Running for mental health
I grew up in Glen Eden, home of New Zealand’s oldest running race – the Glen Eden 10 miler – which dates back to 1964. Naturally, it’s a community full of runners, situated at the foot of the beautiful Waitakere Ranges, where the country’s best runners have run these streets for decades.
I began to notice that while the runners sometimes looked pained and exhausted, they mostly looked happy. How was this possible? I was the kid who asked my mum to bandage my fake ankle injury on the day of cross country, so I didn’t have to endure the discomfort of wheezing my way around the school field.
After struggling with depression for a number of years, I was also about 20kgs overweight, so running seemed like the perfect solution to all of my problems. I headed to my nearest Nike store and asked them to deck me out, we were starting from scratch. Running is a sport that boasts that you don’t need any special equipment but somehow has just as much expensive gear as any other sport I’ve ever encountered. It was only when I attempted to buy a waist pack with five water bottles attached that the sales assistant drew the line, she politely suggested that I probably didn’t need that yet. Turns out, after almost six years running, I’ve still never needed it.
I started with the ‘Couch 2 5K’ app, my sister and I took hilarious ‘before’ photos that resembled those on 90s ab burner ads you saw on daytime television, slouched and miserable. We were ready for the fit, toned and miraculously tanned bodies we were about to acquire. I took off in the fastest looking outfit you could imagine, but I couldn’t even make it through the beginners’ intervals, so I went lamppost by lamppost, run one, walk one. I posted my runs on Instagram, accompanied by motivational quotes, wondering how long it would be before I was a famous ‘fitspo’.
I still wasn’t smiling when I ran, mostly it was miserable, but reviewing my stats and seeing myself improve definitely brought some satisfaction. I struggled week after week, month after month, until I could pretty confidently, albeit slowly, run 5km. I eventually got a part-time job at that same Nike store I ventured into more than a year earlier, and I got to be around some of the most incredible athletes. These girls were the real deal. They ran in groups and they ran fast, like really fast. I sheepishly asked questions about paces and pretended I could run them reliably, when in reality I maybe ran them once, on a really good day.
After a few more months of working on my speed, I deemed myself fit enough to not completely embarrass myself in front of a group of ‘real’ runners. I arrived at my first group run and I knew instantly it was time to go home. People had headlamps on. Headlamps. Sometimes my dad wore a headlamp to redo the wiring behind the home entertainment system, that was the extent of my experience with them. I did not know people wore them running, and especially not in public. I had clearly underestimated the seriousness of this run – I went out on my own 3km loop and vowed never to return.
I eventually joined a women’s only group that did shorter loops on a Monday night and regained my confidence. I continued to chip away at my goal times and could run my distances with relative ease. Almost two years after that first decision to run, I was smiling while running, without even noticing. I became a Nike Run Club pacer and began helping others who were just like me to smash their own goals. It was more rewarding than I could have imagined, and I found the community I didn’t know I was missing.
It wasn’t until a serious ankle injury at the start of this year that I realised how much of an impact running had on stabilising and improving my mental health. Without my community, my goals and my endorphins, life became pretty bleak. My first half marathon in 2015 sparked a vendetta against the distance, which led to completing seven in the space of two years. Training had become a constant in my life. What started off as six weeks of rest became six months, a frustratingly long time for not just me but my entire support network.
I’m now five weeks into my new running journey, and it feels like starting all over again. I’m definitely not smiling while running, but I’m still smiling more often than when I wasn’t running. Just like those miserable early days, I will persist.
If you’re thinking of starting your own running journey, here’s my honest advice: it’s not that fun at first. It’s hard, you might be slow, heck, you might even get left behind in a group, but you’ll also get stronger, braver and more badass than you ever thought. Just get out there.