A year ago I battled my anxiety to walk the Active Newcastle This Girl Can International Women’s Day 5k. It was the first organised exercise I’d taken part in for years, and my mental health nearly stopped me. At the time I wrote:
At this year’s event I ran the full 5k, and it wasn’t a problem because I regularly run that far. This year I was looking forward to it rather than dreading it. This year I saw lots of faces I knew, and was joined by women I’d cajoled/inspired into coming along for the first time.
This year I’m more relaxed about the name This Girl Can, which I’d initially misunderstood (I’d still rather be called a woman than a girl though!)
This year my whole family were with me, daughter running again, son and partner cheering us on. My son coped well with the challenge of of noise and crowds, and I coped with running off leaving him in a place I knew was challenging for him. I’m not sure I could have done that a year ago.
Last year I had no idea where my fitness journey would take me, this year I have goals: first 10k, Blaydon Race, a sub 30 minute parkrun, the Great North Run…
I can’t wait to see where I am next year 😁
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I’m dedicating my running this year to two charities that have helped me a lot. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post. If you would like to sponsor me that would be lovely.
Mental ill health is unpredictable. I can be tootling along feeling OK when suddenly BOOM I’m unbearably low, unable to cope, hopeless. There seems no reason for it, no trigger I could avoid, nothing I could have done differently. It’s as if a switch has been flicked and my thinking changes. Every positive becomes a negative, every solution unthinkable. This happened yesterday.
What I can do is notice it. Name it. Keep telling myself that it’s screwed up thinking, not reality. Find ways to get through it. Make it shorter.
Even after a year of healthy eating my first call when feeling bad is still food. Yesterday I ate too much chocolate. It helps. I guess it’s an improvement that yesterday I only ate six chocolates, a year ago I would have eaten six bars of chocolate, a packet of biscuits and some cake! I’m improving, but the link between food and comfort is too hard to break.
Image from Pinterest (as is chocolate image above)
I also went for two walks with the dogs and got an early night, which is a healthier way to deal with it. I woke today feeling more positive, and hope I’ve avoided a downward spiral.
Today was my first day back at the gym, and I was slightly dreading it after such a long gap. But I did well.
Now I feel tired, slightly achey, but content. Which feels so good after yesterday.
Since my last blog post in November I’ve only managed another 3 parkruns. First I hurt my leg, and just as I was getting back from that I developed one of those annoying winter bugs which just keep on going. So only three parkruns and no additional running, similar lack of attendance at gym, and pretty certain to miss tomorrow’s double parkrun. If you’d told me this time last year how much not being able to run would upset me I’d have laughed at you!
Image from Newcastle parkrun Facebook page.
Other things that have slipped clearly include blogging. Updating here more regularly is definitely on my to do list.
Healthy eating has wobbled a bit. I have indulged over Christmas more than I have the rest of the year, and given that and the lack of exercise I haven’t dared step on the scales! However what I count as unhealthy eating now is still miles better than what I was eating just a year ago. Many of the small changes I’ve built in are still holding.
It’s hard not to end the year a bit despondent. I’m inactive, over indulging and feeling grotty. It would be easy to imagine myself right back where I started. So I need to recognise what I have achieved this year.
Eating healthier. I have completely changed the way I eat, with more meals cooked from scratch, greater understanding of what’s in my food and fewer unhealthy treats. I’ve got braver at substituting ingredients and giving things a go, and am calling for takeaways far less often. This doesn’t just affect me, the whole family are affected.
Cooking from scratch
Exercising. I’ve gradually increased my exercise from a daily dog walk to regular running and weights training, via dancercise. I’ve gone from unable to run for a bus to able to regularly run 5k and beyond.
Obesity. While my BMI stubbornly remains just within the obese rather than overweight scale I have dramatically improved. I’ve lost almost 2 stones, have changed body shape and am much healthier than I was.
Health. My bloods are no longer alarming my practice nurse, no more high risk of diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease! Obesity related back pain has vanished, a recurring skin condition has cleared up and I’ve had far fewer migraines than usual. Eating less highly processed food has also lessened IBS symptoms.
Mental health. Fluctuating. I’ve had bad spells and good spells, and I accept that this is how it’s likely to continue to go for me. I’m getting better about noticing the bad spells early and trying to stop downward spirals. And I’ve used good spells to push myself, trying new things and making new habits, which will hopefully mitigate future dips.
