People always ask ‘Why?’ when they find out I like to run ultras and train six days a week. Every runner is asked the same question by none runners and every runner has a different answer. For many years I have considered writing this post to add to the ‘About Me’ section on ’26.2 & Beyond’ but I have always held back doing so as I wondered about the value of sharing what I am about to write.
For me, the value is in the writing itself and for others I hope the value will be inspiration because really this post is aimed at everybody who has struggled, or who is struggling, with life for any number of reasons. This post will go to show that although life will never perfect, it is always possible to change – change the way you think, change the way you behave, change what you do, change where you are.
I started to run in April 2011:
“It made me feel alive again and gave me the time and space to think some things through…Running changed my life and saved me from myself! It has changed my outlook on life…it has changed the way I approach adversity…”
A few people who have read that have asked what I was thinking through and have asked why I felt I needed to save myself from myself. The people I meet and who ask me ‘Why?’ have the answer to this and now I am going to write it down so that anybody else who is interested will know why I run, why I love to train, why I love to race and why this blog exists.
April 2011 was when I reached the end of a long, slow journey of self-destruction. This came as a surprise to some people when I let it be known but in April 2011 I really felt my life was unravelling and that I was losing control of the direction I was going. At the time I was nearing the end of a Masters in Social Work and I was almost finished with my final Social Work placement in Child Protection – I hated it. I hated the fact I was on the verge of becoming a statutory social worker, I hated the fact I had to see the suffering of children and families almost every day and I hated the fact that I really didn’t feel that the job I was doing was making any real, lasting and positive change to the lives of the children and families on my caseload. I also hated the fact I felt like a massive hypocrite.
A hypocrite because for the years prior to 2011 I had taken a lot of drugs, drank a steady stream of alcohol and smoked unrelenting amounts of cigarettes. Whilst telling mothers, fathers and families to cease and desist with their damaging behaviours I was thinking in the back of my mind about getting out of there so I could have a cigarette. Either that or I was cringing inside with the knowledge that as soon as I clocked off I would be heading to the off-license to buy 4 to 6 cans of lager or Guinness – one or two of which I would drink on the long train journey home. I would be cringing with the knowledge that as soon as I got through the front door the first thing I would do would be to roll a joint and, if the feeling took me, make a few calls and arrange a night in the pub with the possibility of a line or two (or three, or four…) of cocaine.
I spent most of my life from 2004 to 2011 living for the weekend and by 2009 the weekend had started to encroach into my week. From 2001, right up to August 2012 I smoked cannabis every, single day. Maybe missing a few here and there for one reason or another, but never with a prolonged break. I eventually stopped smoking cannabis altogether on December 26th 2013.
I remember the first time I took cocaine, at a house party in 2004. The first time I took cocaine I remember thinking that this could be dangerous! It felt good, I felt more engaged with everybody around me – I remember the feeling I had when it wore off and it was early in the morning, I remember knowing that it was dangerous at that point because I thought about getting some more. I held off that time. Subsequent times, well, I didn’t. By the time April 2011 arrived it wasn’t unusual to have a ‘cheeky line or two’ at home, with friends (and sadly, sometimes alone), in the middle of the week. I stopped taking cocaine in January 2012.
I remember the first time I took ecstasy, after a night out at university in 2004. I was scared. By this point I’d already tried cocaine but for some reason, ecstasy was the scarier drug for me. I think it was probably because of the exposure to the news in the late 90s when a young girl died from taking too much. The fear wasn’t strong enough to overpower whatever urge took me that evening though and after 20 minutes I ‘came up’ for the first time. I don’t really remember much but I do remember sitting really close up to my friend’s stereo because to me, the music was the best thing I’d ever heard. I also wanted to hug everybody. I felt connected to everybody. I didn’t feel anxious, or worried, or fearful. Ecstasy and I stayed friends for quite a while after that. The last time I ‘took a pill’ was some time in 2010 because by then it had gone from being a warming, connecting drug to something that I felt was ripping my soul to shreds for days after the initial ‘come down’.
From 2004 until 2010 I tried ketamine, MDMA (the powdered, active ingredient of ecstasy), I had ‘a thing’ with speed for about a year in 2005, I accidentally took acid once which was a horrific experience, I dabbled with MKat for a while (a synthetic high meant to replicate the effects of cocaine – it didn’t), I tried Spice and I’ve tried other synthetics. I am just so thankful that I managed to avoid heroin and crack. I am also thankful that I managed to ‘come back’ from my horrendous acid trip in 2007.
I grew up around people taking cocaine and ecstasy; I grew up around excessive drinking. I didn’t bat an eyelid at it all, to me it was normal. With this being the case I didn’t think I had a problem. Until the problem became a problem.
Not for the first time, in 2011 I found that I was losing sight of my studies. I was losing control of my finances and I didn’t care about much else aside from getting a drink and smoking a joint. I didn’t want to think and I didn’t really want (I didn’t feel as if I could sometimes) to converse with people unless I was high, stoned or drunk. Or a combination of the three.
The first time this happened was towards the end of 2005 when I was suspended from my undergraduate degree for failing to keep up with the work and for being an absolute reprobate on campus. I left campus with my head hanging in shame and retreated to a less than happy and stable environment living with my Mum and her abusive partner – at the time both were deep in the throes of alcohol addiction and it was a very difficult environment in which to gather myself together, do the work I needed to do to get back to university and to fight off depression and anxiety. I managed it though. But I didn’t learn a lesson. I carried on smoking cannabis, I carried on drinking pretty much every day and I carried on taking cocaine and ecstasy even after I was allowed to return to finish my undergraduate degree.
