When I run, I feel the darkness dropping out of the bottom of my shoes
If I didn’t have running, I’d probably be dead right now. I realise that sounds dark, but it’s true. It’s the most unexpected thing that’s ever come into my life, but also one of the most important.
Earlier this year I even became the first woman to run across a 100-mile-long frozen lake in deepest, coldest Mongolia. Myself, and other members of the team, braved temperatures down to minus 50ºC, unnerving cracks in the metre-thick ice, and even the local population of wolves and bears in the process.
I faced a blue wasteland. I questioned myself during and before it, but I am only now feeling what it meant to complete it. I am proud of what I achieved yet it’s not the only abyss I’ve had to stare into before attempting to emerge the other side, still intact and in one piece. I’ve grappled with depression for 10 years. It’s an ongoing fight and there are no easy answers but, for me, running is my therapy – a lifeline I discovered seven years ago, after it was recommended to me by a doctor after I’d attempted to take my own life.
Running lifts my mood, eases tension, and give me the headspace to sort out life’s priorities. Every step I take is a step forward. And that is as important to running as it is to mental health.
Simply put, when I run, I feel the darkness dropping out of the bottom of my shoes.
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I know that I am not alone. I want to share my story to offer some encouragement, inspiration, hope and empowerment to others going through the same thing.
My own mental health journey began many years ago at university. After a failed suicide attempt I was diagnosed with depression and I have managed it but it has never fully gone away and I don’t think it ever will. But on I go, one step at a time. Being glorious with friends, family and runners, living the best life I can, and most of the time, I am happy.
In August 2017, I suffered a full-blown mental breakdown. A simple act – shopping for pillows – overwhelmed me to the point where I just couldn’t stop crying.
I’d not been well for a while before this point. Suicidal thoughts had intruded into my mind and made my life unbearable. My own thoughts of people thinking I was not good enough to be in their shop made it worse.
I was a danger to myself. I was walking through treacle and trying to pretend that this would pass, but it didn’t. I came close to being sectioned before eventually retreating home to be with my mum and it was with my family that I finally started looking at my illness in a different light.
I remember mum sitting on the end my bed and telling me, ’Allie, you’ve got to see this breakdown as entirely the same as having a broken leg. You have to get it fixed and you have to rest. You can’t keep running on a broken leg because it won’t ever get better.’
When people get depressed, they lose the will to do anything. You don’t want to go running, you don’t want to eat, you don’t want to see people. Those behaviours just make you more depressed. And then you are useless. So you are even more depressed. And then what’s the point?
But anyone can do extraordinary things, it’s about finding that part of you who thinks, ‘Let’s just try it’.
If you’re running an ultra-marathon, and you think you can’t do it, it’s a case of putting one foot in front of the other, for however long it takes, until you get to the end. I have done that many times. And I will do it many, many more times.
And so, in February this year, my running journey took me to Khövsgöl Nuur, a frozen lake in northern Mongolia. No female had ever crossed it on foot.
I’d been invited to join a reconnaissance team put together by Rat Race Adventure Sports, a UK firm who will be launching a new race there early next year.
When the event launches, competitors will run it in four days. But we did it in three. So that meant three back-to-back ultra-marathons. The last day was 36 miles long and I was tired. And I spent a lot of time running on my own adrift from the group. I fell into a back hole of ‘what am I doing? I’m not good enough.’
There’s no distraction – it’s a white and blue endless horizon you’re running across. The landscape never moves. You think, ‘That island doesn’t look too far away…’
Then you run towards it for 10 miles and it’s as far away as it was before. It mirrored my struggle with depression. It mirrored my struggle with myself, but it didn’t matter how slow I was going, as long as I was progressing.
Let’s just say conditions were also challenging. Once I’d got into my kit, I didn’t take it off again for the five days we were out there because it was so bone-achingly cold. Not to sleep, not to wash, not to do anything.
My wet wipes, toothpaste and food froze solid. I resorted to keeping my snacks down my sports bra just to stop them from freezing. Comfort breaks were a little tricky, too…
Yet, despite all the hardships, the scale and the beauty of the lake was indescribable.
We’d sit outside the Gers (basic yurt style tents) having our dinner as the sun was going down, and you could hear the wolves howling in the forest. It was like it was being played on a tape recorder. I will never forget that. The cold made me confused. But I was happy.
And just being on the ice, on your own, with no vehicles around you, in silence, no other living creature… and then hearing the ice cracking, was astonishing.
This year, I’m running all my races for the charity Mind Hackney.
I’m not saying running has cured me, because it hasn’t. I still have terrible days. But I have way more glorious ones. Running is my medicine. It is a real, tangible experience.
I want to empower women and men through sport, and show them you can do anything you put your mind to, and in doing that you can actually change the way you perceive yourself and the world by actually living in it. Put down your phone.
You can give yourself confidence and you can make some of the best friends you will ever have. Running will change your life for the better and is something almost every person can do.