Run for Your Life: Running as Therapy
"Running for me is no longer about reaching a goal. It’s not even about improving. I am not competing against myself, others or the landscape."
My mum, coach and team mates shouted from the sidelines for me to stretch out my legs, push for the last straight, go, go, go. I dug deep, pumped my arms and lengthened my stride as I approached the finish line and collapsed on the other side.
Representing the county in cross-country running was the furthest I made it as a competitive teen. However, I didn’t even finish in the top 10, so there was no way I was making the nationals. I felt like a failure; I was a loser.
I had been very ill with bronchitis in the year leading up to this race, and hadn’t been able to train or focus. Prior to that I had been training regularly for years, three times a week running, three times a week swimming, twice a week hockey, competing at weekends and my illness had likely come from my decision not to rest when I had a minor illness. It got to the point where I was collapsing unexpectedly and blacking out to force my decision to stop.
I didn’t run for a long time after that, because if you’re not competing or training your hardest then what is the point? I gave up swimming and hockey too and took up surfing and kickboxing and later climbing, but there was always an itch that they could not scratch. Sometimes I would take months off at a time but whenever I felt stressed or I was going through a bad patch with my anxiety, I found myself reaching for my running shoes once again.
I have never been very good at mindfulness, and meditation was not for me, but breaking running down into parts helped it to become easy, even when the simplest tasks felt insurmountable. Just put on my shorts, lace up my shoes, open the door
and go. I would run first thing in the morning, choosing quiet footpaths away from the popular routes, finding a steady rhythm and feeling my anxiety ebb away with every exhalation. Running always felt like coming home.
Years later, Bella, my beautiful Border Collie became my running partner. We would bound together through fields and woodland, enjoying each other’s company, using running simply to cover more ground. I stopped thinking about personal bests and how many minutes it would or should take me to run a kilometre - and even how many kilometres we would run. The sheer joy of watching a dog gallop ahead and trying to keep up with them is hard to beat. The competitions of my youth sunk further into my past and I started to appreciate running in its purest form once again.
My biggest revelation came when I realised that just because I was going for a run, it didn’t mean I actually had to run it all. In my youth, I would never countenance walking if I was out for a run, as that was a sign that I was suffering, or lacked the strength and stamina to continue. But as soon as I started allowing myself to walk and run, listening to my body, more varied and adventurous routes opened themselves up to me. Bella and I would head out into the Brecon Beacons, sometimes feeling like
we were gliding across the moorland, but most times sinking, stumbling and staggering through endless tuffets. When you emerge out from a valley, wheezing with the effort, onto wide open moorland, the sky becomes vast and you feel a buzz of excitement, relying on your body to carry you through the landscape, trying to work with its folds and falls, like water finding the path of least resistance, through peat hags, heather and cotton grass.
Then, inevitably, there came a year when I decided to try my hand at competing once again. I was going through a regular running phase and was feeling strong, covering good distances across the hills and mountains of Wales, Scotland and Slovenia and loving the feeling of power within my own body. I saw an advert for a Duathlon, running up and down Cadair Idris: cycling around the coast of North Wales and finally rounding it off with another epic trail run.
This sounded like my kind of challenge and I was eager to try it. Out came my tracking watch, as I started gathering data, monitoring my heart rate, pushing my pace, hill training, managing my diet, recording my times, striving for better, further, faster, stronger. I went to Cadair Idris and did a trial run, it felt amazing to run up a bigger hill and skip down the other side. The next day I cycled the route I expected the race to take, and although I struggled to maintain a race pace, I found the curves, descents and even the long pulls uphill thrilling, I felt ready.
I tapered my training and monitored the weather, there was a storm coming in. Then, the day before the race, the organisers cancelled it, the weather was too extreme and they did not have an alternate route. I was crushed, all that training for nothing. Money wasted, time spent, my first tentative steps towards an event, I felt as though all that effort had gone to waste and those same feelings of defeat returned.
It took a while to switch my perspective and appreciate all that my body had done up until the point of the race cancellation. Except, this time I didn’t quit running, I started to sort through my behaviours into healthy and unhealthy. Instead of packing away my running shoes, I packed away my watch and heart rate monitor, I scrapped my records of times and distances and ditched the training schedule.
Technology has created amazing developments in training, where you can observe,
monitor, track and target - set to every minute detail, uploading your results, gaining
recognition, comparing your times against others and striving for improvement. However, we each need to decide if this is beneficial or detrimental to our enjoyment of the sport in its own right, the feeling we get of being fully engaged in the present
moment and being in tune with our own body. I decided not to enter any more races, and to strip running back to the bits I love, something that’s purely for me, with no expectations or limits. If I feel like the world is getting on top of me, I can grab my trainers and go as far as I want, walking if I need to, turning back when it feels right for me.
Running for me is no longer about reaching a goal. It’s not even about improving. I am not competing against myself, others or the landscape. I have always been distinctly average if I compare myself to my running peers, and rather than feel frustration at my body and my lack of dedication to improve, I have learned to appreciate my body for the amazing things it can do and the places I can explore with it. Sometimes other areas of my life take more prominence and I don’t run for long stretches of time, but I know that when I return I can always walk a bit more and slowly the strength and stamina will come back and the ratio of walking to running will shift and that buzz will return as I find a flow that is distinctly mine, settling into a rhythm and feeling my anxiety ebb once more.
Running is my therapy.
Mikaela is an experienced outdoor instructor, expedition leader, media-maker and fairly average fell-runner. She aims to share and celebrate the power of our wild places, whether that is a local woodland, beautiful beach, or remote mountain.
Mikaela's work supports, challenges and encourages everyone to seek out adventure in all its forms. From micro-adventures in our backyards to amazing journeys further afield. This is founded on the belief that the best adventures celebrate the joy of being outside, connecting with nature and taking a step into the unknown.
You can read more from Mikaela at www.mikaelatoczek.com and find her on Instagram @mikaelatoczek
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