Coming Back?

It has been a rough three months since I last posted. I am off work with a mental health blip (I am not going to discuss that directly here) and physically things did not go to plan. The August attempts to get running again failed, I never made it past the 8 minute runs, then I couldn’t even make a minute and eventually I spoke to the doctor. I have had a whole series of tests including detailed blood works, ECG and chest X-ray, I’ve monitored peak flow and been prodded, poked and interrogated. Fundamentally there is nothing physically wrong with me. That’s good of course but it doesn’t explain how I have struggled since the spring to get going again and why everything has just felt so impossibly hard. It also doesn’t explain why my heart rate continues to be stubbornly high when I try even the most gentle exercise or why I get breathless walking upstairs. The doctor’s best guess – post viral something or other. It might not be Covid-19 after effects but it might be – I don’t know whether I have had it or not. Whatever it is, I wanted to try and share with you what it feels like to go from relatively fit and running pretty regularly to barely being able to go for a walk to struggling to get going again…

Some days now I think I am getting better. Other days the tiredness is almost paralysing. Anyway, if you’ve read this blog before you know all about my love/hate relationship with running and all things fitness. You know I have never been super fit, have always been a slow plodder and you know that 2020 has been much much more miss than hit in terms of running. So the reality is that post marathon number 4 in 2019 I lost fitness. But I had a reasonable level of fitness that allowed me to take things for granted. Things I did not have to think or worry about:

  • Running 5km, getting round a parkrun course or similar route
  • run/walking 10km or even 10 miles
  • walking any distance at all really
  • getting to the top of a hill
  • Keeping up with others as I walk
  • Running upstairs
  • Having a go at a strength/conditioning session or gym class
  • Feeling capable and feeling relatively strong
  • getting day to day stuff done

Now I do. Worry I mean. About all of those things. I can no longer run. After some vague attempts and frustrating stop starts all year, in August I was trying to build up again. But I got worse rather than better. I was very out of breath, heart rate was high and I felt dizzy and faint just trying to run a minute. When I got home from any sort of exercise – even just a short walk – I was physically so tired I could barely move off the sofa for the rest of the day and the next day I’d wake up aching and sore like I had run a half marathon over tricky terrain. I felt so weak and unfit that I worried about getting round the supermarket doing the food shop. I also felt stupid. And I felt scared. My attempts to go back to basics and failing even at that and feeling so poorly had made me scared to go out and try in case there was something seriously wrong. I also worried about work. To get through a day of work I had to basically not move and hope that at the end of the day I might just have enough energy left to do some gentle yoga. I had to pause chutney making to have a rest because I had been standing for too long. Once I dozed off at my desk.

I have written about the problem of shifting your mindset away from numbers/weight onto focusing what your body can do when you find yourself not being able to do previously I think. This feeling just got worse. It was partly about being concerned about what health issues were causing the symptoms but it was more than that. It is demoralising to suddenly be unable to do things you could easily do before. It made trying feel a bit pointless because I kept failing, kept not managing even silly things or just about managing them and then being out for the rest of the day because I walked 100 metres to the postbox and back. So I spent a little while doing nothing at all.

A series of medical tests later and really I am none the wiser other than that the tests have ruled out anything serious and have confirmed that I am safe to exercise. I am still not right but I am now less scared. But where do you start when you have nothing? I realised that when I previously talked about starting running from no fitness base that wasn’t quite true. When I started running, I could walk. I might have been fat and unfit but not so unfit that I would worry about the idea of going for a walk. I think maybe I am getting a little better, maybe doing nothing for a while was actually needed, maybe it helped. I can now walk on the flat, fairly slowly, without too much concern or worry about distance. I struggle to walk fast and I struggle on hills but I can walk. I am less often out of breath going upstairs, I have managed the first set of 8 exercises of a HIIT class and am working my way up to getting through 2 sets and eventually all 3. I am no longer as fatigued as I was or as tired from just standing. It’s progress of sorts.

It’s hard to untangle the mental health stuff going on. Much of it is caused and shaped by work related stuff I can’t really write about here. And of course these things cannot be separated anyway, I feel worse because I can’t exercise and I can’t exercise as much because I feel worse and round and round we go. But I think there are some things that are specific to the complete loss of fitness. It’s a funny mixture of hope and despair. In some ways building fitness now feels easier than when I started running. I have done it once. More than once. I got myself marathon fit. I can do it again. There’s hope there. If I am not actually ill, if the worst post viral hangover is this fatigue that led to a complete loss of fitness then I am one of the lucky ones, nothing is damaged, fitness can be regained. Hope. But fitness once lost is elusive. Having been fit and losing it is almost worse than never having been fit. It’s not that hard work bothers me, it’s that I know how hard it is mentally to get to from here to a level where exercise slowly begins to be fun again and real progress can be made, where it is more than a chore, more than trying and failing again and again. Getting to that level means lots and lots of work before the improvements start coming, before the weakness turns into strength, before even the modified moves in workouts become possible and I dare dream of the unmodified ones. It is so discouraging, so disheartening and so damn frustrating to fail a beginners workout or run one of couch to 5km.

