With the end of the year rapidly drawing nearer and my 15 in 2015 challenge for Mind complete, it’s time for a look back on the races that made up the challenge, how successful I’ve been in raising awareness and the current state of my mental health.
With a 4am wake up call, 3 hours sleep and a 10 mile run to get to the start of the race, my first marathon of the year could have started a little better. Though, it nearly didn’t start at all, when my alarm went off I came perilously close to going back to bed. A sluggish 26.2 miles in windy conditions, but by the time I crossed the finish line and staggered back to the train station I had my first marathon of the year completed and 37+ very important miles in my legs as preparation for what was to come.
My first ever Ultra Marathon, the Peddars Way Ultra, a 48 mile race that encompasses the entire old Roman road from Knettishal Heath in Suffolk, north to Holme-next-the-sea on the North Norfolk Coast. It was one of 5 Ultras I originally planned to run this year and finishing just a few miles up the road from my Parents home I jumped at the chance to sign up to as local an Ultra could get. Ultimately running the 48 miles home would prove to be the easiest part of a day filled with blizzards, hail storms and even attacks from four-legged ‘friends’.
Fresh off the back of January’s Peddars Way Ultra I went into the Belvoir Challenge with a renewed self confidence. After running 48 miles across Norfolk in January I felt fearless, there was an air of ‘fuck it, I can do anything’ about my running and February’s Belvoir Challenge was just simply another race to tick off until my next Ultra. My 13th marathon would prove to be one of my toughest yet, more than a minute slower pace than the Ultra, despite being 22 miles shorter.
I’ve never gotten lost in a race before, well not until March’s Canalathon. For a race that should have been a simple 47 miles along a flat canal, I crossed the line with just shy of 50 miles in my legs and briefly ended up in the middle of Halifax. Canals proved to be far less boring than I imagined and some of the scenery was quite stunning. Whether or not I enjoyed it enough to justify my billing on national radio on a feature on canals is still up for discussion.
Coming off the back of a tough birthday week, which began with a breakdown in the capital and didn’t really get much better as the Huddersfield Marathon had all the hallmarks of being a ‘make or break’ race, especially as it describes itself as ‘probably the toughest road marathon in the country’ with over 3,000 feet of elevation. Taking place just a week before the London Marathon common sense would dictate that it would always be a case of taking it steady, but when I crossed the finish line it felt more like a race I had survived, than finished.
On the 21st April 2013 I ran my first ever marathon, the London Marathon. Two years, five days and 16 marathons later I was back in the nation’s capital for another crack at the ‘greatest marathon in the world’. When I ran London Marathon for the first time back in 2013 it was an overwhelming emotional experience, with the combination of being my first time running 26.2 miles and the matter of it taking place only a few days after the tragic events of the Boston bombings. This time round there was no fear, no anxiety just a lot of expectation and ultimately, disappointment.
After two very tough marathons in April I was looking to get the 15 in 2015 challenge back on track with the Dukeries Ultra and 40 miles across the Robin Hood Way National Trail through the beautiful Sherwood Forest and Cresswell Crags. 10 miles in I was flying and the sports massage looked to have breathed new life back in to my legs. But committing two of the deadly sins of running would come back to bite me in the arse, and after stopping at the second checkpoint 18 miles in my legs refused to get going again and made for a very long day.
My confidence going into the race was at an all time low, I hadn’t had a successful race in months. At Dukeries my legs abandoned me halfway through and in London my legs didn’t even start going. Whether either through my own fault or not I would have to go back to the Peddars Way Ultra in January for the last time I felt I’d run a race smoothly. Exactly one week before the race I found myself spending the entire day in bed with an ice pack after (mildly) spraining my ankle playing Basketball the day beforehand. The days leading up to the race would be spent strapping my ankle, icing it and occasionally testing its strength. On Friday evening I couldn’t walk on it without being in pain, but by Wednesday the swelling had gone and (most of) the pain with it. When I left Castle Acre at 7am on Saturday morning I did so not knowing whether or not I would finish, how long my ankle would hold up or even if I could make it half way.
Just two, short weeks after the 100KM came the Wakefield Marathon. One common theme of the year is not doing enough to help myself (and my legs) recover in between races, and at the Wakefield Marathon I found out just how much the 100KM had taken out of me. Almost from my first step I could feel my legs were empty, and that I would have to very much earn the medal at the end of the race.
