Thursday, 24 December 2015

Running Through the Darkness

Scafell Pike Marathon
It's been a tough year running wise.  I'd managed a couple of decent runs post Italy - a 3rd place finish at the Scafell Pike marathon in June, a 2nd place finish at the Dales Trails 30 in July, and another runner up position at the Ben Rinnes Hill race that same month  But each time and each race felt harder and harder.  It culminated in me starting the Grand Tour of Skiddaw - a race that I had already reccied and was really looking forward to - but pulling out after 8 miles and crying on my drive all the way home.  Something was not right and now I wasn't even enjoying running anymore.

Remember why you run
I run because I love to run - the purpose and focus it gives me of having goals and targets and seeing how far I can push my body.  The routine, the discipline.  And the social side and sense of belonging - the majority of my best friends are ultra runners, my whole life revolves around running.  I run into work in the morning.  All morning at work I think about lunchtime when I can get out and run with the guys.  And sometimes I run home after work.

I tried to get philosophical about things and figure out subconsciously why I run.  Do I run to escape something or someone?  That seems to be the stereotypical conclusion that people come to when they meet someone who from the outside, appears to be "obsessed" with running.   But one day I was out on a trot and it finally clicked. I wasn't running away from anything, I never had been.   I was running after something, always chasing tomorrow.  All of a sudden lots of things made sense.  Ever since I was younger I was wishing my life away - sitting in maths class, terrified of the strict teacher, wishing it was the end of the period so I could escape.  Or being round at my mum's for her scheduled weekend, missing my dad, and wishing it was Sunday so I could go home to him again.  I was never content with the here and now, I was always chasing after tomorrow.  And I'm exactly the same today - my mind is always on other things, focussed on the "what's next" and never the "right now".  I am always running after something.  And as ultra runners we do exactly that - we wish away the next mile, the next hour, when we can get closer to the finish line.

I'm depressed because I can't run and I can't run because I'm depressed
Something wasn't right physically.   Looking back, I hadn't been right going into the 24H at Turin.  I had trained so hard for that one race, but I was mentally and physically exhausted before I even got to the start line.  And I never let my body recover from that.  I kept trying to push through it, but just kept getting slower and slower while runs were feeling harder and harder and my heart rate was constantly elevated.  As a result, I stopped enjoying running. I didn't enjoy training anymore. I could no longer keep up with the guys at lunchtimes, and so I didn't want to run with them anymore as it just made me feel worse. And I couldn't enter races anymore because I couldn't train properly for them.  So I lost my purpose, and the original physical issue had now become mental.  I was so down about the fact that I couldn't run well anymore that I ended up getting really depressed about it.  Some of the guys told me to stop feeling sorry for myself, stop moping about Italy and just get over it and move on.  But it wasn't that simple.  I'd become depressed.  I've struggled on and off with depression for over 15 years now.  I know the difference between feeling a bit down and being utterly and hopelessly depressed. And I knew that it was happening again - I'd fallen back down into a very deep and dark hole.

Something had been affecting my running which eventually resulted in me getting depressed again.  But at the same time, I know that when I'm depressed, I get an overwhelming feeling of apathy and even the simplest of tasks is tiring - I just want to sleep all the time, turn off my mind so I don't have to think about anything and shut myself away from everyone.  And so I'd ended up in this vicious cycle that I couldn't get out of - I was depressed because I couldn't run and now I couldn't run because I was depressed.

Ultra-running and depression can be a dangerous combination.  I could easily write an entire blog on this subject alone and maybe I will at some point - the high that goes with winning a race that you have dedicated months to and dreamt for years about winning, can disappear in minutes with that post-race deflated feeling.  Following Tooting Bec 24 hour last year, I should have been ecstatic - I'd just broken the 24 hour and 200km Scottish records and was the first woman to ever win the race outright - but the weeks following the race I spent in a horrible hole, feeling numb and alone.  But to succeed in ultra running requires putting your life in a dangerous balance; you have to dedicate such a huge part of your life to it, which can often mean isolating yourself from "normal" people.  This means that when things do go wrong e.g. you get injured and can't run or compete, then there is nothing and no-one to fall back on.  And this is exactly what was happening to me now.

Months passed and nothing was improving, physically or mentally.  To make matters worse, I felt that some of the people I relied on for support had started to give up on me too, frustrated with my unwillingness to "just get on with it", and not actually understanding that there was a deeper problem, but one I couldn't talk about.  And so I booked an appointment with the Dr - something I hate doing as 9 times out of 10, the reason for me seeing a Dr concerns my depression.  I didn't want to talk about this though - I wanted an answer as to why I was feeling so tired all the time - why was I getting slower at running and why was my heart rate elevated so much?  But of course, as soon as I walked into the Dr's office I started crying - and so I walked out with the same unanswered questions and a prescription for more anti-depressants.  Running had always helped me cope with my depression - it was my natural anti-depressant - and all of a sudden it had stopped working.  And I was terrified.

