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‘I would be lost without running’

A few weeks ago I got into a debate on social media about the sentence above. Someone (someone I don’t know personally) had written it at the conclusion of a short post about the value of running in their life, what it gives them, and why they’re grateful for it. I understood and empathised with every part of the post – it expressed exactly how I feel about running too: the sense of escape, of freedom, of the strength and power of being able to travel under my own propulsion, the mental health benefits, and the self-perception of being someone who is so capable and strong.

As recently as a few months ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with this final ‘lost’ sentence too. For almost the entirety of this calendar year, I have been ‘without’ running, and I have felt lost. For about six months I limped along – running some miles, but without the high volume, demanding training I normally enjoy so much. Then, for several months of the year I have not run at all, as I finally faced up to the fact that my mystery injury (long story; it’s a pain in the bum that nobody has yet managed to diagnose or fix) was not getting any better. At times I have truly felt ‘lost’ without my running. The impact on my mental health has been massive. I felt completely useless as a person, not just as a runner – with the activity I normally use to anchor my self-worth, strength and resilience taken away from me, I found it incredibly hard to anchor those qualities in anything else. Without physical activity, who was I? Did I even have meaning, purpose or worth? If I couldn’t fix my injury, how could I consider myself capable of anything?

These may seem like ridiculous questions. Of course you still have meaning, purpose and worth without being able to run, you might say. But for me this link was so tightly bound that it has taken me most of the year to untangle it. Without being forced by the injury to stop, I might never have addressed it, or even seen it. After a lot of painful introspection, and some very low weeks, I feel I’ve emerged from the other end of this tunnel. While I am still frustrated, and at times very sad and angry about my body not currently being able to heal, or do what I want to, I no longer feel like only part of a person. I can see that my life has purpose, adds value to others' lives, and contains myriad worthwhile activities and interactions that bring me happiness. This doesn’t mean I no longer care about running. On the contrary, if anything I’m investing even more time and effort into trying to resolve my physical issues. But I have severed the link that told me that running is everything, and that without it I am nothing. As an aside, I’ve had my first experiences of sports psychology this year, and I would recommend it to anyone struggling with any mental aspect of their sport – my sessions with my amazing sports psych were a key factor in getting me out of such a negative mental space.

This experience is the reason I’m newly aware of and alert to any kind of media where the message seems to be that the author would feel completely hopeless, helpless or useless without their running, or any one activity. I used to say things like this myself before I had to live without running, but I found that right at rock bottom I had other reserves of strength, determination and resilience. I would far rather not have had to find them, but this fact will now not change – I have proved to myself that I don’t need to run to be a functional, valuable human being. I don’t know how many people are as extremely attached to their running as I was, and so perhaps for some the idea of being ‘lost without running’ is more a way of expressing frustration or sadness than a literal sense of losing themselves. The person with whom I engaged in that original social media debate felt that she had a balanced outlook on her life and her hobbies, albeit running being very important to her – and I imagine this to be the case for many (or hopefully most!) people.

So why am I now so set against this kind of language? Well, I’m not pointing a blaming finger, and this is not written to criticise anyone – it’s my response to the post that I want to highlight. I think that reading, writing and saying things like this in the past may have given me an unhealthy acceptance of my reliance on running. We see a steady stream of messages telling us that running can make us fulfilled, happy, confident, and strong. These things are true for many and are certainly true for me! But what isn’t true is the dark side of that coin - that we can’t be those things without running. For young athletes, I think it might be dangerous and damaging to see their role models claim that without sport in their lives they would feel hopeless or lost. Let’s say instead that we would feel frustrated, angry, or sad – these might all be true, or there might be other emotions we experience. But as I have learned, we would not be lost – those of us who must live without our sport for a while find that in truth we have more strength, determination and courage than we could ever have dreamed of. When I am flying, pain-free, over the fells again at some unknown time in the future, I know I’ll be a stronger runner because I will carry with me the knowledge of the deep well of resilience I unearthed this year – the knowledge that I am not lost without running.

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