Run for your life
Watching the London marathon and all those amazing over achievers made me want to write about my own rather less ambitious running for my blog post this month, because running has helped me in unexpected ways that might be useful to you, whether you’ve experienced violence in the past or not. The benefits of running, as long as you remain free of injury, are many but one unexpected side effect is that running has filled in tiny cracks I hadn’t noticed, those hairline fissures that remained, keeping me from owning my body, as one of the after effects of trauma. As an out of shape, middle aged woman, taking up strenuous physical exercise is not going to be easy in any circumstances but I often forget I have special needs that may need to be attended to.
I’ll never run a marathon so you can forget that right now! (A declaration that may come back to haunt me). I didn’t even consider myself to be sporty until recently; at school I was always picked last from a little huddle including the girl with a hole in her heart and the girl with a thyroid condition. I had an isolated moment of success in hockey aged 9 or 10, which resulted in my being picked for the school hockey team. Unfortunately whatever it was I’d done well turned out to be a fluke; I was hopeless on match day and wasn’t picked again. I enjoyed swimming until I met ‘Jamie’ (See Becoming Unbecoming) and became too self conscious to be half naked in front of others. More significant, with the benefit of hindsight, was my enjoyment of cross-country running at high school, despite the fact I got out of breath too quickly to be any good. I was extremely self conscious in the shorts we had to wear for sports but I felt a certain bodily liberation as I set off on a run with my class that provided a spark of joy in my otherwise fairly miserable adolescence. As I couldn’t run for as long as my classmates I assumed I was as useless at running as I was at other sports but when I was diagnosed with asthma in my late twenties it all made sense. What a shame, I could have been running all this time and been a world champion…maybe not.
Anyway, after a lifetime of being a mainly sedentary bookish type who occasionally liked a bit of a dance or a nice country walk I decided, 1. I was far too fat to feel comfortable and, 2. I wanted to give my poor old lungs a fighting chance, so I took up running at the ripe old age of 50. I was reasonably fit as I did a lot of (fast) city walking and a bit of hill walking but as I’d got older and my asthma had worsened I began to notice my own mortality and as middle aged people do, I had a bit of a crisis. Thankfully this only involved a new pair of trainers and some deeply unflattering leggings. My first attempt at a run taught me two things: I couldn’t go more than 200 metres at a time, even with a blast of salbutamol to get me going, and I was too conscious (and anxious) of my breathing to relax properly. I’m nothing if not determined so I made a playlist of loud rock songs to drown out the noise of my breathing and I ran, walked, ran, walked, round the block, a circuit of 1.8km, making sure I didn’t get too out of breath (you should be able to have a conversation and run) and I tried to run gently, with a relaxed, upright posture, striking the ground mid foot and found I improved quickly. I developed my running playlist with songs at different speeds. I ran one day on and two days off. This is what I’d read I should do and it seemed to work because before long I could run continuously round the block, though an extremely steep hill was an obstacle. It’s not easy to avoid hills in Yorkshire.
I worked out a route that was flatter and it was at this point a friend enquired if I was doing the couch to 5k. What’s that? I asked and turned to Google. Turns out my own improvisation was similar to this NHS system, based on responding to and trusting my body and my instincts, so I carried on as I was, listening to my body (but not my breathing, more on that later) taking it steady, increasing little by little, resting at least one day between runs. This recovery time is particularly important for older runners. My new flattish route took me near my best friend’s house, an impressive distance of 2.6km so I began to run/walk there, have a cup of tea (Yorkshire, obv) and cadge a lift home. One memorable day, just after Everlong and a little way into Everything In It’s Right Place I was feeling quite energetic so as I approached her house I decided not to stop for a cuppa and keep running for a bit. I ran down the snicket (look it up, southerners) across the road, down a short hill and out onto an open field near Kirkstall Abbey (3.6km). The elation I felt as I ran across the grass in the sunshine and realised I’d run that whole distance was incredible. My heart and lungs were the strongest they’d ever been, I kept going right down to the Abbey and had a nice sit down by the river as a reward. Now that magic 5k didn’t seem so unattainable.