The turning point
Probably 3 things turned things around for me.  The first was going to see Dr Andrew Murray.  With a background in sports and exercise medicine, I thought he could help explain to me what was causing my fatigue.  Again, I didn't want to talk about my depression, I just wanted him to tell me why running felt so hard.  But of course he started to ask me about mental things too and I totally broke down and spent the entire session just crying uncontrollably.  But probably the one good thing that came from that session was that he listened to me and he told me it was ok to take the anti-depressants I had been prescribed - it wasn't a sign of weakness.  I had been too scared to take them again - I'd been on and off anti-depressants for 15 years,  and I didn't want to get into that horrible cycle again.  But he reminded me that depression is just a chemical imbalance.  Its like having a sore head he said - if you have a sore head, you take a paracetamol - it is that simple.   In other words, it's ok.  At that point I finally accepted that it was ok to start taking the pills again.

The second thing was finally finding a Dr who understood - usually when I make a Dr appointment I just go for the appointment slot and not the Dr so I end up seeing someone different every time.  By chance I happened to end up with this one particular Dr who actually took the time to look through my records and listen to me.  She could see I was depressed but she listened and she understood - there was something wrong with me before I got depressed and she was listening to me and was going to help me.  She made sure that before I left the surgery, I booked another appointment, and it would be with her.  She literally saved me.

The third and final thing that turned things around for me was getting in touch with a sports and clinical nutritionist - Renee McGregor.  I'd actually just finished reading Novak Djokovic's book about the tennis player following a gluten free diet and one of things that really hit a chord was him mentioning that some people thought there could be a connection between diet and depression.  I am always so disciplined and dedicated when it comes to training but i know that diet is the one area that I always let myself down with, and one that I always beat myself up about, and so I thought it was time to bite the bullet and speak to someone about it.  And so I scheduled an appointment with Renee and she was amazing - she told me in one session answers to the questions that I had been searching for months for.  The answer to my problems - I was simply overtrained, combined with the fact that I'd been following a really low-carb diet for almost 2 years.  Although coping with this combination for 2 years with fantastic results, my body was simply now too run down and broken to cope anymore.  The solution involved taking some high strength supplements to help kick start my immune system again, being a lot more clever about my nutrition, and start running by heart rate.  Finally I had an answer to my fatigue issues and hence, a solution to my depression.

Officially a jogger
Strava can be a great tool but it can also be a huge danger.  Easy runs are no longer easy because you don't want to log a slow run, people will see it.   As a result, short runs are too long, and slow runs are too fast.  Coupled with running most days' with the fast guys in Edinburgh meant that my easy runs were never truly easy, so my body just never got the chance to recover.  And so, I had to throw pride out the window and start listening to my body.  An easy run was no longer 7.30 m/m.  It was 10m/m and slower.  As I trotted along the canal back home after work, joggers over took me.  Girls, who I would previously have never let come near me, never mind overtake me, were sailing past me.  But I had to learn to let it go and listen to my body and my heart rate.  Renee had also advised me to start monitoring my heart rate in the mornings when I woke up.  If my resting heart rate was was higher than normal, I wasn't allowed to run.  This was incredibly frustrating for someone who "has to run" so I had to keep reminding myself to be patient and think bigger picture.

The transition from constantly high heart rate to more "normal" heart rate was literally overnight.  It really surprised me.  For weeks, I had been running incredibly slow, in an effort to keep my heart rate low.  I'd set my Garmin Fenix to beep annoyingly at me, to stop the temptation of me just ignoring it and pushing on.  And finally my patience was paying off.  I could start increasing my pace again.

L-R: Natasha, Marco and me at the start of the 24H and 12H races
My training partner and friend Marco Consani was heading over to Barcelona to do the 24H race in December.  I'd headed over the previous year to support my friend Karen Hathaway who was running it at the time and I knew what a great event it is.  And so I'd asked good friend Debbie if she needed any help or company in supporting her husband Marco.  At the time Debbie had suggested that I go over and run the 6 or the 12 hour, but there was no way. The majority of my runs weren't even sub 10 m/m and I hadn't run more than 20 miles for weeks, maybe months.  But as the weeks went by and my heart rate started to come down further I started to wonder if Barcelona might be a possibility.  Soon I felt I was ready to start introducing a weekly speed session again.  The other days I'd keep running on my own and not with the lunchtime guys, to make sure that I continued to run slow during my recovery runs and didn't just run at their pace.  As the weeks progressed, I noticed I was running faster, but able to keep my HR lower.  Easy runs, combined with increasing my carbs again and supplementing this with the vitamins was finally paying off and I started to think more about Barcelona.  I wouldn't be able to race it, but I could enter it and run it as a stepping stone for next year - a training run to see what it felt like to spend that much time on my feet again.  The biggest test would be mentally - was I strong enough yet to want to run round a 400 metre track for 12 hours?  I got my entry in and started to prepare.

