Sharing the stories of those who run to improve their lives.
By Conan Marshall
Regular exercise in the outdoors can help you cope with the adversity that life can throw your way. In terms of mental well-being, people often find it difficult to communicate with others including their close family and friends.
Running has the power to bring people together and become an outlet where many can talk about the issues they face. Despite the progress, there’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness. Although running has a very competitive side, it’s a powerful way for many to meet in a non-discriminatory space.
What you are about to read is a collection of stories from individuals I have met with while travelling around England. They have one thing in common, they use the power of running to improve their lives.
These people are from different walks of life and all have their own story to tell. The adversity these runners have faced ranges from depression to addiction. While some have simply taken up running for personal fulfilment, to improve the quality of their well-being and to push the preconceived limits.
“It has helped me change my understanding around food, exercise and allows me to have thinking space”
“I developed anorexia when I was 13 years old and she became like my absolute best friend. She was there whenever I needed her, and she allowed me to remove myself from reality. Little did I know the reality of the dangers of living with anorexia. Little did I know that over the next four years this friendship with anorexia would turn in to something dangerous and I would end up in hospital.
I was 17 years old and I hit absolute rock bottom standing in the entrance to a hospital. My heart failing, my hair falling out... I had to find every bit of courage to beat my anorexia.
The anorexia that I had, I thought was my best friend and my everything. A huge part of my illness was around exercise. I had this need to exercise all the time or the anorexia would guilt trip, make me feel like a failure. Over the course of my recovery I had to re-learn how to exercise. I now use running in a healthy way.
It went from being something I loved at school, to something I hated and used dangerously to now something I absolutely love. It has helped me change my understanding around food, exercise and allows me to have thinking space. It gives me confidence in other ways and helps me learn to love my body without obsessing over the details around my weight.”
“My confidence started to grow, and I think that’s when I started to believe in myself more”
“I would say I experienced consistent low mood in my 20s, but I wasn’t sure why. In my mid 20s I ran the London Marathon. Looking back, my mood was certainly better when in the throes of marathon training. I made new friends through a running club. I was running further and more consistently than ever before. I was realising my own potential for running long distances and I had a goal to focus on.
I was also connecting with a sport that I’d always loved but I’d never really channelled my interest in it before. While I didn’t start running to improve my emotional wellbeing it’s since become a reliable way of managing times of stress, problem solving and coping with the more difficult times life throws at you.
A few years ago, running was certainly my escape from a very difficult emotional time and it effected my health and overall wellbeing. I didn’t know what to do so I just ran at any time I could, even at 4am on one occasion. I found it regulated my emotions and thoughts and offered an outlet. Plus, when you’re running, you’re moving forward. This in itself made me feel like I was making progress.
Running helps my mood stay on an even keel emotionally. I’m usually a fairly steady person but find when I’m stressed or have stuff is on my mind, I feel so much better if I work through it with a run. I find running helps me find solutions and order my thoughts. Sometimes following a good run, I feel like I can take on anything!
I think just before I started training for the London Marathon, around 2002. I started running regularly to lose weight. The process of running, making progress and getting fitter left me feeling quite elated.
In hindsight, I think that’s when I started to feel different and noticed how running was offering so many positives aside from improving my fitness. My confidence started to grow, and I think that’s when I started to believe in myself more.”
“I don't run to escape anymore. I run to live now”
“When I first started to run I didn't care for times or mileage. I had no watch, no phone app, no maps etc. I just went out with a bottle of Lucozade and a packet of Jaffa cakes and ran until I couldn't run anymore and then got the bus home. I still do this sometimes.
I’d take some photos and be at one with the world around me. It's only then when you're by yourself on a cliff top looking at the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the very rocks you're upon, do you really breathe and think how lucky you are to be alive.
Nothing matters except you and your surroundings. A mind completely cleared. A life put back into perspective and from somebody who tried to kill themselves early last year, wanting to be out there and live is a huge thing for me. I don't run to escape anymore. I run to live now.
I used years of alcohol abuse to deal with anxiety because it was the only thing that not only gave me the confidence to leave the house but also a reason to actually leave the house. I didn't exactly have the greatest childhood known to man and its effect on me in later years lead me to drink. The feeling of never being good enough doesn't really come into your head when you're out every night.
Running helped me realise that sometimes I CAN be good enough. Running, alcohol, drugs, one-night stands. All an addiction. They all help you to cope with a void in your life. The desperate seeking of a rush to help you feel normality. But running is different. Sometimes I view it like self-harm in a way. You sometimes have to make yourself feel like absolute shit just to put everything else in life back into perspective.