And don’t give me the ‘it’s not failing’ crap. It is. It is failing. And it is horrible. And I will have to fail and fail again repeatedly until one day I fail at a slightly later point and then maybe a later point again until eventually I finish the workout or the run. It’s hard not to feel that trying is pointless. Results don’t come quickly when I have to go this slowly and gently and carefully. Focusing on what I can do rather than what I look like or what the numbers say is not helpful – the answer is I can’t do anything…but of course ‘anything’ is relative. But try and remember that when your black puppy has grown into a full size giant dog and is slowly pulling you down into darkness with its firm hold on your wonder woman cape. Maybe Edna Mode (The Incredibles) is right and capes are a bad idea. But that’s another story.

So in short, being in this position feels awful, frustrating, disheartening and often pointless. So it can’t be about feeling, it has to be about logic and about experience. And we’re back to trusting a process, trusting a plan and ticking things off until failing outright turns into failing a little less and then turns into completing and then into doing well and eventually into enjoying. I know that’s how it works, I’ve done this before. One day and one step at a time. Hope?

Un-Possible

Aaaaaaaargh. I have spent a lot of time screaming into a void lately but that’s another story. I’ve had flu or a bad cold or whatever and it was awful. I still have a chesty cough. I didn’t start the Harewood House 10k, I haven’t run. I went out for a plod last Sunday and honestly it’s hard to see any positives from that (thought of course, objectively, there are some – I left the house for a start). I had a session with RunRight today, with Mark, to have another look at my run and to once again try and iron out the issues with my form. I knew I was starting from zero again and while frustrated I thought I was ok about that and accepting of the fact that I had to start again somewhere.

Well, about that. I have spent the last 5 years very slowly shifting my focus from the number that appears on the scales when I step on them or the number that’s on the labels in my clothes to what I can do. I have stopped worrying about which bits wobble, how heavy I am or how much of a tape measure I might need to get it round my hips. It was (is!) just not important. What was important was what I could do. What was important was how strong I felt, how fit I felt, how easy it was to power up our hill, walk up the stairs at work, run 6 miles, how sleep comes easy when you are actually physically tired in a good way. Well the problem with focusing on what you can do rather than the numbers is that it doesn’t work when you can’t do it.

I cried all the way home – just silent tears rolling down my face. I’m not quite sure why. The session was good. It was exactly what I needed. Seeing the videos and having Mark point out where the issues still are and talking about how to fix them was really helpful. I feel more motivated. I have my Disney training plan and Mark’s instructions on what to do. It was good. It was a positive start to the next chapter of the running rollercoaster. Well, I hate rollercoasters. Running has been non-existent, I am not strong, I am not fit. Focusing on what I can do is not a positive because what I can do is, well not a lot and certainly so much less than I could 12-14 months ago. So running and exercise generally, right now, feel like just another thing I am utterly rubbish at. There is of course lots going on here:

  1. I have had bursts of good progress and then something happens and I am back to square one. At square one it’s hard to see there was ever progress. In this case the set back was the flu. Two days before it really hit I had a good session with Katy at RunRight, a hard session but I made it through and felt really positive and motivated after. Now it seems impossible to see how I could even get back to that level.
  2. For all sorts of reasons my confidence is low and anxiety is high. That doesn’t help in remembering that there are lots of things I am pretty good at
  3. It’s the anniversary of Rachel’s death tomorrow so quite frankly the world can just fuck off
  4. I have not been this unfit for a long time. I know that it just takes time and consistency to build it again and I know that if I do my exercises, go out running regularly and stick with it, my fitness levels will go up to a level where everything is easier really quite quickly. I know. I have the evidence – it hangs on my wall in the form of Dopey Medals. I know. I just don’t believe.

The problem is, I don’t feel capable and so much of my energy has been focused on well-being which draws on strength and fitness and feeling capable. I feel physically weak and unfit and that translates into some pretty big mental wobbles which make it harder to even begin to put any sort of effort into getting fitter and stronger. It’s a cycle and it’s a cycle that is really difficult to break. It just feels pointless.

So what’s the solution? Is there one? Think about numbers again? Well, partly it is tempting. I could shift a stone pretty quickly and maybe I would briefly have some sense of achievement for bringing down the number but it would neither be healthy nor sustainable nor would it change anything at all. I am barely heavier that I was 14 months ago and I am wearing the same size clothes mostly – though some of them fit a little differently just now. Being lighter, wearing the smaller items in my wardrobe would not make me feel any more capable, any stronger, any more unfuckwithable. It wouldn’t make me healthier, faster or stronger.