And looking forward? For the first time in years I’m starting a new year with concrete plans for improvement, rather than a vague “I must sort myself out this year.” In 2018 I plan to:
Join a running group. Through people I’ve met at parkrun I’ve been invited to several, and have shuffled evening commitments so I can get to one.
Get to 50 parkruns. This may be an ambitious target, I’m on 10 now, but I think it’s achievable.
Enter some races. My big goal is the 2018 Great North Run, a half marathon in September, but to train for that I’m intending doing some official races beforehand, building distance and trying new routes and surfaces.
Blog more. Keep myself accountable and track my progress so I can celebrate the highs and work through the lows.
Lose more weight. I’ll continue tracking my weight with Newcastle Can, aiming to get out of the obese bracket, and possible even into the healthy weight bracket!
Keep it sustainable. I’ll be attempting Plastic Free July again, but also trying to make changes throughout the year to reduce my impact on the planet.
Look after myself. While plans are great to have it may be my health, mental or physical, won’t let me achieve them all. I won’t be beating myself up if that happens, I’ll be putting myself first and making sure I’m strong and safe and have time and space to recover.
I’ve done a lot this year. I still can’t quite believe how much I’ve changed. I started with tiny baby steps, and I kept on going. Now I’m running, and I don’t intent stopping any time soon.
6 weeks ago I hadn’t run further than the bus stop at the end of the street in years. Today I completed the Great North 5K, running all the way, in 33.15. In doing so I realised how many lies I’d been telling myself and how many excuses I’d been making to justify my inactivity. Maybe you recognise some of these, perhaps you believe them of yourself?
1. I’m too fat to run.
Yes, I’m fat. Not nearly as fat as I was, but still officially obese. But there’s no physical reason I can’t run. I don’t have arthritis, or asthma, or any other physical problem I could exacerbate by running. In fact my GP has been encouraging me to exercise more and lose weight for years.
Of course if you do have a medical condition you should check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regime. But just being fat isn’t a good enough reason.
2. My body doesn’t move that way. AKA I can walk faster than I can run.
I’ve believed this for years. I remember at school, several decades ago, being laughed at for my slow, clumsy running. But its not true that I can walk faster than I can run, no matter how often I’ve said it. What is true is that walking is a damn sight easier than running, especially when you’re not used to running. It feels quicker because its taking less concentration and effort. But the more I run the more my body gets used to moving like that, and the more surprised and delighted I am at what my fat, middle aged body can accomplish.
3. I’m too old to start running now.
I’m in my mid-40s and was quite sure I’d now built the habits I needed for life. Until the beginning of this year I’d done little exercise other than dog walking for decades. When I signed up for Newcastle Can in January I started exercising more, but was still adamant I wouldn’t be joining a gym or running. Now I’ve done both, and I’m having a blast. I started doing Park runs, and there I see people of all ages and abilities.
Imagine a new piece of technology was released and I refused to try it because I was too old to learn something new. You’d laugh at me. To be fair my daughter does often laugh at my ineptitude with modern gadgets, and its true I’ll never pick them up as effortlessly as she does. But I’m trying and I’m learning at my own pace. Same with running. I’m not trying to be the next Paula Radcliffe, I imagine my running will never be as effortless as someone who’s been doing it consistently all their life, but so what? I’m doing it to get healthy and I’m improving at my own pace. And I’ve been using my body a lot longer than I’ve been grappling with technology, so I’m bound to pick it up, right?!
If I hadn’t started now what was the alternative? Staying on the sofa gaining weight and getting ill. I spent too long doing that, I’m glad I started moving now.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. Your body can do amazing things. Try it and see.
4. No one wants to see a fat woman running. AKA I’ll get laughed at.
Society fat-shames women, but not half as much as we do to ourselves. Going out in public in leggings was a massive hurdle for me. I’m well aware how I look. Add how sweaty I get when running and the bright puce my face goes and it’s not an attractive sight. But I’m doing this for me, not for anyone else. What I look like shouldn’t matter.
The first few times I ran in public I would slow to a walk rather than overtake anyone, because then they’d look at me. I kept my eyes down, avoiding eye contact with anyone coming in the other direction. And yet no one has laughed at me, not to my knowledge. People have smiled and been supportive. Not just other runners, but when I’ve run past ordinary members of the public.
But I keep my headphones in when I’m running past groups of teenagers, just in case.