I'm addicted to wanting to achieve and to push myself further. Running for that reason alone is pure therapy. You don't have to think about anything but putting one foot in front of the other as far as you can for as long as you can until it's all done. That's pretty much like life itself in a way.”
“I would like to see more beginner runners discovering how truly powerful the running community can be”
“I am a runner who is fiercely intent on helping others discover the true value in running for mental health maintenance. I create spaces that allow people to support people. I create spaces for people to feel ‘heard’.
My own struggle with mental health has been namely with bulimia, and a low self-esteem which spiralled me into depressive episodes that would last for months on end. It didn’t take a lot to trigger these episodes. Just life. I have realised that I am the kind of person who experiences life on a very intense level… sometimes that makes me incredibly sad, and sometimes that makes me experience the joys in life on a much higher level. The balance between the two has taken a lot of work.
There are two things that propelled me out of my depression, anxiety and bulimia. The first was running, the second was community. I would like to see more ‘beginner runners’ discovering how truly powerful the running community can be to aid in recovery.
In October 2017 I established a wonderful team of running mental health warriors – Run Talk Run. We are a global mental health support community, hosting worldwide runs for people to connect weekly with a jog and chat.”
“When you’ve put in the work consistently, the rewards really are immense”
“Having a regular exercise routine has been vital for my mental and emotional wellbeing over the past few years. Particularly when it comes to running, purely for its simplicity and accessibility. All you need is a decent pair of running shoes and you’re good to go. I’ve struggled with mental illness in the form of depression and anxiety quite severely in my past, and still have to face the resurgence of negative emotions that crop up on a daily basis — running is a very meditative act.
Running is one of the tools that I use to give myself space internally, to gain more clarity and to put my problems into perspective. Particularly at the moment as I’m in my final year of university and deadlines are approaching, things can get quite stressful and having the ability to turn to running to clear my head, get my body moving and to connect with nature is something that I find to be immeasurably valuable.
I don’t think there has ever been a time that I’ve returned from a run and regretted it, even if the weather is completely abysmal. I find running to have an incredible effect on transforming any negative emotions that arise. Even on the days when it’s rainy, cold, windy and miserable, just the simple act of going for a thirty-minute jog has the most profound effect on my state for the rest of the day.
When you’ve put in the work consistently, the rewards really are immense. That feeling of freedom when you’re flying downhill on a trail, with a smile on your face — knowing that you have put in so much time and effort to get to there really is an incredible sensation.
It’s not something that someone else can give you, and it’s not something that you can buy. It only comes through grit and determination, which is what you need when you first start out, but over time it really gives you a huge amount of confidence in your abilities.
I try to see running as something that is playful as opposed to feeling like work, although sometimes it does get difficult. Reminding yourself frequently why you’re doing it is a great idea to keep up the motivation as well. For me, I run not only for myself but in order to be a positive example for veganism. I understand it’s not for everyone, but it’s had a hugely profound impact on my life, so for me having the ability to go out and represent veganism through running helps to keep my motivation up as well.”
“Not only did I discover the world through running I discovered myself”
"I spent an idyllic childhood growing up in Tanzania, East Africa. Life was simple and everyday was an adventure - I knew no fear. That soon changed when I was just 7 and returned to the UK and the strict regimen of boarding schools. I found it difficult to fit in and this continued into my working life where I had a series of jobs before starting my own business in my twenties.
I had an unhealthy lifestyle, commensurate with the long hours and the stress that comes from running your own business and if I'm honest in a job that I didn't particularly enjoy. So, I arrived in my mid-fifties, clinically obese, riddled with arthritis and deeply depressed. I had an epiphany and resolved to change my life forever. I threw away my stick away both physically and metaphorically and started walking every day before joining a gym.
I lost a third of my body weight and I discovered running which I can honestly say changed my life for ever in ways that I couldn't possibly imagine. I progressed from half marathons to marathons and then to ultras. I ran 8 marathons in 8 countries in 8 days and, to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, ran 525 miles from the Atlantic to the Med across the Spanish Pyrenees. I followed this up in 2017 by running across Italy in just 7 days.
Not only did I discover the world through running I discovered myself. I had learnt to be a consummate "people pleaser" as a survival mechanism and this has been detrimental throughout my life. The Pyrenean adventure which on the face of it was fraught with risk, danger and the chance of failure had given me a quiet inner confidence and peace which I had never experienced before.
After all, ultra-running and the inevitable pain strips you bare and gives you the opportunity to get to know yourself and your vulnerabilities, perhaps the hardest thing in life.
But when we accept that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness but the gateway to innovation, creativity and connection then our life can truly begin. All of this is available to us through running and I am living proof.
My next adventure is a 1,000-mile run through Spain for the leading male suicide prevention charity, CALM."
© 2019 Conan Marshall. All Rights Reserved