Without the tea break I needed water so I bought one of those hand held bottles – my first proper piece of running kit. I was proud. I was starting to lose weight. I was feeling more energetic and a lot less wheezy and I was hooked. As I built up to 5k I realised something else – this was the first time in my life since I was 10 years old that I had felt fully at one, and at home, with my own body. I was comfortable. I hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t, until I was. As long as I could tune out my breathing with headphones (because it frightened me to hear my breathing, a throwback to the endless anxiety attacks I used to suffer) I ran as though it was completely natural, without effort or consciousness, utterly relaxed. When I hit my stride I found my body ran without any attention from me and I was able to enjoy the sky, the trees, the sensation of my body as an engine, my feet on the ground, my hands extending.
Around 5 months after those first, struggling, determined becomings, I hit the magic 5k, then 6, 7, 8k, running the whole way at a steady pace. I wasn’t fast, but I wasn’t expecting to be. I was quite happy doing my own thing, I felt no need to compete, even with myself. The real test was the first winter after taking up running because I’d been ill with asthma for several successive winters, needing oral steroids and time in bed. However, spring came around and despite a nasty cold I’d had no winter problems. I’d even been out running in the cold and rain and enjoyed myself. I’d reduced by a whole dress size. I felt like a proper runner. I even bought good running shoes.
I’ve been running for more than three years now. I feel I started running and didn’t stop. I feel I was born to run, and maybe I do have something in my genes because my father was a fell runner in his youth and was rather good. My regular routes have built to 8, 9 and 10k in steady increments. I had to take a short break for a bit of a wheeze last winter which couldn’t be avoided but then stupidly this January, 2019, I got my first injury. I ran 11.5k around a lake where the path was covered in ice. I did wonder if this was a good idea but surely so many other people out running couldn’t be wrong? Huh! It took eight weeks, physio, exercise, to recover from the perinieal and abductor injury that resulted from being unaccustomed to the constantly slipping foot that happens when running on ice, but I did get a lovely photo of the frozen lake for Instagram, so…
Anyway, I wanted to share this with you because I’m surprised at how much difference running has made to the way I feel about myself. I was already happy with my life, my relationships, my work, everything was in its right place, so I didn’t expect running to have such an impact. I expected it to improve my mental and physical health, that much is well established and much discussed, but for me, as a survivor of multiple experiences of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence, even after lots of recovery through time, support, therapy and self-help the act of propelling my body along the city streets and parks, putting one foot in front of the other at a pace has resulted in a perfect sensation of embodiment that I have not achieved through my many other therapeutic activities which include walking, swimming, dancing, singing, drawing, gardening. There was a time I had to take things very gently and even a short walk was too much. There was a time when the only time I wasn’t in a panic was when I was in the bath. If you are at this stage, take your time. Be good to yourself. Learn how to do relaxation breathing. Spend time with people and things you love. If anxiety attacks are disabling and prevent much outdoor activity, try relaxation, meditation, and music, and if you feel well enough, sing along to a favourite song. You’ll get there in the end, I promise.
Whatever your thing is, and whatever your limits are – dance, yoga, football, weights, just do it. Don’t do it to be thinner or more beautiful, don’t make a chore out of it, do it for the joy of it, to remind yourself you are still alive. It will be important to deal with any symptoms of anxiety like muscle tension, over breathing and panic attacks before you do anything that requires a lot of exertion, especially if exercise was not always part of your routine but most of us can manage a gentle stroll or a sing along with a favourite track and both are good for your breathing and good for your mood, even your soul, if you believe you have one and you can build up from there. Connecting with the reality of your physical self can be soothing, contemplative, calming, even in dark moments.
Please comment below on your own experiences of regaining your physical self after sexual assault, I’d love to hear what people have done for themselves. In case you fancy running, I’ve started this blog post with drawings of my warm up and strength exercises, which are especially important once you pass the 5k mark as this is where injuries become more common. Who’d have thought you’d find me hopping round the garden at my age? Try it, it’s fun.