A week after the Wakefield Marathon came the Hamsterley Marathon, and a race that would very much shape the next couple of months. I had spent most of the year annoyed by the massive, almost two month long wait between this race, and the next, but by the time I crossed the finish line I was very grateful of it. Just over 10 miles in to the race I started experiencing issues with my left Achilles, starting with some general pain, before going through the motions with popping sensations and shooting pains up my calf. Ultimately, naively I continued on and finished the race, but ended up seriously injuring myself and jeopardising the next few races.
In the lead up to the Halifax Marathon I had no idea as to whether or not I would be able to start, let along complete the race. I had been icing my Achilles repeatedly, doing stretches when I could remember and frustratingly resisted the urge to run on it. But, by the end of August it was still nowhere near healed and with little chance of me not starting the race, I strapped it up and headed to Halifax almost accepting of the fact that my foot would explode at any point. Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I was able to take it steady and run 26 miles on it without much of a whimper.
If there is a cure for Achilles Tendonitis, I’m pretty sure running 50 miles on it isn’t it. The 12th race of the challenge, and my 5th Ultra came in the picturesque backdrop of the Peak District and the Ladybower and Derwent reservoirs. With the Achilles still very much injured there had been little, to no training going into the race, opting instead to go with the resting my ankle approach, and it showed. Mentally and physically I was far from prepared for the race and struggled round most of the way, anxious that my Achilles could start giving me grief at any moment, but also aware that I could drop down to a shorter distance if needed.
Whilst my Achilles held together, the rest of my ankle didn’t and from 30+ miles the pain started shooting all over the place in my foot. Starting from a bruising type pain on the pain, to swelling underneath the ankle bone and lots of weird sensations. Had I been asked if I was happy to continue at the 35 mile checkpoint, before heading back out for the last 15 mile lap I would have probably pulled out, but instead I carried on and adopted a walk/run approach to finish the race. It made it for a very long one, especially when one of the key water stations was all out of water, but 11+ hours after starting I was able to call it a day. More injured than when I started, but with another race ticked off.
Just a week after injuring my ankle at the Ladybower 50 I had another a race lined up in the shape of the Robin Hood Marathon. The weird pain and swelling I experienced during the race was not a one off and some serious damage had been done. I spent the week at work with a bucket of ice underneath my desk to plunge my foot into, whilst walking round the office in flip-flops for the rest of the time in a desperate attempt to get my foot back down to a normal size. The first 13 miles went by without much issue, but almost as soon as it was too late to turn back the painkillers wore off. The next few miles were a struggle, sharp, shooting pains in my foot and I could feel my ankle swelling up in my trainer. I began to regret my decision and could see a long afternoon on my hands. Whether it was the painkillers or adrenaline I managed to pick it up and save my fastest 10K for the last.
Last year I set a 3:26 PB on this course, but this year was a completely different story. I decided firstly to make the start of the race as difficult as possible for myself by parking 2 miles away from the start and giving myself just over 20 minutes to negotiate my way there before the race started. And that was about as good as it got. With the adrenaline still high I started the race too fast and by mile 8 I was spent and had to rely on my experience to get me to the finish line. Between miles 16 and 18 I began feeling massively overwhelmed and started crying. I have no idea exactly what triggered it, but it was the first time it has happened mid-race. Mentally and physically my body was drained at the time, so it didn’t take much to tip it over the edge. There was cause for celebration when I eventually did cross the finish line, not just because I had completed the 14th marathon of my planned 15 in 2015, but it was also my 25th ever marathon, not bad for 3 years work.
November 15th – Hell of a Hill Marathon
At 15:53, after 26.2 brutal miles and nearly 7 long hours after I started, I crossed the finish line of my 15th marathon of the year. I earmarked the race earlier in the year after being pulled in by the ‘toughest marathon in the UK’ claim. Having now completed it, I can fully understand why. 8 laps up and over Rivington Pike was a physical and mental battle that I wasn’t quite prepared for.
November 20th – 21st – Kirkstall Abbey Trail Ultramarathon / Marathon Double
With the 15 in 2015 complete I was essentially now just running for fun. The whole year had been about challenging myself further and seeing just what my body as capable of. The victory lap came in the form of my first ever back-to-back marathons, the Kirkstall Abbey Trail Ultra Marathon on Friday and then the Kirkstall Abbey Trail Marathon on Saturday. 11 hours 30 minutes and 58 very soggy miles later and my first ever back-to-back marathons were complete, and with it the final stamp on a year of fundraising.
When I created my Just Giving page at the end of last year, I wrote the following about my intentions:
Many illnesses and conditions are widely spoken about and displayed for all to see, but I feel that their is a taboo about openly discussing mental illness. In 2015 I am planning on running 15 Marathons / Ultra Marathons for Mind, to help raise awareness of how many people suffer silently with their condition, to show that it can affect anyone and to raise money that can go towards helping those that need it most.