On April 1st 2011, I went to my place of work where I was due to meet with my Masters of Social Worker supervisor to discuss my progress and to outline what I needed to do to complete my placement successfully. I wasn’t exactly a shining example of a Student Social Worker and during this meeting it hit me that the amount of work I had to do, and the 30 days in which I had to do it, would be nigh on impossible for me to complete in the state I was in. Instead of opening up about how I felt and what was going on outside of work and education I just quit. Right there, in the meeting, I threw up my hands and said “Fuck it. I can’t go on. It’s bullshit and I’m not doing it anymore.” I picked up my bag, walked out and went to my desk. I emptied the desk into my bag. I know I had tears running down my face at this point and I remember a strong sense of panic in my chest as I did this but I rebuffed any approach from colleagues by muttering swear words and banging my desk drawer shut – I walked out, shouted “See ya” and then went and sat on the wall outside smoking cigarette and wondering where my life was about to go. A few sympathetic colleagues who knew what I was going through came out and shared a cigarette – I said goodbye to them and walked to the off-license.
I’m not sure what happened after that. April 1st that year was a Friday so I know that I went out. I’m just not sure when I came back. At some point either that weekend or early the following week I know I told my friend who I was living with that I’d quit my degree and that the money I relied on to pay the rent would be no more because of that fact. I know that because what my friend did with this news was amazing.
Through my haze in the following weeks I resumed communication with my university who by this point had realised things were not all they had seemed. I confided in them what was going on with my Mum, my finances, my depression and a lot of other things that had built up and plagued me since my school days. They gave me a reprieve and told me I would be able to return to a Masters programme once I had put my house in order. I thank them for that because in October of 2011 I returned to complete not an MSc in Social Work, but an MSc in Social Studies writing my thesis on the positive influence of outdoor activity and education on children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
But, I digress. Why do I run? Well, I run because of what my friend did with the news I was flat broke, that I’d walked out of my degree and that I didn’t really care about that at the time. My friend decided that action was required on my part and that I needed some sort of catalyst to wake me from my malaise and to show me there was more to life than drink, drugs and worry. He subsequently bough us two plane tickets to Switzerland. He walked into my room at some point during that April and said words to the effect of:
“Get your shit together because you owe me a return plane ticket to Switzerland, half the cost of a mountain guide and half the cost of our accommodation. We’re off to climb a mountain or two.”
“What?! How am I supposed to do that. I can’t climb a mountain. I can’t even pay the rent. How can I pay for a trip to Switzerland?”
“Get up, get out of the house and get to work. You’ll figure it out.”
My response to this was not immediate. I sat there dumbstruck for about two days before I did anything. The plane ticket said I had until September 11th to get fit, get a job and get my house in order. The first thing I did, after rolling a joint and opening a can of beer, was to go online and sign up to a recruitment agency. The next thing I did was type into Google ‘How do you climb a mountain’ – this led me into a world of information and adventure but basically what I learned is that I needed, first and foremost, to get fit! I looked at how to do that. Squats, push-ups, sit-ups – fine I can do all of that. Running?! Okay. This is going to be tough. I pulled out an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt and put on some normal trainers, put all of them on and felt ridiculous. What was I to do now? Well, pretty similar to what my friend said really: “Get up, get out of the house, get to work and figure it out.” That first run was more of a sprint, stop, feel like crap, jog, stop, feel like crap, jog, walk home – it was about 2km and it took 40 minutes. When I got back home I was not happy! I went for a shower and by the time I got out of the shower I felt energised, I felt happy and I wondered if there might not be something more to this running thing. I went again the next day and pretty much every day thereafter until flying to Switzerland. It was never easy during those first months, it was rarely enjoyable but it was something else and that something else was better than anything else I had.
To cut a long story short by May 1st I’d gotten two part time jobs. By the end of May I’d gotten a pair of running shoes. By the end of June I’d paid for half of my plane fare. By the end of July I’d taken up swimming and meditation and paid my air fare. By the end of August I’d been lifting weights, doing sit-ups, squats and press-ups every day for two months and by the end of September and been to Switzerland and back. By the end of October I was back at university attending lectures and by January 2012 I had cut down my drinking and cannabis use significantly and I’d given up cocaine. In May 2012 I ran my first ever race and then June 2012 I ran my first ever half marathon. On July 1st I ran a local road race, finished 12th and by this point I knew I was a runner. By the end of July I’d handed in my MSc thesis and by the end of August I’d graduated. From there I never looked back. I kept on keeping on! By the end of 2013 I had cut back my cigarette smoking significantly, I was (and remain) drug free and I found my way into a career path I wanted to be on. By March 2014 I had given up smoking completely.
From May 2011 to March 2014 I radically changed my outlook on life, I radically changed the way I approached adversity and I learned a lot about myself and about my relationship with addiction. The learning and adaptation continues. In January 2014 I became vegetarian, in January 2017 I became vegan and then in July I stopped drinking and became tee-total. I’m not saying life is perfect – that’s impossible. I will always have an ongoing fight with depression and anxiety but the tools I have at my disposal to take on that fight are far more effective than ever they used to be. I love life now and that is not something I could have ever said with confidence or conviction until recently.
Changing your life for the better starts with one small step and requires perseverance, patience and commitment but it is possible. My journey is one of so many others I can point to in the world of ultra running, triathlon and endurance sport. If you are reading this and you feel you are in a similar position to that of me in April 2011, reach out and contact me. You will have to walk your own path, and find your own way, but I am happy to help you start to consider how you might start the walk.
So there you have it. That is why I run. It is also why I swim, cycle, hike, orienteer, lift weights, follow a yoga practice, do Pilates, meditate and generally infuse my life with health and movement!
[I’d just like to add that my Mum is in full abstinent recovery and has been clean for almost 3 years at the time of writing. Go Mum!]