Running has always been a mental thing for me. Some days it has taken all my will power to push myself out the door and yet I’ve found running to be hugely beneficial in helping me cope with life’s ups and downs. Although running is physical; moving my limbs, getting out of breath and pushing myself, it’s been always three-quarters mental and one-quarter physical for me.
I started running in my early thirties as a cheap, readily accessible way to exercise me and my dog, an energetic border collie called Casper. Having shied away from aerobic exercise for most of my twenties it was a shock to the system, but I soon jogged my way from 1 mile to 10kms and on to fulfilling a life-long ambition of running the London Marathon in 2011. During the cold winter before that event I learnt not to question every day ‘if’ I could run, but instead replaced doubt with the certainty that yes I would run as planned. It was empowering to find that if my mind wanted to do something my body could keep up. We were in tune, my mind and body. We had found a connection.
I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learnt about mind over matter during my marathon training. They helped me to prepare for several half marathons at a few weeks’ notice, because mentally I knew I could do it. Perhaps more importantly I learnt the potential to achieve my goals if I truly put my mind to it.
That is until now.
Now it doesn’t matter what my mind feels or needs from my body, it’s responding to a different master.
Late in 2018 I finally heard the news I had feared for some time that I have breast cancer. Like many younger women, who don’t have routine screening, the disease is advanced. This means the full spectrum of treatments will keep it at bay but not cure it. That’s a lot to take in. Treatment will keep it at bay for as long as possible but cannot cure it.
My mind and body have become deeply disconnected.
Not long before I found out the big news I had started to run with a community running group called Sole Mates. For the previous decade I had run alone with Casper, often at night with my head torch, along dark country lanes in the Derbyshire Dales.
A house move into Matlock presented me with a fresh worry. Running the county lanes around Carsington Water at night had never scared me. I was immersed in nature – trees rustling, owls hooting. Only the occasional sparkle from the eyes of a farm cat hiding in the hedgerows caught in my torch light made me startle.
Running in town, even a small town like Matlock felt very different. I didn’t know the routes. I wasn’t sure if there were areas to avoid. I noticed a new community running group had started and met close to home. Could this be the solution to my problem? Learn some new routes, get to know some more runners in the area and give myself a regular running routine again. By now our collie was past her running days so I felt less guilt at leaving her behind snuggled by the fire to run with other people.
Most of the group were like me, struggling to fit running in amongst busy working lives and parenting, but determined to carve out a small chunk of time every week for themselves. We all wanted to be happier, fitter people and in so doing be better colleagues, friends and parents. This group welcomed me with open arms in February 2018 even though I was the least reliable participant, struggling as I was to be mum, working full time and commuting around the country as needed for my job. In September 2018, at 42, I ran my fastest 10k and Parkrun with Sole Mates by my side.
A month later I was diagnosed and it seemed only natural to me to keep running. I had read heroic stories of other runners who had pushed on through chemotherapy by lacing on their trainers and heading out the door as they had always done. Surely I would be no different?
And so my mind was set. I would make it to club runs as often as I could and make it a personal mission to join a Parkrun every three weeks. The timing of my chemo treatments (on Fridays) meant I only had one ‘good’ weekend to run each three week cycle. My time got slower every time (from the PB high of 25.01 in September to my slowest of 43.19 in May after chemo had finished) but my mind had learnt those lessons many years before not to question if I could run, but to just turn up and do it. And that’s just what I did. Every three weeks for five months.
Running during chemo was an ordeal. My breathing was fine. My arms still moved, although having a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) in my arm caused some chaffing and aching. My head was willing. But my legs were completely dead. Unlike any other tiredness or muscle ache I have ever experienced. DOMs have nothing on a dead chemo leg. This got worse with each treatment and in the end I couldn’t run for more than a few hundred meters without dropping back to a walk. But a Parkrun is a Parkrun and being there was better than being on the sofa. Six weeks after my last chemo I successfully ran 5k again at a local event, giving me a much needed boost that I was bouncing back.
It has been hugely uplifting to take part in these Parkruns at such a tricky point in my life. To be part of humanity, not just a patient. To pass a few moments chatting with another runner about their goals and what matters to them, not just talk about cancer. Life does go on.
Normal life is all around me. Normal is struggling to get up on time because a poorly toddler kept you up all night or because Friday night involved a few too many vinos. Normal is nursing an injury and wondering if it’s too soon to risk a Parkrun or not. Normal is rushing to the start then dashing off again to welcome weekend guests or host a kids party. Normal too is living with illness and still putting one foot in front of the other.
This week I finished a three week course of radiotherapy and it’s now been three months since my surgery. On the night before my last appointment I took part in Ricky’s Race, a local fell race, with my Sole Mates buddies. I knew I wouldn’t find it easy, but I knew I would make it through. All those runs before have shown me I can and I did. My mind and body may have become disconnected in some ways, but running through my treatment has helped me deal with the worst of it and I hope is preparing me for what’s yet to come.
There is no doubt that running through my treatment has given me focus, friendship, joy and a way of staying connected with those around me. It also gives me control. So I’d be stupid to stop now.