I don’t have an answer. The only answer is to keep getting up every morning and trying. It’s accepting that some days getting to work with all items of clothing on the right way out and round is a win and also that some days there is no win. It’s accepting that I am where I am. Whether I like that or not is irrelevant, it just is. It’s also about trusting the process. It’s about trusting that every little tiny bit of doing something is better than not doing anything. It’s about not thinking too much, it’s about not allowing the head to take over, it’s about having made the decision that I want that version of me back, the one that can run all the way up the hill home and still have enough left to swear about it… I know what I need to do. I know I can do it because I have done it before. It’s all written down, all I need to do now is follow the plan, tick each day, each exercise, each run off. I don’t need to believe, not yet, I just need to do. Belief can wait. It’ll come and when it does, well when it does… I might try believe 6 impossible things before breakfast (Sorry Lewis Carroll).

Stop and Re-Set

So, time to try and hit the pause button for a sec, time to stop the self-sabotage and re-set. I’ve been thinking that for a little while but of course my brain is sluggish and muddled with depression so doing that is easier said than done. As you know running hasn’t been going to plan at all and one of the side-effects of not running enough is a real dip in mental well being. And of course the dip in mental well being makes it much harder to go out and run. Thanks Universe for that cycle of nonsense.

Yesterday I had a panic attack which I guess was pretty major except that it was nothing compared to the old Bradford panic attacks and I knew what it was so just rode it out. My train was cancelled and then the next two trains coming through were cancelled too so 4 trains worth of people eventually tried to get on the next one. I was squished in a corner next to the toilet with a bloke’s rucksack sticking sharply into my chest. It was airless, noisy, uncomfortable and a bit smelly and within minutes the oh so familiar blood rushing in my ears, jelly legs, inability to breathe and racing heart kicked in. I tried to distract myself on Twitter and I tried to consciously ground myself and breathe. I sort of tumbled off the train in Leeds and sat on a bench for 15 minutes or so before I trusted my legs to take me to the office.

At work I sat and stared at my screen for a while mostly close to crying for no apparent reason. I was close to tears all day and my heart rate stayed high. I had a lovely PhD meeting and briefly felt better. I had two other meeting though during which I did my usual high functioning, perfectly on the ball keeping it all together act and then I left the last meeting and walked from our beautiful Headingley campus to the station with tears streaming. When I got home I should have run but I felt exhausted. When the alarm went off this morning I should have run. I know I should, well let me change the should. I want to. I want to be out there running but I am struggling to convince myself. It’s hard to explain.

Instead of running I’ve been eating crap, craving sugar mostly, drinking too much coffee, eating out, eating mindlessly, putting on weight, moving less and less… I’ve been faffing with work and worrying about things I should just leave alone. I haven’t been good at holding myself to my own standards of sensible working hours, not engaging with idiocy and prioritising work based on what is important to me. And the thing is I know I’m doing it. Depression tells me it’s easier and trying to do anything else is pointless anyway. It tells me I can’t run, it tells me doing the things I want to do at work will make no difference. Depression is all about the insecurities hiding in the background all the time and pushing them into consciousness and then into the foreground. Depression lies but it does so convincingly.

As I was struggling to breathe on the train yesterday morning I decided I needed to re-set. I haven’t managed that today but I have made a start! I didn’t manage to be more positive at work really but once home I really wanted to try and get out for a run. I lost the battle though and only managed to cover a mile and a half and had to walk most of that. Of course my brain is being bitchy and reminding me of how useless as I am. But I’m trying. I got out even if for a little bit. Then I managed to cook a relatively healthy meal and I am trying to be kind to myself and take things an hour at a time. I still feel tearful and a bit useless but also that maybe I’m beginning to turn a corner. Writing this takes some of the power out of it. The panic attack yesterday was a clear sign that things are not ok and I think maybe I needed today to spiral a bit before hitting pause and re-set.

I will try and run more – I want to and it’s hard to explain why I haven’t and even harder to explain why I’ve been eating crap, spending too much time on the sofa, too much time behind a screen and not enough time outside. I don’t know why I’ve been drinking too much coffee and eating too much sweet stuff. That’s depression for you. Nothing really makes sense.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings. I am aiming for neutral with a healthy sprinkling of self care or at least a lack of self sabotage

Today just is!

Well everything is hard fought today. After a lovely chilled weekend with our friends that was filled with wonderful cuddles and giggles from the kids and just easy togetherness, my brain started misfiring at some point last night. I went to bed. I slept in that uneasy way you sleep when you don’t quite trust your brain to get things right.

