I turned 42 last week.
The day itself was fine. There were friends (less than previous years) and family (less than previous years) and the usual barrage of Facebook notifications that someone you hadn’t interacted with in twelve months had been kind enough to type two words and maybe an emoji to mark the big occasion. There were no phone calls though, they seem to be communicative relics of a bygone age where a spare moment may be dedicated to speaking with one person, not broadcasting to the whole internet as it is now. (and no, the irony of writing that in a Web log isn’t lost on me; I am as guilty as the next)
But the next day, 24 hours in to this new, older life was tough. There was just me. Me and my 42 year old body with it’s aches, failings, unavoidable signs of ageing. Me and my own mind, 42 years old yet filled either with the wisdom of ages (and the weight encumbant with that knowledge; knowledge of decay, death, destruction of all that is held dear) or filled with the thoughts of the inner child, with basic needs and desires and no thought of cause or effect.
A day spent in isolation, recollecting the past and pondering a future that gets shorter by the hour. It wasn’t morbidity that plagued me that day, but the inescapable truth that whilst there are surely good days to come, they will be fewer than those that have already gone. The nagging certainty that with effort and application unbounded my healthiest days are still behind me. The terrifying knowing that no one lives forever, and whilst it may still be an eternity before your own time is up there are those around you who will go first and leave unfillable holes in whatever is left of your life.
So what to do with this knowledge? How best to acknowledge a future so full of unknowable certainties?
As Dylan Thomas will atest, going gently in to that good night is no way to go at all. But the alternative, to fight the unwinnable battle against the passing of time, takes an energy and effort far greater than anything required in my first four decades. To win back my health means starting from a point lower than ever before, far below the y axis of any previous graph for measuring my body’s capabilities. To enjoy to their fullest those few remaining relationships marks a turning point from passive friendships and familiar familial geniality to working at loving and talking and being present, at a time when others’ lives take a turn away from the road that your on to boot.
And yet, there is no choice. Once you know what I now know, that nothing is forever, it makes each remaining second wasted a crime against yourself. A theft of opportunity, the murder of hopes and of dreams. And so Dylan was right, there’s nothing gentle about entering the second half of your time and it requires rage to stoke the fire and blaze your way in to later life.
To quote another great philosopher, Andy Dufrain of Shawshank Prison, it’s time to “get busy living or get busy dying”; and if you’re going to be busy either way you might as well try and live right up until end.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health.
As runners we are acutely aware of our physical health, in fact many of us run to try and improve physical health. We are aware of every niggle and knock; who hasn’t sneezed during taper week and immediately diagnosed flu and an end to racing that weekend?
As runners we take steps to protect our physical health. We warm up before we run, sometimes, and we stretch after a run, sometimes. We all have a foam roller gathering dust in a corner somewhere…at least we had the intention to use it once. We seek the counsel of others, whether the latest copy of Runner’s World or the seasoned marathon runner in our club, and ask for help to be a better runner. When we are injured we seek advice and do what we need to so that we can get back to what we love, and if we can’t do that on our own we all have a physio or sports masseuse on speed dial and throw some money at the problem to get ourselves physically healthy again.
But what of our mental health?
How many of us recognise or acknowledge when our mood changes or our perception of situations is skewed? Mental health issues run a wide range including social anxiety (perhaps avoiding a club run because you can’t handle people) and unexplainable unease. Depression is a catch-all but itself has a scale, from mild to manic, and at the extreme end we all know the effects of suicide on our population…it’s killing more young men than anything else.
There are things we can do to protect our mental health though, just as with physical health. Think of them as foam rolling for the mind. Widely regarded as the best first steps are the “Five Ways To Wellbeing”, a universally accepted guide to protecting our mental health promoted by the NHS and charities such as Mind. These can be considered the warm up and stretching of mental health, the things we can do every day to protect ourselves. I won’t repeat them now but you can see an example below and find out more here… FIVE WAYS TO WELLBEING
The other great opportunity we have for managing our mental health is running and talking, in fact, it even has it’s own hashtag. #RunAndTalk
At my club we hosted a #RunAndTalk event for World Mental Health Day and it was fab. Lots of honest conversations about lived experience, exercise as medication and how we can support each other. It was a great opportunity to break down the stigma of mental health and normalise the discussion around how we feel and how
we can feel better. It was a brilliant, unifying experience and one we will definitely be repeating regularly for the benefit of all in the club.
And remember, if things do go wrong then there are people you can reach out to for help. Consider the likes of the Samaritans and CALM as physios for the mind, it should be just as easy to call them as it would be to book a massage. If you need it to feel healthy don’t hesitate to use them.
So how do you protect your mental health as you do your physical? How does running and talking help you? Let’s start a conversation and lose the stigma around mental health. Talk to me…
Humans have a deep-rooted and innate need to measure themselves against a spurious set of metrics or values, almost always setting unachievable goals for success.
I can give you a few examples… No matter what car you drive you will always be looking at the next, better purchase (I actually did some research in to this many years ago, the car buying cycle is possibly the greatest example of consumerism gone mad!). You move in to a new home, how long before you’re thinking about extending or maybe looking for something with a bigger garden? You leave the gym and open Instagram to post your latest sweaty selfie and there is a torrent of abs, tans and handstand press ups for you to aspire to in your feed…
We ascribe value to these things, the faster car or bigger house or better body, and we set our selves up for repeated failure in the pursuit of these ideals.
