THOSE WHO RUN
OCD, Anorexia, Anxiety, Depression and How Running Helps
Words and Photographs by Martin Eberlen
I am in a long-term relationship with running, and it is one that I do not see an end to. It has been there for me through thick and thin. It never questions me, judges me, or doubts me. My stories of places I have run could fill an entire book (perhaps not a particularly interesting one), and those stories are the reasons why I run.
I was formally diagnosed with ADHD in my early 30s, after a series of questionnaires and tests. Running helps me to control my thoughts. It slows me down, and gives me the opportunity to focus on the things I need to focus on.
I know, however, that I am not the only person whose reliance on running is so heavy when it comes to living a healthy, happy life. It has long been known that running releases endorphins, a feel-good hormone that gives you a natural boost of positivity after you exercise. This leaves you feeling much more motivated, lifting your spirits. Doctors have recommended running, or sport in general, as a way of combatting mental health. Perhaps this is why so many people turn to running during or after challenging times.
I knew there were other stories to hear, so I went on the hunt around the country, to understand those unique experiences that have led people to begin, what I believe will be, a long-term relationship with running, just like me. Although every story I heard was completely different, the one thing that connects them all is that they are now part of a worldwide family - Those Who Run.
Michelle was brought up by her grandparents because (she was led to believe) her mum had gone out shopping and never came back. She spent her childhood wondering what she had done to make her mother not want her anymore, and also trying not to upset her grandparents in case they abandoned her too. For Michelle this is the root of her mental health problems. She turned to food for comfort. In January 2016 she weighed just over 20 stone. But through a local support group she gradually learned to manage her a “very bad relationship with food”, and as a result she lost nearly 9-stone.
She started running in November 2016, as walking was not burning off enough energy. She started slowly, with a couch-to-5km. At first she couldn’t manage a whole minute of running and the first few weeks felt long and tiresome, but she stuck with it. Now, she loves the freedom running gives her from her thoughts. She can run 10km quite comfortably, and most importantly, really enjoys it. She now runs regularly twice a week. As we sit and talk about things, she explains how surprising it is to see how far she has come. She still struggles with depression and anxiety but has learned over the years to manage it.
Going for a run gives her a sense of achievement. Concentrating on breathing and listening to music helps her to forget her troubles. She explains that after a run she usually feels ready to take on the world.
Beth lives in south London, and regularly jogs around the local parks and commons. For years Beth suffered from anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She describes her OCD to me, explaining that the usual symptoms associated with the condition are not relevant for her, and that she suffers from a form of intrusive thoughts. In the past, these thoughts have led her to feel incredible amounts of guilt and have
surfaced in the form of anxiety. However, through therapy and correct diagnosis she now uses running to help clear her mind.
It is the freeing aspect of running that Beth loves. Being in total control of where you run, how long for and at what pace, that allows her to keep in control of her OCD, ultimately not letting the anxiety control or disrupt her life.
Coralie suffered with anorexia for over ten years. It physically and mentally ruined her body for a very long period of time, eventually making her choose between whether she wanted to run or be controlled by an eating disorder for the rest of her life. She chose to run - and live. She started a blog at the start of 2016 about how running has helped her mental health, and at the same time developed a new-found respect for her body.
She has been very open about her anorexia and believes that sport can help with various mental health problems, combined with other forms of therapy. It’s something she is very passionate about and believes could help a lot of people who are currently suffering. Coralie is a member of Serpentine running club, where she is one of the Mental Health Ambassadors, and often hosts a thing called Run Chat, where club members can run with Coralie whilst chatting through any worries they might have, in confidence.
Coralie met her boyfriend whilst training for her first marathon and hangs her race number in her living room to remember the time that her life was transformed through running.
Paul lives and works in and around the south coast of England, where he now runs regularly along the beach front and promenades. However, some areas of the coast along where he lives hold some darker memories from his past.
Back in 2016, after a long stretch of night shifts and working long hours, Paul found himself sleep deprived. This lasted for almost a year, mixing boozy weekends with social drugs, leading him to feel depressed and suicidal.
In January 2017, Paul attempted to take his own life one evening by wading into the sea, hoping that the tide would carry him away. Standing in the water, looking out onto the horizon, he listened carefully to the audio of a video that was playing on his phone. It was an interview of music artist Professor Green, talking about his grief when his father passed away. Paul suddenly imagined how his son would feel, having to grow up without a dad, if this evening was to end the way he’d originally planned.
Soon after Paul contacted the charity CALM, who offered him assistance and advice, so that he could turn his life around.
Both Paul and I chatted freely about his relationship with depression and running, as we walked to take his portrait down by the seafront, the location from that evening back in January, just over a year ago. It is great to hear about how running gives him structure in his life, how it frees his mind and gives him valuable time to himself, away from the worries of everyday life. He is thankful to running, and to CALM, for allowing him to enjoy his time with his son, and that the events of the past few years have strengthened
their relationship. He tells me life is all about putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s what he’s going to continue to do.