I’ve realised people are not as focused on my appearance as I think they are. There seems to be some kind of glamour at work. I look in the mirror and see a fat, sweaty, unattractive woman, whereas the people I run past see a woman working hard to improve herself. The best part of this magic is the more I run the more I see what they see.
5. I can’t do this. AKA OMG I’m going to die.
I’m not going to say running is easy. It’s not. It’s even harder when you’re not in great shape to begin with. I’d been gradually increasing my activity for months before I started running, and I still felt like the effort was going to kill me for the first few weeks. After years of walking speed my body protested violently to the unaccustomed pressure. My subconscious assumed that as I was running there must be danger, and I struggled to control my breathing and pace.
The solution is to build gradually. I started by counting lampposts. I ran to the next lamppost, then walked until my lungs had calmed down, then ran again. By week three I’d moved to counting bus stops instead of lampposts. By the end of week four I was counting kilometres.
There’s a point in each run, and it gets earlier and earlier as I keep running, when it feels like my body goes “Oh that’s what we’re doing” and gets into a rhythm. It stops feeling like fight or flight and starts feeling like I can keep this going. For me music helps me find that point. The beat helps me keep my breathing and legs steady. Without it I just keep speeding up til I have to stop.
Yes it’s hard, yes my legs are tired and my lungs are gasping for breath. But I CAN do it.
6. I’m genetically predisposed to be obese.
When I was little my Gran once told me that I would be fat when I was older, because my mum was fat, and she was fat, and all the women in our family have been fat. I was furious with her. But when my weight started creeping up I realised she was right. After all science has identified genes that cause some people to gain weight more than others.
But really that’s just an excuse. Behaviour has been shown to be as important as genetics in obesity studies. If I’m being inactive and eating unhealthily I’ll get fat even if I have good genes. Yes, maybe its a bit harder for me to lose weight that someone from a family with different genes, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
7. My depression and anxiety won’t let me do this.
I’m not going to claim that my mental health problems are lies or excuses. When my mental health is bad it can be as debilitating as a physical ailment. Just getting to the sofa can be a challenge, let alone out the door. There will be days when my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this.
But over the past 6 weeks I’ve done things I never thought I could. I’ve run 5K several times, I’ve gone from nothing to making regular running a habit, I’ve run in public, I’ve walked through the busy city centre in my leggings more than once, I’ve been interviewed on camera about the positive things Newcastle Can has done for me… I’ve even voluntarily posted photos of me looking fat and sweaty on the internet for the first time!
There will be days when my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this, but on those days I can remember all these things I’ve done, and tell myself “my depression and anxiety won’t let me do this today, but I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again another day.”
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I was pleased today to get the chance to meet Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who’s spearheaded the Newcastle Can project. It was great to tell him what a difference it’s made to me. It was also great to meet other Newcastle Can runners, people like myself who have fallen out of exercising over the years, whether through inertia or injury, and are now part of a community working to get more healthy. There was so much support, smiles and kind words as we ran in our orange T-shirts. Other runners, who hadn’t heard about Newcastle Can before today, were interested and supportive. It was a great atmosphere, and I’m so glad I accepted the challenge. I’m still buzzing from the fact that I did it.
If I can get from zero to 5K in six weeks what will I do next?
I’ve shared some of the things that happen to me while I’m running on Facebook. Highs like the old man waving his walking stick in the air as he cheered me on. Lows like being stopped by preteens who wanted to scrounge a tab (how unhealthy do I look when jogging that they assume I’m a smoker?) Several Facebook friends suggested I should try Parkrun as I’m running.
I’ve known about Parkrun for a long time, but never thought it was something I’d take part in. I’d read the news stories when a council tried to charge runners, and agreed that people should be free to run in local parks without paying for it, but that’s as much as I’d ever thought about it. Parkrun clearly must be for runners, and I’m not a runner. It’s a similar situation to how I’d discounted This Girl Can because I’d misunderstood the age range it was targeting. Had I made it to the Parkrun website I’d have seen how welcoming it is to all ages and abilities, but I’d never got that far because I was so convinced it wasn’t for the likes of me, just based on that one word “run”.
Luckily word of mouth, or comments of Facebook, got me reconsidering. And as soon as I’d seen the Parkrun website I realised I could give this a go. I signed up last weekend , determined to go along this week.
