Running with the Black Dog (or not?)

Okay. I admit it. I’m rubbish at blogging. I’m not consistent, more sporadic. How can I expect people to ‘Follow’ if this is the case? I’ve just read a friends post and it has motivated me (out of shame) to write.

I guess I should explain that if you are new here, I have a mental illness the same way that my friend does, except I am not classed as bi-polar, ‘just’ clinically depressed; as in, I have suffered with depression for over half my life, since I was about 20, I’m now 42. The trigger for this could be anyone’s guess, but I’ve had numerous life issues to contend with that possibly led me to be the way I am. I’ve had countless therapy and counselling sessions, some NHS and some private.
Anyway, like my friend, I too am a runner. An ultra runner, if you want to put a label on it; which means I run and race anything above and beyond that hallowed 26.2 mile distance of a marathon that so many folk strive for. And rightly so; my view is that you should at least run one marathon in your life and EVERYBODY has one in them, regardless of colour, creed or indeed, shape.

This post will be about why I run, what I get out of it and what my future goals are. I am also going to look at my recent results from races and look at where I need to improve and what I need to change. Whether you’re new to running or are more experienced, it matters not. I’m no expert, but to naughtily steal a little wordage from my friends post, I am very experienced and thus have some form of wisdom, learnt FROM experience.
Maybe you will come away from this post having learnt something: that could be how running could help your mental illness/well-being or just your running alone.

So. The past couple of years I have entered a few races, mostly ultra in distance, the longest being 58 miles and usually very hilly and/or mountainous. They are hard. They are painful. They are a tough lesson in sheer willpower and managing mind over body. They are mental games where your physical ability, regardless of fitness, comes second to how your mind either helps or hinders you. If you cannot control your mind in these races or even just a long run or marathon, you will not succeed. The mind is linked to the body, they are in symbiosis so must work together.

This is just one reason why I run and why I race. If I do not run, if I do not race then my depression makes a very swift return and knocks me on my arse, with a bang. If I do not run for even just a few days, despite my medication, I can be very down and will really struggle to find a way out. Nothing will satisfy me. My wife does her absolute best, as she is in tune with my behaviour and can see me spiralling downwards; she is my leveller. But she cannot do this all on her own. It is incredibly hard work living with somebody that has mental illness and at times (thankfully rarely, in our case at least) can put a strain on things. Unfortunately, when I’m in my hole, I buy more running shoes! I currently own seven pairs of Hoka shoes, that are all well used, but this is also probably a slight addiction. But it’s not beer, fags or football at least. Running shoes make me happy, as material as this is!

Running is a focus for me. It is the only activity I partake in where I can truely be ‘in the now’ and keep at bay all those dark feelings. I have no choice but to focus on what I am doing, how my body is feeling: how my feet react to the ground, where I need to be looking, where I need to plant my feet next and whether I am running too fast or too slow. Is my pace sustainable for the distance I am running? Do I need to eat? Do I need to drink? Are there runners close behind me or do I have enough time to slow down or walk up this hill? Am I thinking too much??
Can you see why running can be so good for sufferers of depression and/or mental illness? There is simply no room for that black dog to claw its way into the crevices of your mind during a run. You are completely and utterly immersed in what you are doing. Synapses are firing, endorphins and dopamine is released and you feel HAPPY!

Back to those recent, key races. I’m going to post some of my results and then pull them apart a little, thus moving away from the depression and more towards the running:

Welsh 1000 Metre Peaks Race, June 2017, 30km 2,500 metres ascent

26th out of 97 finishers, 15th Veteran, 5 hours 22 minutes

Ultra Tour of Snowdonia, September 2017, 93km

6th out of 77 finishers, 12 hours 36 minutes

Always Aim High Ultra, Snowdonia, 60km, July 2018, 2,500 metres ascent

15th Overall, 3rd Veteran, 7 hours 36 minutes

Dig Deep Ultra 50km, Peak District, August 2018, 1,600 metres ascent

13th Overall, 3rd Veteran, 5 hours 35 minutes

I have a couple more races to do, including the local Ras Pedol Peris and another local, first-time event, the Trail Events Company Ultra which includes Snowdon over 50km and a huge 4,600 metres of ascent. These two are all in my back garden, as it were, so on terrain that I know incredibly well, but are also incredibly hard routes. I think I’ll close out the racing for 2018 with these events.

Well, what about the above results? Sure, I’m pretty pleased with them. But there’s a niggle. I know I can do better. And that’s the rub. I cannot enter these events, just to ‘get around’. I enter them with the intention of doing well and always aiming for the Top 10. And why the hell not? I’m fit enough and strong enough. But where I fall down, is my strategy. Pacing the races is very hard to figure out. You just cannot know the calibre of the other runners on the start line, so before that gun even sounds, you are playing mental games with yourself. If I go off too slowly, will I be able to catch those guys that went off fast? If I go off too fast, will I be able to maintain this pace to prevent others catching me in the latter stages and will I even ‘blow up’?

More thoughts to keep that black dog at bay.

