Exposing lies and smashing excuses. #NewcastleCan

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. 

Excuse smashed.

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.

Lie exposed.

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. 

Lie exposed.

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. 

Image from Pinterest

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. 

Lie exposed.

5. I can’t do this. AKA OMG I’m going to die.

Image from Pinterest.

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. 

Lie exposed.

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. 

Excuse smashed.

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! 

I’m in the middle, running AND smiling!

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.”

– – – –  

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? 

Image from Pinterest.
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Pushing myself, physically and mentally.

Since signing up for the NewcastleCan wave of the Great North 5K I’ve been running three times a week, either at the gym or locally. It’s getting easier, or at least less difficult. 

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. 

A wobbly week.

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 Running5 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:

Image from 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. 

All things in moderation… Including moderation!

Stopping a wobble turning into a nose dive…

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.
She’s feeling a bit better on her new meds.
  • 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! 

Proof 🙂
Three short spells of walking is not bad for just over 5k.

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. 

One of those days…

Yesterday I had one of those days. You know the ones. Every door I went through I bashed into the door frame. Every cuppa I made I spilt part of. Every task I undertook seemed to take twice as long as it should due to piffling little errors. One of those days. 

It started with an argument with my son, who was upset I wouldn’t let him microwave an aluminium foil food container.

I couldn’t get a parking space, so parked a ten minute walk from work. So of course a large and heavy parcel I needed to bring home arrived.

Mid morning I discovered my insurance company had mistakenly taken my annual car insurance payment twice. From an account with no overdraft set up. It got sorted out quickly, but felt like a lot of stress and hassle. Particularly when I should have been working. 

And so it carried on. A day of frustrations, bruises and bother.

These days can leave me feeling very negative, as if I’ve achieved nothing all day. It’s easy to remember the things that didn’t go according to plan, rather than the things that did. I’ve been trying to challenge this way of thinking, and over the past couple of months have been keeping a kind of minimalist journal. 

Image from https://theprimalyogi.com/2015/11/04/just-write/

To be honest it’s barely even a journal, just a notebook in which I jot down a list of things I’ve achieved each day. The achievements might be small and routine (washed dishes) or big and challenging (went back to work after sick leave) but they all add up to challenge my feelings of uselessness. I write it at bedtime, and I’ve found the focus at the end of the day on what’s gone right has helped my mood. And I have a physical record of achievements that I can look back on when my mood does dip. 

I’ve often struggled to keep going with journalling. And although writing things down can feel therapeutic it can also lead me to dwell on things best let go of, and to decend into spiralling negative thought. But I’m finding this quick listing of achievements is easy to keep up with. If you’re naturally disposed to negativity I’d recommend giving it a go.

– – – – –

A brief public service announcement for parents of small children.

Don’t be tempted to buy the character elastoplasts/Band-Aids. Unless you have exceptionally accident prone children they will grow into sullen teenagers before the packet is finished. Rather than waste them you, like me, will become a grown adult who ends up walking about with Barbie/Peppa Pig/Mr Men plasters on when you’ve had one of those days! 

I’m a grown up, honest!

Returning to work

This week I returned to work after six weeks off sick due to mental health issues. I’ve been here before, but previously it didn’t go well. 

I have a tendency to get myself back to work as soon as I’m well enough to force myself through a day, which leads to me burning out again quite quickly, and needing more sick leave in the long term. It had become a pattern, and was having a negative impact on my health, my work and my employers.
This time feels better (so far.) So what’s changed?

I’ve been more honest this time. Not just with my boss, but also with my colleagues. I know I’m lucky to work somewhere that recognises the impact of mental ill health, where it won’t be held against me or used to guilt trip me. I’ve worked places in the past where any sick leave, physical or mental, was treated as dereliction of duty. So it’s taken me a long time to be able to open up to other people about my mental healh. The first time I was on long term sick I asked my boss not to let other staff members know the reason. I was ashamed of it and wanted to keep it quiet, but that caused speculation among my colleagues and an occasional feeling of treading on egg-shells in their interactions with me which made me anxious. 

So this time my colleagues know I’ve had mental health problems. Everyone welcomed me back, and knowing they know has meant I’ve felt able to acknowledge being up and down. There was an incident this week with a missed deadline which would have had me in tears and panicking a few weeks ago. I was able to say “I can feel myself getting wound up, so I’m going to stop, make a cuppa and come back to it in a few minutes.” My colleagues were really supportive of that, and we got it completely sorted without my anxiety getting the better of me. 