I think going to something new, alone, feels intimidating to a lot of people, even if their mental health’s good. When you have anxiety like mine it can become impossible to face new situations. Throughout the week I worried intermittently. I knew I could do 5K, even if I had to walk bits of it. My main concern was that I would be last. It takes me just under 40 minutes to run 5k on a treadmill at the gym, and I was sure I would be slower out in the real world. The previous week the slowest runner at my local Parkrun had taken just under 44 minutes. I worried that if I was last I would never feel confident enough to go back.
And then I got a news email from Parkrun with a link to this fantastic blog. As well as being impressed with Helen’s determination I realised I couldn’t come last. Until then I hadn’t heard of Tail Walkers, volunteers who bring up the rear at each run, providing support and encouragement and taking that worrisome last place.
Saturday arrived, annoyingly warm and sunny (I’d hoped for drizzle or at least clouds and a cool breeze, to mimic the air conditioned gym I’m more used to running in.) I drove to the park, and got almost to the start line when I realised I’d left my water in the car. I decided to count the run back to the car as warm up!
My initial impression walking from the car park was that it was mostly men. Once I was nearer the start line there was more of a gender mix, perhaps women just are less likely to drive there, or to leave it as close to the start time to get there? There were lots of incredibly healthy looking young people, but there were also children, older people, people of all shapes and sizes. Most people seemed to be in groups, or at least to know others. I felt conspicuously alone and large, but kept telling myself that was my paranoia talking, and that I could do this.
I couldn’t hear the briefing, I was near the back of over 500 people, but it was obvious when people started running. So I started running too. I still struggle with my pace and breathing when running outside, I had to slow to a walk a few times over the 5k to get my breathing back under control. There were other people slowing to a walk every now and then, so I didn’t feel like it was a sign of failure. Generally though I kept running. I even speeded up towards the end!
I was particularly impressed by how supportive everyone was. Not just the volunteer marshals, who were whooping and cheering me on at every stage. Also the other runners. There were a couple of places on the route where runners were going in both directions, and those further on were saying “well done” and “keep going” to those of us near the back. I couldn’t manage supportive words while concentrating on my breathing, but sent lots of smiles to fellow runners.
At the end of the run I was handed a token and had to queue up to get it and my barcode scanned (my barcode I’d printed off the internet in advance). People in the queue were friendly and chatty. I can see why people had recommended it to me, its a real community atmosphere.
When my time came through I was really pleased with it. My fitbit had said 37 minutes but I wasn’t sure I’d started it at the right point. My official time of 37min23 is more than 2 minutes quicker than I’d run 5k on a treadmill. Clearly being surrounded by other runners helped me pick up my pace. Now I’ve done it once I’ll definitely be back.
It’s been a wobbly week. I should be grateful for that. Wobbling between OK and desperately depressed and anxious is better than being constantly depressed and anxious I suppose.
Except sometimes it feels like the lows are lower when there are, if not actual highs, then at least ups to compare them to. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Monday was mostly good, although I was very aware of my anxious thought patterns trying to establish themselves. I did my walk/run home from work again and managed to shave 4 minutes off my time. But my training plan says I should be able to do 15 minutes at “an easy run” by now. “An easy run” is a running speed at which you could carry on a conversation. I worried that I don’t have an easy running speed, I’d struggle to carry on a conversation after three minutes let alone fifteen. So I worried that I was doing something wrong, and ignored my anxious brain trying to tell me it was because I’m a useless idiot.
Tuesday was a comparatively good day. I caught myself wobbling, and took myself out for a half hour walk to give myself time to stop wobbling, rather than try to force myself on through it.
Wednesday was just wrong. My lowest recent dip and a day when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Ignoring the success of he previous day I tried to carry on and force my way through despite feeling thoroughly depressed. I ended up in the changing room at the gym in floods of tears, having realised I’d forgotten both my water bottle and one of my trainers. All positive self image that’s built up while I’ve been exercising and losing weight fell away, and I was just a fat, sweaty old woman too stupid to even bring shoes, deluding myself that I could ever be anything other than fat and hideous. I made it home and hid in my bedroom, until my partner persuaded me that skipping meals was not the solution. I got it together to collect my son from youth club, but felt bad about missing my regular gym session.
Thursday was OK. Not particularly bad, not particularly good. Average. But average is fantastic when there’s been a day like Wednesday.
