This weekend I completed my first ever trail run. This involved running on all sorts of terrain, up steep hills, and through fields of sheep... Mother Nature threw almost every type of weather possible at us – we had wind, rain and even hail stones! It was only after the event that I had a chance to properly reflect on this and realise that I was so distracted by the beautiful scenery, the ever changing weather conditions and watching my footing that I didn't even have a chance to allow a negative thought enter my head. There wasn't a single “I can't do this” moment. It was not a fast run but I'd already accepted that it wouldn't be because previously, I had only ever run on roads and pavements so it was a big adjustment to make.
A year ago if someone had suggested the idea of a 10km trail run, I would have thought they were joking, there was no way someone like me could do something like that, surely? Growing up, I had never enjoyed exercise. I found it difficult, I had terrible hand-eye coordination and felt very self-conscious about my weight and the way I looked. These feelings stayed with me into adulthood and the fact that the only runners I had ever seen in the media were slim and athletic-looking only further convinced me that I wouldn't be able to run so there was no point in trying.
Throughout my early to mid-twenties, I tried exercise classes or going to the gym but would become impatient at not getting results quickly enough or would simply fall out of the habit of going after a few months. But then in 2017, my marriage broke down and I went through an awful divorce. It was only after it ended that I realised how unhealthy that relationship had been for me, I was so used to being talked over that it felt almost as if I had no longer got a voice of my own. I felt increasingly isolated as people who I had thought cared about me were quick to judge me or cut me off. If it wasn't for the few people who stuck by me and sent me cards, spent evenings on the phone to me, took me out for tea and cake or offered me a place to stay, I'm not sure where I would have been. Things got so bad that I was in an almost constant state of anxiety, always looking over my shoulder when I was out, being fearful when someone knocked at the door and having to triple check I'd locked the door before I could go to bed.
Thankfully later that year, I started a new relationship that was much healthier for me. I found someone who respected me and listened to me; someone who believed in me and encouraged me. Because of this, I found the confidence to try running. I started Couch to 5k (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/get-running-with-couch-to-5k/ ) and it was incredibly tough to begin with but even on the days when I felt like a failure, my partner Zak encouraged me to keep going. Each week, I was feeling less and less like a failure and more and more like I had achieved
something. Each time I went out for a run, I had less of the negative voice in my head telling me that I couldn't do it and was more able to concentrate on enjoying my surroundings.
On a very hot July morning in 2018, I ran my first 5k at my local Race for Life and I felt such a sense of achievement from finishing it. Afterwards, I wanted something to motivate me to continue with my running because I didn't want it to be another thing that I tried for a while and gave up with. So I signed up for a 10k run at Disneyland Paris with Zak. The atmosphere at Run Disney weekend was amazing and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it all again this year, except this time we are taking part in their 36km Challenge which means running 5k on the Friday evening, 10k on the Saturday morning and a half marathon on the Sunday morning!
Along with the running, I had a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) from my local branch of Mind. This helped me to find a way to deal with my worries and anxieties to prevent them from turning into a negative spiral. Mental health is a cause that is very personal to us both as Zak has had his own battles with mental illness. We wanted to be able to give something back to Mind for the help that they gave me, and to ensure that this help remains available to anyone who needs it.
We decided to create a challenge of our own, aiming to run 1,500km between us across the whole of 2019, which we then upped to 1,000 miles. We wanted to not only raise some much needed funds for our local branch of Mind but also to raise awareness of mental health issues, and the way in
which exercise can help to manage some of the symptoms of mental illness. There are a couple of excellent books I've read around how exercise can be beneficial to people suffering with mental illness – Jog On by Bella Mackie and Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon. I found both of these women to be really motivational and their books are written in a very conversational and reader-friendly way meaning they were great to read on the train to and from work or while chilling out in the garden. It is great that conversation around mental health is really being opened up now.
I really want to show people that it is possible to go from not being able to run for a bus to running 5 or even 10k. I started going to my local park run at the beginning of this year where I managed to bring my 5k time down from 39.20 on my first park run to 34.53 on my eighth park run. Together, Zak and I have signed up for a few virtual running challenges, including Miles for Mind, and have also taken part in some organised running events local to where we live. We have plenty more events coming up so we are hoping to have a house full of medals by the end of the year!
If anyone would like to follow us on our journey, we have our own Facebook page: Sarah and Zak's 1000 Miles for Mind and we have a Just Giving page with a little more about our story: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/1500kmessexchallenge
Thanks to Sarah for sharing her story #MentalHealthMatters