We were going to run 11 miles today. After a cup of tea in bed I got up and put running gear on and then I couldn’t move. I was quite clear in my mind that I could not possibly go outside. I could not, under any circumstances leave the house. Yes I do realise that’s ridiculous and not exactly a healthy response to anything but there I was, rooted to the spot. The 11 mile run was quickly abandoned and I managed to persuade my grey matter to shut up for long enough to go downstairs and make some breakfast. Then I set about the slow and so often futile task of having a conversation with myself about how this is all a little silly and the world is no scarier and fucked up today than it was yesterday and that sitting on the sofa is not going to solve anything, it won’t get shit done and it won’t allow me to just be and enjoy the bank holiday either. I wasn’t really listening

To try and do something useful at least Kath and I compared diaries, planned meals for the week, wrote a shopping list and then Kath went shopping. I stayed on the sofa. Where it’s safe. I read posts on the #run1000miles facebook group and enjoyed the photos people had posted of their runs. Other people’s adventures big and small distracted me enough for the chemicals to settle a little and I began to really like the idea of a run. But then there was the door to negotiate with, you know actually leaving the house. I’d also posted about how I was feeling and the comments I got back where so lovely and supportive and I began to feel a little less scared of the world.

When Kath got back we got changed. Then I stood in the kitchen a while pretending I wasn’t really putting off going OUTSIDE. Eventually Kath gently nudged me towards the door and then through it and then stood on the step between me and the door while I figured out if I really wanted to go back in and hide. Once outside I was ok. We didn’t linger for both watches to find the GPS but set off as soon as one had it. I left my run/walk intervals on so I could drop into them if I wanted to. We ran easy. I didn’t want to find out if I had any mental strength to push – it didn’t feel like I had anything at all mentally. Physically though I felt fine. We ran our sheep loop. I slowed off even more than usual on the downhill not wanting to give my persistent black pup any excuse at all to get involved. I still felt physically good so we extended the loop by turning right across the canal and going to the stone bridge and turning round there.

We were talking on and off and Kath had just finished saying ‘We haven’t seen the kingfisher for a while’ when we saw a flash of blue and orange and a kingfisher flew out on the opposite side of the canal just in front of us. You can’t not smile when you see a kingfisher. A little further along there was a heron on the edge of the towpath and we ran past it slowly, hoping not to scare it off – I could have touched it if I’d stretched my arm out. A little while after that it got tough. Probably not actually physically tough but mentally I was beginning to really want to stop. We went post to canal boat to tree to patch of nettles to bush to bench to post….. Before I knew it we’d reached a tarmac section and then the bridge towards home. 3.75 miles run and another just over half a mile walked home on a day where it looked like making it downstairs might be a win. I’ll take that and I’ll celebrate it.

I have no idea why today is like today is. There are no obvious triggers. Sometimes there is no reason, sometimes it just is and that’s ok and most importantly it doesn’t mean that the rest of today has to be like that or tomorrow or the rest of the week.

Happy Running, or just running or not – whatever you need today

Running might have helped today

Today has been one of those days that pushes my buttons just enough to have been a really exhausting and crappy day but not enough to actually tip me over the edge or for there to even be anything specific. The alarm went off and instead of getting up I hit snooze several times, had a shower and a cup of tea, then breakfast and eventually left the house – about 15 minutes after I’d planned to be at work. Button number one pushed. By the time I got to Leeds, it was busy. Lovely. ¬†Our book is late. We’re making progress but I’m unfocused and I keep making mistakes and having to re-do bits. That’s another two buttons pushed. This morning we had a staff meeting, I’m not good with staff meetings, they’re full of people for a start and they are mostly so totally pointless. This one also took over two hours out of my book writing time. The research ethics committee this afternoon was similar, though perhaps a little more upbeat. I have an inbox full of a mixture of stupid and reminders about things I haven’t done and then I was supposed to go out for a drink after work but that didn’t happen and I found myself struggling with the change of plans. I wondered whether I should just stay in the office but in the end I came home, had some food and sat down to work on the book.

I wish I’d gone out to run though. I’ve been slightly irritated about something all day but can’t put my finger on it. Running might have helped. Although my hamstrings are a little tight from yesterday. Anyway, it’s not all bad. We’ve started our half marathon training plan. We had a reboot run at Bolton Abbey on Sunday (which followed my London reboot run last week). It was a lovely run really. Bolton Abbey has gone all festive and further along the trail we saw a heron and towards the end of the loop a woodpecker. It was nice to stop and watch.

Yesterday we picked up the plan with a 3 ish mile run with a couple of hill repeats. It was fine. It was hard but it was fine. I felt flat afterwards though. The post-run buzz never happened. And I don’t really remember much of the run. I suppose non-eventful is good. I’m also getting a little better at doing yoga again, not great but at least I’ve done some. I’ve lost a couple of pounds and I’m fitting in my smaller pants comfortably so it’s all good really… and yet there’s something niggling.

Anyway, the next run is tomorrow – 3 miles with some speed work thrown in. Yay!