever run has been to beat another person. I compete constantly against my past selves, racing for scraps of evidence that hard work, commitment and belief in the process can leave you transformed, stronger and in return, capable of giving more back to the world.
This weekend I ran the Great North Run. To hear someone tell you about their experience running the route is a love story to the spirit of the people of the North East, and as a lapsed Northumbrian I am no exception. From the walk through the Civic Centre and the University to the start line, taking in the view from the motorway bridge on the way, you snake through the city’s motorway system and cruise over the Tyne Bridge, in sync with the Red Arrows if you’re lucky. Then you brave that long drag up and out to the coast, high fiving little kids, taking oranges from their parents and trying not to go your length on the kerb of the roundabouts as you persuade your legs to do anything other than a straight line. You finally turn left at the big blue horizon and letting the crowds carry you the final mile along the seafront.
I’ve made that journey three times. The first was nearly a decade ago, and the first time I’d ever attempted to run a half marathon. My goal: don’t stop, don’t give up, try not to fall over. The second was a couple of years back. I’d hit my stride, and it was no biggie. A great day out with friends and family. This year looked to be much the same.
Since that second Great North Run I’d stretched myself and attempted my first marathon, and last year a half-ironman triathlon (for details of how that panned out, my TEDx talk is ready and waiting on YouTube: bring popcorn). Both had surprised me not just in how much I’d enjoyed the process, but by how much more like myself the experience had made me. Running had given me a mode in which to reset my emotional metabolism. I could clear my head, or at least see where the fog might be coming from. I had more energy for the right stuff, and less useless worry-flavoured faff.
I’m 33, and with two career changes, a couple of physical traumas and a few relationship break ups behind me, I can say that I’ve had a fair few moments where I’ve wondered what life’s all about. But so far they’ve been directly connected to an event: Like when Grandma died. Like when my smear test came back with a frightening result, and I needed some invasive preventative treatment. Like when my partner felt that he didn’t love me any more.
In the spirit of some of my favourite films I do accept that these are the times when I have also wondered they’ll start introducing loyalty cards for Lindt Touch of Sea Salt Dark Chocolate (100g) and bottles of Pinot Grigio, and what the heck a “man” sized tissue is actually supposed to be. Men: are your nasal passages and/or tear ducts really that much more capacious than our delicate female snozzers? Answers on a postcard.
But there are times that beneath the Celine Dion singalong there isn’t a cause. There’s no “this happened, so I feel this amount of sadness and need this number of pizzas”.
This year I’ve really struggled, and it’s not related to one humdinger of a life event. I’ve had weeks where it’s been like turning a corner into a headwind. I’ve gotten up on an average Tuesday and by lunchtime I’ve been unable to stop crying. I’ve had find the words to hoist a white flag with my colleagues, put my out of office on, and retreat to my largest jumper and unisex-large-sized tissues.
In the past I have experienced low spells and I’ve had what you could describe as anxiety attacks. They’ve been related to performance (I have a side hustle as a professional singer and used to do this full-time). I would occasionally have huge crises of confidence when I had to stay home and cry it out.
Running was never a place for breakdowns. When I first started, I felt scared of going out for a run at first, but bit by bit faced my fear on my own terms as I learned how far I could go and that the discomfort passed, replaced by that annoying runner’s smug glow… I sometimes got a bit teary at a finish line through relief and exhaustion, but I can count on one hand the number of times the difficulty of a normal run got to me. When I saw those dark clouds coming I just chose even cheesier music than normal, or a more rewarding audiobook, laced up my trainers and got out of the door.
So when I say I went out for my last decent training run before this year’s Great North Run a week past Monday and cried for at least half of it, I’m not describing a little bit of a blip. The floodgates opened. On one level, I just couldn’t see how I could get around 13.1 miles, but on another it felt like the sky had fallen in, that I was utterly alone and my legs were incapable of running.