Lucy didn’t get off to a smooth start with her running. Whilst at university, trying to find a bit more balance in life, she decided one morning to head out for a run. She was hit by a car, and broke both her arms.
Several weeks after the accident she found it increasingly more difficult to leave the house, she started to notice symptoms of post-traumatic stress and raised levels of anxiety. This gradually spiralled out of control into her third year of university, leading to insomnia, paranoia and a challenging relationship with food. It was then that she checked herself in to a mental health clinic looking for help.
With correct guidance and a combination of therapy, healthy eating, anti-depressants and a gradual growth in self-confidence Lucy was able to build up the strength to start running again.
I met Lucy on a particularly beautiful sunny day in early 2018. We decided it would be a good idea to head out for a short run together, and I soon realised that my slow, chatting pace was too easy for Lucy. She’s now running well and explains to me how she couldn’t imagine her life without running. It is very obvious to me how much she enjoys it, and that any signs of a lack of confidence are long gone. This year she is running the London Marathon and hopes to run under 3 hours 15 minutes. Lucy explains that running was never initially about fast times, and marathon PBs, and that she owes a lot to running as it helped her to get back to living a normal life.
Karen suffered from postnatal depression at the age of 36, after her third child was born. Her health visitor gave her two initial options. The first was a prescription from the doctor for anti-depressants. The second option was exercise, as it was known to help.
Karen chose exercise, partly because of where she lived, surrounded by countryside. She tells me that since starting running she has not looked back. This decision back in 2005 led her to sign up & run in the London Marathon in 2006. She lost both her grandparents to cancer, and so she decided to raise money for a cancer charity.
Not only did running help her overcome her depression she also found for the first time in her life that, with a combination of healthy eating & exercise, her overall mental health and happiness vastly improved. She kept up the running for 5 years, until sadly her marriage broke down.
Karen was a stay at home mother for many years and suddenly found herself going back to work. Starting a new career at the age of 44 was no easy feat, but she soon realised that the one thing she enjoyed most was exercise. She trained to become a qualified personal trainer, and as a result now teaches other people how to get fit, allowing them to gradually overcome depression and anxiety through sport, whilst also pursuing a healthier lifestyle.
KAREEM & JACK
Kareem and Jack had just returned from a 7-week trip to India when I met them in their home in London which was filled with the calming smells of incense, and soothing music. Partly inspired by their trip they
have recently begun a new routine in the mornings, allowing each other the time to start their day in the best possible way.
Kareem now gets up at around 5:30am, mixing up a variety of exercise that includes yoga, meditation, and jogging (although she admits she doesn’t run as much as she’d like to, but that she hopes to build on this). This new routine is a challenge, as she explains that she has always struggled to exercise even though she knows it is good for you. Having battled with depression and anxiety for years and having suffered at the hands of an abusive relationship, Kareem now feels that her new morning routine has completely changed her life. She is tackling her mental health issues head on. The feeling of starting her day in such a positive way gives her a sense of achievement that is entirely for herself, and she is reaping the benefits.
For Jack, the mornings involve less meditation and more running, although the running has become a form of meditation. It sets his pace for the day, giving him the space he needs to clear his head. Jack tells me though, that running for him is not just about headspace. From a young age he had a challenging relationship with food and, despite looking in excellent shape, in the past he may have seen things differently. Body dysmorphia became a daily struggle for Jack, and exercise used to be an obsessive way of maintaining an acceptable weight. But now, with a better understanding of how running can help overcome mental health issues, Jack explains that he now runs for all the right reasons, one of those is that it allows him to view himself in a positive light.
As a couple though, the morning exercise routine has been vastly beneficial for their relationship. When they come together after a morning of individual exercise they are more in tune with each other and have noticed they are much more present in their relationship. They say that together, through exercise, they are claiming their lives back, and that it is a wonderful thing to feel.
Marika has recurrent, incurable breast cancer and is now on continuous chemotherapy. She was diagnosed in 2016, was running before her diagnosis, but has continued to run because of the undeniable health benefits both mentally and physically. Her body has responded well to the treatments she is receiving, one that she believes is down to the fact that she has always tried to keep in good physical shape.
She also told me how valuable her running club community is, in terms of making close friends and having a busy social life. She still works for the NHS, and remains incredibly positive, despite her condition.
We met up on a drizzly Monday morning at her home in Faversham. We went for a short run, and Marika was keen to show me her local loop that she uses as part of her training plan. It is one that circles her home, allowing her to keep a safe distance to her house in case she feels tired and wants to cut the run short. Although some days she feels exhausted this hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her goals in running. In 2018 she ran the London and Edinburgh marathons. Her husband has also taken up running, completing his first half marathon earlier this year.
Marika’s strength and determination during a difficult period of her life is undeniably inspiring.