My next races, the two mentioned above, I am going to try my hardest to hold myself back and finish stronger by saving my energy for the latter half of the race. This is an absolutely tried, tested and successful method of racing. It’s all about those negative splits (running the second half of your race faster than the first), but it’s also about ensuring you have enough in the tank to be able to do this. Again, something that can be very tough to gauge. Anything can, and will happen. Long races equal real discomfort, mentally and physically. Your body will gradually break down (running causes the micro-tearing of muscle fibres that re-build, stronger, with rest) and you have to work hard to prevent this from happening too quickly. So you must eat. You must drink. But you may succumb to nausea and palate fatigue: this is one of the worst things you can suffer with. You cannot eat anything, despite your body absolutely needing the calories and energy. But thankfully, this passes, it’s just a phase and part-and-parcel of ultra running, but with it you must use your mind to overcome it.
I suffer with it, so the only thing I can take on board, believe it or not, is baby food. Just the sweet stuff, mind. It’s easy to carry, open and not messy: I use Ella’s Kitchen as they have flavours that I like and they range from 15g to 25g of carbohydrate per pouch, and in conjunction with SiS Energy Gels, I can get almost the required 60g of carbohydrate per hour during the race. But even this I find a struggle sometimes. If I’m eating, I’m slowing down and allowing runners to catch me up, so it’s best to eat on the uphills. Some peoples’ physiology may not allow them to assimilate 60g of carbohydrate per hour and you then end up with gastric distress and cramps, as the stomach cannot handle it: not nice. In my last race, I suffered with this in the last 8km so I had to stop a number of times due to pain and I lost at least three places. Prior to this, I was on for at least a 7th or 8th place finish. My calf muscles were super-tight and also starting to cramp; I hadn’t drank nearly enough. I rarely get stomach pains or cramps in a race or even when I’m just on a long run in the mountains. So who knows why it went wrong this time.

I guess though through most peoples’ eyes, the race never went ‘wrong’ for me at all; I was 3rd Vet and 13th overall. Many people would be over the moon with this. Of course, I was pleased but also disappointed that I was not in the Top 10. Looking at the results however, I was only 30 seconds off this. So yes, a bloody good result, in fact!

It’s post-race when things start to change. Usually within 12 to 24 hours, the brain and body that was previously ‘wired’ is now winding down, and the post-race ‘downer’ kicks in. I’m not alone with this. Many runners the world over suffer with this. You kind of feel a little lost, not knowing what to do with yourself, an immense restlessness and I really hate it. But what you have also, is the itch. The itch to want to enter another race, more or less immediately upon finishing the last one. You may have been fighting those mental games during the race or run, and towards the end you’ll likely have been in so much discomfort or pain you have promised yourself not to enter this kind of thing ever again! And why would you?? They can be truly awful. But it’s that want and for me personally, that need, to push yourself further and farther than you have done before; you want to know your limits and to keep the darkness at bay.
Entering another race gives you the focus again, spending hours on further training, honing your body and mind, poring over the route on the internet, extrapolating everything you can about the route and terrain. It’s like you are studying. My wife would tell you that I can spend hours looking over maps. I enjoy the detail. I enjoy plotting them and then looking at the route in 3D, so I learn every inch of ground. It becomes obsessive. Knowledge of the ground you are racing across gives you an advantage: you know where you can go hard, where you need to slow down. For example, I knew in the last race that at 20km, there was an incredibly steep and technical climb that lasted for around 1km and gained around 300 metres of vertical height gain; it was a killer! So just prior to the left turn up onto it (it had a hidden start in some woods), I got my poles out ready to plant on the very first steps to help me up it, without losing pace faffing. Because I knew to expect it at precisely that point, as I had recced the route on the map. Some runners may not have and were faffing with gear at the bottom, allowing me to over-take them. Knowledge IS power.

But going back to the ‘good result’ thing. The way I am wired will not allow to just relax and be happy. I ALWAYS have to do better. This could be from my Army background, however, it is also a trait of those with depression. Ridiculous, often frustrating high standards. And you know that this is the case yet you feel powerless to change it. So everything I do, has to be to the highest standard, regardless of what it is. And if I’m not good at something, I feel terrible about it and beat myself up. This applies to running too. But mainly concerning racing. Maybe I could call it ‘drive’ or ‘determination’ instead, perhaps then it does not sound as bad. Determination to succeed. Yet this can also be a crux. I push myself so hard, I run out of energy. Because I fear failing or not doing my best. So understand, that for me to enter a race and set off slowly, to speed up later, is a massive thing for me and requires all the self-discipline I can muster.

So, as you see. If I run and compete, depression takes a back seat. It does not get a look in.

This can work for you too. But I don’t just run to keep my illness at bay, I run because I love the freedom it gives me and how connected to my body it makes me feel. How amazing I feel when I have worked hard to get to the very top of a mountain to be greeted with the wind in my face and (hopefully!) a spectacular view that I have worked hard to attain. To sit in silence and to take in the environment: whether warm, cold (freezing!) or just for the space. To escape the stresses of the world.

The stunning view from a not-oft visited peak, Y Foel Goch, looking West. It was a cold, but beautiful day.

It keeps me super-fit, something that I am very proud of. Knowing that I probably have the lungs of a 25 year old does allow to feel a modicum of smugness. Is that conceited? I don’t think so. As runners, we all work extremely hard to maintain our levels of fitness, so we should be rightly proud of this.

But of course, you do not need to run an ultra. You could be aiming for your first mile and are just starting out in running. And good for you if so. Just remember: start small and work your way slowly to those longer distances and the rewards will come. Patience is everything: too much too soon and you WILL injure yourself and be back to square one. You are capable of more than you know, with or without a mental illness. But I can guarantee you, running absolutely WILL help to keep your demons at bay: it is a natural medication (but don’t give up your meds! they do help).

So there you go. My reasons. Whatever distance you choose, you can do it.

And you WILL outrun that Black Dog.

Alijphotos Eryri 50 2017-268
Arriving at Checkpoint 4 in the Ultra Tour of Snowdonia, currently 4th at about 42 miles. This remains one of my best ever results; 6th over 58 miles.

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