Running can be the same, indeed for some at the elite end of the field the only metric for success is stepping up on to the podium. But for us runners back in the pack, the social runners and club runners, it may just be the best source of success we could have.
It’s very rare we run “to failure”. It’s common in physical training to keep pushing that tin until you can’t possibly lift it any more, that’s a perfectly legit recognised training pattern and it works. But not in running.
For us, we set ourselves more realistic targets, and we go out and achieve them with metronomic regularity. We step out the door for a 5 mile run, and we don’t come back until we’ve run five miles. It may not be as quick as we’d hoped and there may have been a few more walked road crossings than we’d wanted but we have hit our goal, we ran 5 miles. We have a training session to complete, 10 x 400 metres, so what do we do? We run 10 x 400 metres and achieve our goal. Maybe one or two were a little off the pace but the goal has been reached. Running brings us these little successes on a regular basis and that’s why we keep lacing up and heading out.
I accept that there are occasional hiccups, a run cut short for example, and there will be those who’s values are such that missing a target time is the end of the world, but for most of us most runs are a big fat W in the result column, a win we can celebrate. The best bit? We can win again tomorrow, and the next day and twice at weekends.
In a world designed to make us feel insecure running gives us the security of knowing we can achieve what we set out to, even if we do come back to the old car parked outside our small house.
Today should have been my 150th parkrun, but I walked off the course halfway through.
Today, for the first time, my mental strength was just as poor as my physical fitness and I just couldn’t find a reason to keep shuffling around the course. This wasn’t how my 150th parkrun was meant to be; my 100th was under 24 minutes, I didn’t want my next milestone to be 40 minutes of pain and disappointment. I’d thought of going the distance and just avoiding the finish, but I didn’t want the questions that would come with it, so I quietly strolled off the course and hid in the crowds.
As I was heading home a little later I realised this was a culmination of a period of declining physical and mental health and had to pull the car over for a minute to gather myself.
At the turn of the year, knowing I couldn’t be setting any running goals for a while, I set myself a different target for 2018. In the very first conversation I had about it I was told it was impossible and I’d never do it. I believed them, and haven’t taken a single step forward since. This story has repeated several times over the last few months, a series of failures has set a level of expectancy that things will not go well, in any circumstance, and I’ve reacted by avoiding trying.
It’s manifested itself in many ways. I haven’t tried training because I’m so unhealthy I can’t do it. Now I know the idiocy behind that statement, faced with that as a coach I’d be going bonkers about self-limiting beliefs and the like, but I can’t be my own coach because my brain works quicker than I can and not only plants the seed of doubt but waters it, nurtures it, helps it grow and presents me with a beautiful big tree of doubt before I have the chance to try and argue with myself. This has spilled over in to other areas of self care. I am eating utter shit, day in, day out, because why shouldn’t I?
– Can’t train? May as well get fat. Three stone overweight? Well you can’t train then. –
As well as neglecting my physical wellbeing I really haven’t looked after my head. Without the mind-altering joy of exercise I’ve allowed the negativity, failure and disappointment to build until I no longer do any of the things I enjoy. Not only have I stopped reading things I like (replaced by a succession of self-help books that tell you page after page to “love yourself” and “be your best you” – fuck off mate, I can barely get out of bed some days), I’ve stopped writing, stopped exploring music, stopped getting outdoors and stopped socialising.
And then there’s my work; I get it, no one really likes going to work, but mine is destroying me or maybe it already has. My working situation is so ridiculous that in the last 12 months I’ve been chastised repeatedly for being too confident and now I’m chastised again because I’m not social enough. Just a small example of the constant chipping away at my self-worth and self-belief. What advice have I been given? “Just quit, something will come up”. Brilliant, I’m pretty sure being homeless and destitute isn’t going to do anything to improve my situation.
So where does all this leave me? How do I deal with the fear of waking up every morning and going through another day like the last? Well right now it leads me to this moment and writing it down for the first time. I’m sure I’ll be horrified when I look back and see what I’ve written about myself (I’m hitting publish without any editing) but I needed to make it real somehow, somewhere, so I can face it and have something to deal with. I’m scared of speaking to the doctor because if I told him what’s in my head I’m either ending up in a padded cell or addicted to happy pills, but that’s the first logical step. I’ve been avoiding it because even being signed off work for a few days is enough to make life very difficult (sick pay? no chance!) but after this morning I know I have to do something. When the one thing I could always rely on to be my saviour no longer works it’s not new running shoes I need, it’s professional help, so that’s where I’m headed.
Just to tone down the melodrama a touch, please rest assured that I’m not at risk of self-harming (unless it’s with another burger and chips), I’m staying one step ahead of that and dealing with things. I don’t need wrapping in cotton wool or watching and I certainly don’t need taking for a pint (alcohol is a depressant, don’t force it on people who are depressed!). I just need a little understanding that I’m not me right now, and I know that, and I’m trying to come back from it so please be patient and kind while I do.