I came back to running about two weeks after the West Highland Way Race, racing for a sub 24min at the Cambridge parkrun and then the next day took part in a 2.5km river swim. Looking back on Strava, I came back to training far too quickly, despite 2 weeks off running I had been road cycling over 100km just 1 week post race. Open water swimming 2 weeks out from such a large ultramarthon was a huge mistake. My immune system would have taken an absolute beating from the race. Both Max and I caught a bug from the river and were subsequently ill for 2 weeks, all training stopped and I was wiped out.
We had the Merry Hill 6hour Challenge Race fast approaching and I felt ok to run it, but after 4 hours and 20 miles I pulled out. There was no way I could continue. My legs felt great and so strong, but something deeper had not recovered. We had the Ben Nevis ultra in 2 months time and Max put together a training plan for me and I was super excited. I was so ready to train hard and was even considering another ultra before Christmas. I started strength training again, did some hill sprints and 5ks mid week and then we headed to peak district that weekend. A hilly hike Friday night and a 10miler with 800m ascent planned the next day. That morning as I set out alone towards Mam Tor, I knew I was not right, but put it down to mental weakness and pushed on.
One of the things I thought I learnt about myself from the race, and was surprised to discover, was that my body was stronger than my mind. In this recovery period, I have learnt that this is not the entire picture.
As I got chased from a field by a herd of hungry cows charging towards the farmer putting out their food I burst into angry tears. Swearing and hating I climbed over 2 dry stone walls and finally found the route to Mam Tor. By the time I had ascended the Nab out of Edale I was happy and climbing the rocks at the top, but my reaction earlier in the day was really out of character, I was not coping. A week later, I am crying again, this time in the campervan absolutely devastated that Max had driven me all the way to the mountains for my birthday, but I was unable to climb a single one. Beyond 400m ascent I was exhausted. My body could not do it anymore.
My all or nothing view of the world had to change. I needed to find what I called back in my ME/CFS recovery days – the third way. Ok, I could not climb Old Man Coniston, but I did not need to stay in the van feeling sorry for myself. Max and I headed for an easy walk in the hills.
It was then I decided to stop all attempts at running, pull out of all races for the rest of the year, cancel all travel plans and give myself a break. I did not want to run and I also did not want to write (this morning is the first time since the river bug that I have felt the urge to write).
What I have learnt is that the damage from the WHW race was not obvious. My right big toe is still numb, but I had no DOMs, no black toenails and no physically obvious damage. But something deeper was depleted.
I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, it was not just running and recovery. We moved into the van full time in August. This period of our lives, since we decided to save for a house deposit has been truly challenging. We have relied on so many friends and family to help us through, relying on their generosity to house us, and often at short notice. We feel so much gratitude, but also guilt at having to rely on friends and family so much. The first night we slept in a car park, I truly felt I had failed. How had it come to this? The past 18months dragged Max and I, and our young marriage, through some of the most consistently tough times we have experienced. Our homelessness and living apart was exhausting, but we lost more than just a place to call home, part of our identity was also gone. When you live in other peoples’ homes, you live how they live and temporarily shelf a part of yourself. Sleeping in multiple places each week and travelling so much, for so long meant we lost community, place and belonging. Homelessness became synonymous with hopelessness, but we had chosen this and only we had done this to ourselves. When the race ended, it was not just the end of a purpose that had rooted me, but I lost the West Highland Way Race family and my regular chats with John for the podcast ceased. These things gave me the community and belonging that I was missing.
Moving into the van triggered a lot of anxiety for me. When I am exhausted and anxious, I physically fall apart and training was fruitless. When I am physically exhausted, as I was during the race, I completely fall apart emotionally. It is not about being physically or mentally strong, it is as much about having the structures in place to succeed. It is the same for Max and I, if he is struggling then I am strong and vice versa. When I need to be physically stronger than I am, I can, but at a mental cost. When I need to hold it together mentally and can’t, it shows physically. Our lives currently do not have the security, stability or structure to allow for growth or recovery – fixed term jobs, working across 2 cities, not knowing where we would live in a few months time, to not knowing where we would sleep in a few days time (but we are always safe)! Thankfully, things look like they might change, and we will get a break. We also know with certainty, having survived this difficult period, that our marriage is rock solid! We did achieve our goal; in 18months we saved enough money and will buy a home, once our jobs are aligned enough for us to do so.
So here is to the next chapter! It is time to announce that we are moving together full time to London (for at least the next 6 months) as Max has a new job – a permanent one!! We cannot wait to live together and we have heard that there is an active ultra-running community in Surrey that we are truly excited to get stuck into and make new friends!
Thank you to every single person – our parents, Cambridge friends, Scottish friends, online friends – every single person, who has been there supporting us.