I am not a runner.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said those words. I think the first time I said them was in about 2005, when a group of work colleagues decided to enter a charity 5k run and invited me along. “I’ll tag along” I offered (I’m not really the type of person who ever says no to anything) “but I’m not a runner.” And, truth be told, not being a runner, I walked most of the way.
Fast forward to 2010, when a close friend asked me to enter the ballot for the Great North Run to raise money for Cancer Research, following the death of a relative. After much pressure I agreed, certain that I wouldn’t get a place – imagine my horror (and language) when I did. The following day, a colleague actually laughed in my face when I announced that I would be completing a half marathon that September. “You?” she smirked. “I didn’t think you were a runner!” And I laughed along at the prospect of my little legs covering all that distance, at the idea of me trying to be a runner.
And yet she’d hit a nerve. I went home and cried. Because while I’m not a runner, what I am (and have been for as long as I can remember) is a sufferer from appalling anxiety. She couldn’t have known that because I have trained myself over many years to hide it, and I’m sure she would be horrified if she ever knew what that throwaway comment did to me – that in truth, I was a terrified mess, believing that I had foolishly signed up to a challenge I could never complete. I genuinely feared that I might die or – perhaps even worse – suffer the public humiliation of being the runner who was unable to finish, unable to run.
I did finish, of course: alongside crushing self-doubt and an inability to say no, I’m probably the most stubborn person I know. I walked, and jogged, and ran, and dragged myself those whole 13.1 miles in 3 hours and 3 minutes. I cried at the end and couldn’t walk for a week. Then I did it again the next year in 2 hours 57. Then I joined a gym, and got fitter than I’d ever been, and lost 37 pounds in weight. And I ran it again in 2012 in 2 hours 44 and felt the greatest I had ever felt. Self-doubt: crushed. Anxiety: barely noticeable. Up yours, spiteful girl from work and your nasty comments. I finally feel like I have found who I’m meant to be. I am a runner.
Except… I don’t think I ever believed that, not really. So six years and three babies later, when I’d put those 37 pounds back on, and couldn’t even run a step unless it was to catch a rampaging toddler, I pretty much just resigned myself to the fact that things had returned to normal. The healthy, fit, confident me had been a brief moment of triumph, but she wasn’t the real me: I had loved her, but now she was gone. And I spent the long, glorious summer of 2018 sitting in too-tight clothes, eating and drinking and parenting and crippled with doubt and anxiety and misery, wholly accepting that this was the real me – and I didn’t like her one bit but there was nothing I could do about her now. I was blessed with a wonderful family and a life full of love, and that was enough; giving up the little bit of myself that felt like ME seemed a tiny price to pay for all of the wonderful things I now had. I had no time to lose weight and exercise. Yeah, I used to be a runner, but now I was a mam.
My story could end there. It very nearly did, and probably would have done, were it not for a Sunday afternoon barbeque with friends that August. Stuffed with burgers and beer, the conversation turned to the fact that we would all be turning 40 within a couple of years. “Let’s face it,” one of our friends stated bluntly, “the chances are that one of us will die soon.”
That was all it took – the chilling realisation that this life I was now living wasn’t helping anyone. Of course, it was bigger than that; my 66 year-old mam had recently been diagnosed with Cancer and I was already becoming progressively more aware of my own fragile mortality. But I realised, right then, that I was allowing my own mental health to destroy my physical health, and that I wasn’t going to be the only one to suffer if this continued. So I made a pledge to myself that evening that things would change – I would lose weight, exercise, model a healthy lifestyle for my children; put bluntly, I would do whatever I could to ensure that I would not be the first in our group to die.
By Christmas 2018 I was 20 pounds lighter. In January 2019, to keep a New Year’s Resolution, I joined Evo and started smashing the classes. I felt good, of course. I fitted back into my old clothes, I had more energy from eating well, I was enjoying the time to myself whilst exercising. The real me was coming back, like being reunited with an old friend. And then my sister suggested we sign up for the Great North Run to raise money for the Blood Cancer Charity Bloodwise, and I secured a place in the ballot.
Here we go again.
I am not a runner.
I can’t do this, not again. Yes, I’ve done it before, but that was years ago, before I had kids, when I had time to train. And let’s face it, it’s not as if I ran it very well anyway. I was really slow. I’ll be worse this time. I might not even finish. I’m not a runner.
There was a wall in front of me that felt too big to climb. Nerves, self-doubt, anxiety, nightmares… me at my most fragile, my most raw, the me that tells me I can’t do anything, the me that is so terrified of failure that she can’t bring herself to try. The me that tells herself she isn’t a runner.
But I’m not just anxious – I’m also stubborn and I can’t say no. I would do this, but I knew that this time I needed help. Terrified, having not run a step since 2012, I forced myself in April to join the Evo running group. The first time out, I was shaking. The route was announced and I nearly went home. I thought I might be sick as I took my first tentative steps and then…
I was running.
Running for four miles. Running up hills. Pushing and breathing and burning and pounding and LIVING. And me. More me than I had been in almost seven years. Here I was, in the trainers and the sweat and the dirt. Like one reunited with an old friend, I ran that April evening with myself and I have never looked back.
I still have a long way to go. I still have to run a half marathon in September and I’m still terrified. I will never be naturally thin, or sporty. I am anxious and stubborn and I can’t say no. I have less time and more responsibility than I feel I can cope with most of the time. I’m a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter to a wonderful woman who continues to fight her own battle with a dignity and confidence I can only dream of. This is all me. The real me. I am all of these things.
And maybe, perhaps, I am also a runner.
I am not a runner.