Records are not given away.  You have to fight for them.
Note from Adrian with 3 hours to go

I knew what the Scottish record was for 12 hours and I knew I was capable of breaking it.  But not today, not this year.  I lacked the long runs and conditioning needed to race for 12 hours, and emotionally, I still felt too weak.  And so I went into the race thinking that even if I could manage 10km an hour that would be a huge result and stepping stone in my progress back to full fitness.  Adrian Stott, who had kindly agreed to come out and support me, agreed that the biggest achievement I could get from this race was to finish it with a smile on my face and to just keep moving steadily for the full 12 hours, regardless of the distance I achieved.  And so my biggest challenge, and the thing that scared me the most going into this race, was the mental aspect.  Still scarred from Italy and more recently my failure at Skiddaw, I knew that if I pulled out of this race, I was in big trouble.  I had no Plan B.

Sometimes those races that we start with little expectations, end up being those races that we excel in.  I stuck by my race plan religiously - aiming for roughly just over 10km an hour, with a 400m walk each hour. My eating plan worked well, my walking breaks went to plan, and I had no stomach issues, apart from starting to struggle to eat for the last 4 or so hours and feeling a bit sick.  The race went perfectly.  But it didn't matter if I'd run 80 miles or 50 miles - the most important thing was that I'd enjoyed the entire race, and I wanted to run.  My mojo was finally back!!!!

Everything will be okay in the end.  If its not okay, it's not the end.

Depression will always be part of my life, its something I can never escape from. But I can deal with it. I know the signs, I know the feeling when I'm starting to slip into that hole again.  But more importantly, like any endurance race, I understand that there are dark points where everything seems hopeless and you don't want to go on, you just want to lie down, close your eyes and give up.  But I also know, that if you just dig deep and keep faith, you will and you do get through it.  You just have to remember this.  You get to the top of the climb and everything has purpose and meaning again.  Life, like any ultra, is a roller coaster of emotions, and you just have to learn to hold on tight.

Thanks to:

  • Adrian Stott for coming out to Barcelona to support me and for believing in me.
  • Debbie Martin-Consani for all the support and encouragement during the year and on the track
  • Marco Consani for not lapping me too much during the race...
  • Mark Johnston, Marco and the other "Edinburgh boys" for advice and support during the year and letting me tag along at lunchtimes
  • Doc Andrew Murray, Dr Hemmens, and Renee McGregor for giving me hope
  • Del the magician at Proactive Physio for always taking care of my niggles
  • My boss, Doc, for "understanding" my running
  • My sponsors and supporters - Nathan, Honey Stinger, OSMO, Pearl Izumi and Brooks - for all the kit and continued support
  • Paul Giblin for taking me on.  I'm excited to see what we can achieve in 2016 :)
  • Bob and Davie.  For being my guys. 
  • My Dad.  For loving me.


  1. Very honest blog Fionna after a brilliant achievement and clearly a mountain of challenges to get there. Great lessons and amazing performance. Stay strong. And when you're not, you've a great support network there for you. X

    1. Thanks Amanda :) Mountains are there to be climbed :) Hope you are having a lovely Christmas xx

  2. Great blog Fionna, you're a fantastic writer, ((and runner)! Good luck for 2016!

  3. Thanks Lizzie, glad you enjoyed it. Hope you have a fantastic 2016 too :) x

  4. :-). :-) :-) "The determination in your heroic effort will stay with you, long after your success or failure has been forgotten"

    1. Thanks so much again for coming out and supporting me Adrian. Team effort :)

  5. Great journey, well done Fionna , thank you for sharing and good luck in 2016

    1. Thank you and thanks for reading Tim :) Best wishes to you too for 2016.

  6. What a beautiful end to a long and difficult yourney. I do hope others that struggle with depression read this honest and inspiring post as it provides real hope and example of how one can turn things around.

    Oh yes, that race peformance was really something special. Well done!

    1. I hope so to Robert, thank you and thanks very much for reading :)

  7. What a beautiful end to a long and difficult yourney. I do hope others that struggle with depression read this honest and inspiring post as it provides real hope and example of how one can turn things around.

    Oh yes, that race peformance was really something special. Well done!

  8. Replies
    1. Thanks Nick, and thanks for reading :)

  9. A superb and really well written post. Depression is horrible and still incredibly misunderstood. Thank you for putting this out there.

    1. Thanks, I just wanted to try and raise awareness about it. Thanks for reading :)

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