I did what I do: I persisted. It didn’t get better, but I persisted. Then I was kind to myself. I shared with a couple of friends. I gave myself a break. I focussed on all the positive signs that I could run 13.1 miles. Of course I could. I’ve done it before. I’ve been working on my fitness despite having treatment on an overuse injury on my right leg. I’ve followed a training plan for the last few months.
The black cloud stayed with me, through my logic and self-care and preparation.
I made my Plan A: 10 miles at marathon pace, 3.1 miles of whatever else I’ve got left in the tank. Plan A would be a stretch given my recent niggle, but certainly more steady than my previous best. Room for manoeuvre, and to be honest pretty much a Plan B already.
I knew I needed a Plan B too, and ducked out of articulating it to myself because I knew it would be hard to stomach. It was this: if for whatever reason Monday’s improbably hard, break-down-and-cry run is the current normal, you are going to need to accept it, come what may.
Race day. I was among lovely friends at the start. I had the support of my parents, the most loving, supportive pair you could wish for. I had messages of encouragement from friends on social media.
It was a Plan B day.
It’s not just that I had to start walking before the halfway point and I felt sad that I’d failed. It wasn’t linear like that. I had a feeling that where there used to be power and strength in my legs, there was emptiness. No amount of will was going to change that. 40 minutes in, it was as if the plug had been yanked out of the wall.
After around an hour of plodding through as best I can and having what I’d call “a little cry”, at a water station, I saw a vacant portaloo and next thing I knew, I sat on that loo and wept. Full body crying with audible sobbing. I sobbed louder than I’ve sobbed in months. Back out on the road, on and off for the remainder of the race, I managed to turn the volume down but the feeling and crying was the same.
I made it to the finish in a logical way: I ran every time my legs had recovered, then walked, then ran, just focussing on moving forward, and trying to keep my breathing as steady as I could. I probably cried for about fifty percent of the time. I sobbed my way over the finish line, not feeling angry at my performance or especially defeated but just completely wracked with sadness and loneliness, and the bewilderment that I felt like this.
My Plan B hasn’t finished. I’m still trying to accept what happened on Sunday, and that it’s perhaps a new normal for the next while. I’ll keep up with the things I already do to relax and look after myself, and if there’s space and energy I’ll be open to finding different things too. One of the quotes I come back to more than any other is from the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
World Suicide Prevention Day was this week. Matt Haig, author of two excellent books on mental health, said in a tweet that we should “try not to judge what we don’t understand”. The pressures we feel from the world we live in and the people we live among are many and complex, and affect each of us differently. The only person whose feelings you truly understand is you.
Reading the stories on social media about people’s encounters with overwhelming situations that have led them to suicide, I find myself asking how I can make a difference. Here are the things that have come up. Maybe you can try them too.
1. If it’s you, see if you can talk about it. I promise you that if you pick someone you trust, that makes your shoulders relax when you see them, they won’t shut you down, and that you won’t sound stupid.
2. If it’s not you, learn to listen. One of the hardest things for me before the race was people who care about me telling me I’d be fine, because as far as they knew, I’d been fine before. I wasn’t fine on Sunday. The best response I’ve had is “that sounds tough”.
3. If it’s been you, tell your story. I’ve taken the risk that people could be switched off by reading this. That it could be branded self-interested, or needy, or a cry for help. The thing is, people don’t tell you when you’ve made a difference to them, so you can’t take zero feedback as zero effect. You have to fly blind. Be brave. (But please fit your own oxygen mask first – make sure you’re ready, and that you have support in place.)
If you or someone you know is going through a tough time, you’re not alone. Samaritans can help – call Freephone 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claire Eadington geeks out on workflow management, performance and wellbeing. Claire’s TEDx talk about barriers to performance for exceptional women kicked off the 2017 TEDxWhitehallWomen event in London.
Claire writes a weekly blog, Self Curious, on NPW’s website.
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