The challenge started on a very quiet note. I would be 3 races into the challenge and in March before I mentioned what I was doing to anyone at work. It wasn’t a case of shame, or modesty, rather the fact I knew it would be opening a door that I wouldn’t be able to shut. Once I publicly announced what I was doing to people at work, it would break down the shield I had been able to build up against my condition and I would be vulnerable. There was a sense of regret that I wasn’t able to start with a bang and get the support and publicity going before the 15 in 2015 had begun, but it was worth the wait.
Throughout the duration of the year I have had many people approach me to both thank me for what I was doing, but to also briefly open up about their experiences with depression. Some of whom I knew suffered with mental illness, others I was completely none the wiser. It’s exactly what I wanted to happen, but there is a big leap between hoping that you would reach out and help people and actually knowing you have.
Two separate interviews in both a local newspaper and on BBC Radio Leeds have helped me spread awareness on a slightly wider scale. Hopefully I was able to reach and affect someone either reading or listening to one of these interviews. If I changed even just one person’s perspective on mental illness, or helped someone suffering reach out for help then all the blisters would have been worth it. Failing that, maybe they saw my awfully awkward video for the BBC Radio Leeds Facebook and I was able to put a smile on their face that way.
Meet Shane from Apperley Bridge who has just finished running 15 marathons and ultra-marathons to raise money for MIND. Shane overcame depression by putting on his trainers and running…and he never stops!
Posted by BBC Radio Leeds on Thursday, 19 November 2015
Currently my fundraising total stands at just over £1,400 (including GiftAid) which is about 70% of my initial target, which although it isn’t the target I optimistically hoped for, it’s still more than I could have expected.
Personally my mental health is at the shakiest it has been for a long while. After the abject failure that was my new line of therapy, I’m stuck in a state of limbo with regards to my treatment. Anxiety isn’t just a badge I pin to my jacket, it’s a condition that affects me every single day of my life. Ringing the doctors may seem like the easiest thing to do, but at times it would feel easier to go out an run another marathon. So, until I can shake that feeling I’m waiting for them to contact me.
In the meantime every day I get through without breaking down is a victory.
So, what’s next?
There is still unfinished business. When I started the 15 in 2015 at the beginning of the year I set a fundraising target that I have still yet to reach. It is still very much my intention to reach this target and to do so by continuing to wear the blue Mind vest at every marathon.
I haven’t set any fundraising challenge in 2016, the physical and mental toll of trying to juggle that alongside coping with the mental illnesses is too much to place on myself immediately again. It’s not necessarily the pressure during the event, but rather the sense of loss when it is all over. It happened in 2013 and it’s happened again, but whether it’s the sense of relief both physically and mentally or the lack of a major distraction, upon completing a major fundraising challenge, once again I’ve plunged deeper into my depression.
Whilst there isn’t a set challenge as such, I still intend to run as much as my body will allow. It’s not just a passion, a hobby, running these races is actually massively therapeutic. Without it I don’t know what state I would be in mentally, so whilst I have begun to lean on it too much, until I start to make progress elsewhere it’s the one thing I know I can rely on. First up is the Peddar’s Way Ultra, the first ultra I ever ran at the beginning of the year and one I’m thinking might become a regular fixture on my racing calendar. One of my biggest running regrets this year was not completing the Positive Step’s Grand Slam, so hopefully I’ll do that next year.
When it comes to fundraising I’ve found that running is the easy part, it’s getting people to pay attention and listen that’s the challenge. There is a sense of regret that I didn’t do more this year to raise awareness of depression and mental illness. Sure, I had my appearances on BBC Radio Leeds and multiple interviews in newspapers, I blogged (semi)regularly about it and to anyone that asked I was as open as I could be.
As Uncle Ben once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I’m a runner, it’s what I do and for the most part I would be entering a decent number of these races anyway. It would feel massively selfish to only do these for myself, it’s why I do these challenges. If I can help other people, by doing something that I’d want to be doing for myself anyway then I’d feel like a massive dick for not doing it.
Until further notice every marathon I run will be done in the Mind vest, and at every available opportunity I have I will be raising awareness of mental health and helping support mental health charities. I’ll continue to blog and be open about my condition, the truth is already out there and I feel no guilt, no shame and will be as honest as my mind will let me. I know now how my openness and honesty has helped others, and I can only hope that it will continue to do so.