Up and running

The first time I ran I was 19 and a friend who seemed to have it together had told me this was what she did at seven every morning. We were undergraduates, so this was pretty weird; but in my perennial bid to clear my depression and improve my life, I set my alarm, and was out there next day in the dawn light. (Running later in the day didn’t occur to me.) I made it 200 yards down the road, could go no further, walked the rest of my planned route round the University Parks, and knew running was something I just couldn’t do.

The second time was four years later. My boyfriend had promised to teach me to ski, but only if I could guarantee to keep going when physically it got tough. Three of us went out along the river to practise this. Adam ran backwards ahead of me. I gasped and thudded along in the middle. Matthew came behind with a constant stream of encouragement.

We went downstream for fifteen minutes, and I was appalled they wouldn’t let me rest before thudding back again. On our return, my housemate declared that my face was puce. I couldn’t walk down stairs for a week.

But the prospect of skiing so appealed to me that after that I learned to run. Not in the progressive way you’re supposed to. There was a clear pattern: I went out with Matthew and was encouraged to go five or ten or (once) thirty miles at a time. Inevitably I was unable to walk for days afterwards and was horrified by the prospect of ever running again. Until the next time.

The means were unorthodox, but I got fit. I acquired fell-running trainers, which seemed terribly serious. I ran several off-road marathons. When friends joined us I was now one of the torturers, no-longer the tortured.

Running gave me experiences that my unfit teenager within could never have imagined. There is, it turns out, a sense of lightness and freedom in the third or fourth hour of moving fast across Lake District ridges in the sun or, better, as the sun sets. There is joy in racing 2,000m vertical down to Chamonix on a summer evening to hit the shops before they close and get food for the next day’s climbing. (I got to know my brother better in the process.) There was the time we ran across Skiddaw on the night of a full moon and clear sky. There were final, exhausted attempts at sprints back to the car at the end of these days. I felt pride as I dashed across Ama Dablam base camp at 4,000m in -25 degrees C, and overheard the sherpas exclaiming ‘woman team member is running’.

(Pride, arguably, was more than half of what I got from running.)

In the last week of May 2011 we set out to run Wainwright’s ‘Coast to Coast’ route, 190 miles across the North of England. For complex reasons, we did it against the prevailing wind. We had six-and-a-half days, and were carrying our kit with us. Do the sums. We did run the first day, though after that we mostly walked. Late on the final evening we hobbled into St Bees. The pubs had stopped serving food, so we celebrated with beer and crisps. By any measure I felt I could claim to be an endurance runner.

Less than a month later I had my breakdown. The psychiatrist labelled it as ‘very severe’. What that meant was that I spent over three months mostly in bed in the small space of a locked ward. When I came out I couldn’t walk the half mile from my local station to home without stopping to rest halfway up the hill.

The breakdown and the immobility and medications that went with it destroyed my fitness. My body shape changed more dramatically than it had done since puberty. I had to dress in a different way; and I wanted to dress in a different way, because for so many reasons I wanted to hide away. I developed bulimia which didn’t help my physical health. The level of stress I was feeling day to day as I dealt with the causes and consequences of the breakdown drained all my energy. The post-adrenal crash after therapy sessions often left me unable to walk. With fluctuations, that tiredness lasted for over three years.

My confidence and pride in myself and my achievements was also destroyed. I was unable to believe that I would ever run or climb seriously again. In fact, I became unable to believe I had ever done it in the past; my past and my present were so far divided that my mind was literally unable to conceive of both experiences as true.

So it matters to me that last weekend I ran a half marathon. Slower than I would have liked. Slower than most of the field. Slower than my brother’s girlfriend who had never run more than half the distance before. But I ran it. That’s the furthest I’ve run post-breakdown, and it’s taken me over four and a half years; but I did it and I’m proud of it.

It matters.

I am not, and never will be, a natural runner. I am unbelievably slow over short distances. I couldn’t sprint even as a child. I discovered as an adult that it takes my body about five kilometres to warm up; I am on the extreme slow-twitch end of the muscle makeup spectrum. Had Matthew not constantly been pushing me beyond that distance I would never have learned that I could run comfortably at all.

Nor do I have an endurance runner’s build, and didn’t have even at my fittest. (I do have the build of a mountaineer and skier; but that’s another story.)

Despite all of that, it was important to me to run again. Running was what first gave me the sense of my body, made me aware of the animal I’m attached to that allows me to have a living mind. Running lets me feel the mechanics of heart, lungs, muscles, veins in action, suddenly more important than my compulsive habits of thought.

And off-road running gives me something that walking does not. I wanted to run again across the Lake District, and Scotland, and the Alps, to be in the middle of a harsh landscape as the sun is setting with trainers on my feet and the lightest of clothing and the regular sound of my breath, and to know that my body will take me safely home.

Through the years of my breakdown, yes, I’ve wanted to have those experiences again.

But that wasn’t what was most important. For the last few years I’ve been carrying huge grief at apparently having so catastrophically lost who ‘Kate’ used to be.

Running again has been part of assuaging that grief. It has been about regaining my confidence and pride. It’s been about proving to myself, despite all that has changed, that I can reclaim and live the good bits again.

To read about the novel I’m currently writing click here

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