It’s currently early evening on Friday and I’m hoping I’m not jinxing anything if I say today has been a good day. I’ve been struggling to sleep all week, but instead of dwelling on anxious thoughts have used he extra waking hours to try and fathom why I don’t have an easy running pace. I can do it on the treadmill at the gym, but not in real life. So I’ve been browsing articles like The Overweight Beginners Guide to Running, 5 Beginner Running Tips if you are Overweight, and 6 Tips That Will Actually Help You Start Running. All useful stuff, but I feel like I have been doing what’s suggested, start slow, walk and run and gradually decrease the walking while increasing the running, invest in decent footwear etc etc. But it isn’t getting any easier. Then I happened upon this pin on Pinterest:
It led me to The 4 Keys to Proper Running Breathing and reading it felt like a lightbulb moment. When I was first shown round the gym the instructor demonstrated the best breathing pattern for each machine as well as how to use them and what muscles they’d target. I’m always aware of my breathing at the gym. But when I’m running elsewhere I’ve never considered my breathing, I mean, its just breathing right? You’re either breathing or you’re not. And if you’re not, well, being unable to run is the least of your worries.
This morning I went for a run and deliberately concentrated on my breathing. The difference from Monday was phenomenal. I did a simple 4 steps in 4 steps out pattern and I kept running far more than I’ve been able to previously. I shaved almost 2 minutes off my average speed per mile!
I felt fine! Not desperately counting down until I could walk again, but like I could do more. Apart from walking for a warm up and cool down I only slowed to a walk three times on an almost 4 mile run. I even jogged on the spot when waiting to cross the road, rather than being blessedly grateful to have the opportunity to stop running.
I’m struggling to believe how big a difference such a small change made. I’m feeling far more confident about the 5K in September now. I can do this 🙂
This afternoon was less healthy, but just as positive. Apparently this week is afternoon tea week, so I took my kids to Langley Castle hotel to take advantage of their 3 for 2 offer. Definitely a good afternoon.
I’m having a blip. My mental health is wobbling, between the equilibrium I’d reach and a lower, more self destructive mood. I know this happens. It’s part of my recovery. But knowing that doesn’t make the blips any easier.
I’m trying to identify what causes these blips. But it’s rarely as simple as one thing. Potential triggers this week:
First week back at work after two weeks annual leave.
IBS flare up leaving me feel bloated and uncomfortable.
Worry about elderly dog who spent Friday at the vets for blood tests.
Out of my routine with one child away with friends and the other at Granny’s.
Long drive to collect daughter from Yorkshire leaving me very tired.
Variois triggering conversations I couldn’t avoid.
And those are just the ones I noticed!
I’m trying to deal with it differently. Keep the wobble from turning into a downward spiral. So yesterday evening instead of hiding myself away when I felt dreadful I let myself cry in front of my partner. Usually I insist “I’m fine” even when I’m clearly not. I cry alone, hiding in another room or after everyone else is asleep. This time I let my partner know how I was feeling, we talked about it. It didn’t stop the negative feelings completely but it muted them a bit.
This morning I felt lethargic and numb, that washed out emptiness that hits after a real low and leaves me not wanting to do anything. I could happily have moved no further than the sofa all day, and very recently I wouldn’t have. Again I spoke with my partner.
My plan for today had been to go for a run, but with my mood low being seen in public in running gear just seemed impossible. My paranoia was in overdrive, my anxiety telling me how awful an obese middle aged woman in leggings would look, how I’d be unable to run, how people would laugh.
My alternative was the gym. Leggings aren’t so bad when everyone’s wearing them! But getting up seemed impossible. My partner reminded me how positive having the 5k goal had made me, that I’d feel worse about myself if I skipped a training session, that I could do this.
And I did. I headed to town, did a couple of messages (including buying cupcakes for tea) and then I went to the gym.
I started slowly, and felt leaden for the first few minutes, but I managed my first ever 5k on the treadmill, running the first 2.5k and then combining running and walking for the rest. It took me 43 minutes, and hopefully I will improve on that in the 4 weeks before the race. I know it will take longer off the treadmill. Mo Farrah could run 3 x 5k in the time it takes me to run one, but he’s a world class professional athlete and I’m a middle aged obese woman who has never run before, so I’m still proud of 43 minutes!
This evening I cooked our tea from scratch, so I’ve not yet succumbed to the sofa, but my anxiety tried to turn every tiny error into a crisis. A dropped knife, a missing ingredient, a pan boiling over – all led to panic. Getting out helped, but it’s not a magic fix. I feel better than I did, but still wobbly. I know I need to keep on top of it, I know how easily a blip can become a nose dive. But I also know I have support, and if I take advantage of that support I can start heading back upwards.