Super Awesome World: Amy is the Samarathoner
Running might seem like quite a lonely pursuit from the outside. You tend to run alone. And when training for something like the marathon, you will inevitably have to spend hours and hours running alone. But funnily enough, training for a race like the half marathon, the triathlon and now, the marathon has been incredibly beneficial to my mental health.
Please don't misunderstand me. This isn't going to be a sanctimonious rant about the happiness-giving properties of exercise; a Katie-Hopkins-style, get-on-your-bike mouth-off where I tell all the mentally ill people out there that if they just put on a pair of trainers their problems would miraculously disappear. This isn't that. The thing about mental struggle is that it is, by it's nature, internal. Whilst I can try to understand your personal pain and suffering, I just can't say, 'Oh, I know exactly what you mean!', 'I feel exactly the same way!' I can't. It is impossible for any of us to know exactly what is the individual experience of our fellow human. We are not them. What works for me, may not work for you. While I find comfort and solace and strength in running, you may not. Or you simply may not be in a position to enjoy this activity at this point in time.
I have been there. I have had days where I have been unable to function. Days when despair had me in a paralysing grip and the thought of leaving my bed, let alone the house, was inconceivable. I would say that the thought of leaving the house left me with crippling anxiety, or an acute sense of foreboding, or filled me with a deep and unquenchable sadness, but when I say “inconceivable”, I mean there were points in my depression when I could not remember feeling anything, and if I was feeling something, those feelings were overwhelmingly drowned out by the insistent stabbing numbing feeling (how something can feel both numbing and stabbing, I cannot explain, but it can, and it did) that everything was utterly pointless, including my own existence.
But. But I am no longer in that place. In fact, that place is a long way behind me. It has not been easy and I have been fortunate to have friends and family that were supportive and loving and continue to be so. I appreciate that not everyone is so fortunate and that even people with loved ones around them will resist sharing their pain for fear of judgement. Telling someone is possibly the hardest part of all. But telling someone saved me. I was pulled back from the precipice and have been on the long road to recovery ever since. Physically challenging myself has become a huge part of that recovery. Whether commuting on my bike across Glasgow, wild swimming in the heart-stoppingly cold waters around Scotland or just running round my local park; in the physical freedom of movement through my environment, I have discovered a way to move more freely within my mind.
The very act of physical exertion leaves little room for errant thoughts in my head, little room for that pesky voice (that sounds an awful lot like your own) that tells you that 'you're not good enough', 'you're not worth it', that 'you're a failure'. When I plunge into ice cold water the only message going through my mind (once I've overridden the obvious one of 'GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT') is get moving, and move fast because that is the only way you are going to get warm, and my arms and legs comply. When the light turns green at a junction and I have a stream of traffic behind me and my bike, impatient and itching to overtake, my body becomes just as much a machine as the vehicles that surround me; powerful, alert and efficient. And when on a run I see an incline stretching out before me and my muscles start to scream, I sing to them, 'But you love hills, hills are your favourite, remember!', and I keep singing until the screaming becomes a purr as I reach the summit.
And I don't think I was ever a natural athlete. This positive sports psychology I seem to all of a sudden have become an evangelist for, did not come easy at first. I've had to undo a lot of bad mental habits and deal with a lot of emotional pain before I was able to achieve such a positive physical experience.* And the marathon has required more dedication to my mental fitness than ever before.
I was told by several people that running a marathon requires more mental strength than physical, but I'm not sure I ever took them seriously until I was a good few weeks into my training. For the first time in my short career as an amateur athlete I began to actually put some conscious effort into building up my mental strength. And at first, I felt a bit silly. The training book I'm using is American, you see, and as you might imagine, dripping in optimism and can-do Positive Mental Attitude! And being the scathing English cynic that I am, I found myself rolling my eyes at the visualisations and mantras they started to introduce early on in the book. 'Imagine yourself sprinting through the finishing line like a gazelle', 'When you start to feel tired, imagine little people inside your muscles all rowing...and now they're rowing harder and faster so your legs fly effortlessly forward'. Okay, so these are slightly paraphrased, but you get the idea. The book made the bold claim that anyone that followed their training programme and their advice would finish the marathon GUARANTEED! I imagined the book as a 6 ft 2 chiselled jock-type, so cocky and self-assured – and it made me suspicious. But begrudgingly I decided to try the book (a good friend and marathoner had sworn by it), and to do it properly.
It has been working. The Edinburgh Marathon is just under a month away now and I have never enjoyed running as much in my life (and this is from an asthma-sufferer who used to take short cuts in cross-country at school and could rely on getting a stitch after just a few minutes of running). I am no longer running to escape, to displace my emotional pain with physical punishment. I am no longer running to empty my mind, to seek solitude and quiet my frantic thoughts (although, boy, am I still struggling to find that in my everyday life sometimes). I am no longer running away. I am running and having fun. It's still hard, I'm still working my body and pushing it. But my mind is no longer my enemy.
My marathon book asks the reader to compose a self-talk, a motivational speech to tell yourself whenever you begin to feel tired on a run or are finding it hard to keep going. Something short and simple that you can repeat on a loop until you feel better. Mine goes like this: 'I am a marathoner. I love to run, and when I run, I feel strong.' When I first tried it out, I felt pretty foolish. It felt like bragging for starters. I didn't want to be one of those insufferable people that just went on and on about their latest race, their personal best, their latest achievement. Beside, it wasn't really true. I didn't always love running, I didn't always feel strong, and I was a long way off proving that I was capable of running a marathon.
But as I forced myself to repeat it on run after run, it gradually stopped being a lie, and starting being true. And I started adding bits to it. 'I love to run and I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I run.' 'When I run, I feel strong. I am strong. I am both mentally and physically fit and strong and I am capable of anything.' It sounds hyperbolic and it sounds like the kind of cheesy idealism that can get people into serious trouble, but it has been working for me. As soon as I start to say those things in my head, I straighten up, my face breaks into a smile and I start to enjoy myself. Because I believe it. Even if it's just in that moment. I've carefully conditioned my mind to believe I'm the kind of person that runs marathons like a gazelle and thinks anything is possible and I'm loving it! If it is a delusion, I am delirious in my delusion.
On Sunday 28th May I will run the Edinburgh Marathon. And I will finish. It will feel amazing and I will feel wonderful. And I am so thankful. That I have a body that can run and a mind that believes I can run 26 miles. I am only human and this feeling might not last. There may be dark times ahead. Even times when I can't get out of bed. But I feel like over the past few years, I have forged armour for my mind, and it is made of Valyrian steel!
And to my fellow warriors I say, let us go into battle together. You are not alone. We shall defeat the darkness. I am right behind you. I am cheering you on. You will reach the finish line. And I'll see you there.
Amy is running the Edinburgh Marathon for the Samaritans, a 24 hour listening service that offers emotional support to anyone who needs to talk. You can sponsor her at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/AmyConwaySuperAwesomeWorld
*And I'd like to add a disclaimer here that I do not attribute my mental recovery solely to physical exercise and a healthy lifestyle. The improvements in my mental health were also hard won through prescribed medical treatment (including a course of anti-depressants and talking therapy, as well as ongoing work to remain honest and open both with my loved ones and myself about how I'm doing, when I'm struggling and when I need extra help, support and/or time to rest and recuperate). If you're worried about your mental health, I recommend telling someone you trust and your GP. And if it would help to talk to a stranger who will not judge or give advice, only listen, call the Samaritans for free on 116 123.