I’ve also been more honest with myself this time. I’ve accepted that returning too soon compounds the problem, tried to limit my worry about how my colleagues are coping without me, and instead looked honestly at how I’m feeling and whether I am fit for work. I’ve allowed myself to do nothing some days, just gradually let myself see what I can manage.

Then there’s been the planning. I like to plan. To quote one of the TV icons of my youth…

… although unlike the A Team I don’t cope well with the unexpected. Unfamiliar places, unknown people and sudden changes of plans unnerve me at the best of times and floor me completely when my mental health is bad. So I plan.
But I have to stop myself over-planning. While having a plan in place eases my anxiety, trying to plan every scenario in minute detail can set me into a spiral of worrying that is incredibly difficult to get out of. Again this trait is worse when my mental health is bad. It’s a balancing act. 

While I was off my boss has been working with me on temporary changes to my role which acknowledge my mental health may take a long time to return to “normal” and limit the pressure on me while that happens. My hours have been reduced and my role changed slightly. I’d rather continue with a job I enjoy in a limited capacity than end up jobless because of my fluctuating mental health. And my employer benefits from my experience and commitment, rather than having to find and train a new worker. Win win.

In addition to these changes we’d agreed a phased return, with a detailed plan for catching up over the first month back. This meant I went into work on Monday knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather than feeling panicked about everything I had to catch up with. That really helped reduce my anxiety.

Of course I work in the real world, so already my plan has notes and edits, things that need slotting in. When I’m not too anxious, as now, this feels like necessary flexibility, rather than impossible demands. 

So I had a good first week. There were a couple of wobbles but I was able to identify and address them before they grew, with the support of my colleagues. Certainly I coped with things this week which would have had me in bits a few weeks ago. That success has increased my confidence, I feel like I was a useful part of the team, and I’m looking forward to doing more next week. I can see how my mental health has improved over the last few weeks, and I can acknowledge that I did that! I recognised the self care I needed, I let myself rest, I knew I was unwell and gave myself permission to get better. 

I still feel partly broken, but now I feel like I’m holding the glue and carrying out the repairs rather than just crying in the shards. 

Image – sculpture repair in progress from 
www.lakesidepottery.com

The magical garden

Its still magic, even if you know how its done.

Terry Prachett.

I am not a natural gardener, in much the same way that a brick doesn’t naturally float. My postage stamp garden is largely overgrown, and any attempt at house plants, no matter how easy to care for, leads to death. 

But I so want to be a good gardener. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents gardens. The front garden was flowers, beautiful roses and cheerful marigolds. I remember helping my grandad collect marigold seeds, labelling envelopes in my skittery childish handwriting. The back garden was fruit and veg, an abundance which was shared with friends, family and neighbours at harvest time. My gran made jam and chutney. We had home grown veg with all meals.

I don’t have green fingers, I don’t understand soil or know when you should prune things.  I struggle to find time to put in the work needed to turn my garden into something beautiful and productive. And then I feel bad about myself, its such a visible sign of not managing. 

Yesterday I sat in the garden for an hour with my book. Although I’ve been off work a few weeks now I’ve spent almost all my time in the house, shut in and safe while I recover. And I’d forgotten how relaxing the sunshine can be. 

I didn’t get much of my book read. There were some sort of fledgling birds playing in the garden, landing on the tall dock plants I’d been beating myself up for not removing, and diving down to squabble over bugs and slugs in the grass below. I watched in fascination. I realised I was smiling.

There is a thin strip of the garden, alongside the fence to next door, which I have forced some order into. As I was sitting in the garden I spotted something there that made my heart leap.

Peas! I want to grow more things we can eat than just the herbs. This year I bought some pea plants (still feels like cheating not to grow from seed – sorry grandad!) I’ve had problems with previous attempts, usually slug or snail related! I was so happy to see these ones are working. 

There is something magical about plants turning into food. I know it’s science, not magic, but I’m still amazed and overjoyed when it works. So I checked a few other of my long suffering plants. 

Tiny pepper, my first ever.

Hidden straw berries.

First ever gooseberries.

I had forgotten, in this long period of anxiety and depression, how good it felt to sit in the garden, to feel the sunshine, watch the bids who prefer my messy garden to all the neighbouring lawns and patios, and connect with nature. I’m determined not to shut myself up in the house any more. And making me feel that positive really is miraculous.