Taking the time to rest.

Some of the best holiday moments I have experienced haven’t been anything fancy. Sure, I remember as a youngster bombing down a dry luge in Germany, experimenting with going down a weir in a kayak (same holiday), roller-coaster rides or suspending my disbelief at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Those were all scary but they haven’t necessarily been the best holiday moments.

Perhaps its because I am an introvert, but the best family holiday moments have been where we have pretty much just lounged around, reading our books or magazines. I can remember specific instances, and I love them all. I remember loving them at the time, because they just felt so chilled, and was exactly what I needed at that specific time.

Some of them were forced by the rain, but others weren’t. Whatever the reason, they were all refreshing. I remember one particular week away in which I actually felt like I was on a retreat, as I read through so much bible and other books (like Amy Orr-Ewing’s Why Trust the Bible, Randy Newman’s Questioning Evangelism and Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word).

The most recent holiday thrill was in New Zealand. Adrenaline Forest has six levels of high ropes courses, each more physically and psychologically demanding than the last. I definitely pushed myself to the limit and went as far as I could. Totally glad we took time out to do it. But there was something far greater and more satisfying in what we did the weekend before with my sister and nephew: just hanging out.

Because it’s during those days or weeks of just reading and thinking and pottering, which allow us to go through the thrills of everyday life. I have been able to resolve internal dilemmas or correct thought/action processes, which made living life outside back in the real world a little easier.

IMG-20170529-WA0000

Adrenaline Forest, bay of plentyNew Zealand.

Remembering these times of forced stoppages has been a helpful tool this week. One week after Stirling and with seven weeks until Dundee Half Marathon, I really want to jump right back in with cycling and the long runs. This is a good desire – it means that I still love it. I did run on Saturday,  which was hard because of a cough (almost gone!). Hopefully by the end of the week I will be ready to get back into full swing, but although the cold will have lifted there may yet be underlying tissue damage still needing to heal. I’m treating all bike commutes as ‘recovery’ – slow enough to pump blood without draining energy, much like it is often wise to mull on just one helpful verse than speed-read many but forget them all.

Incidentally, as I was writing this, someone messaged me saying they’ve had to pull out of the half marathon we were supposed to be doing together. A break from an injury is far worse than what I describe here, but it’s an important reminder to force ourselves to take the time so that when other things force us to stop, we’re better able to do so.

Running on empty? Don’t do it alone.

Yesterday I ran in the inaugural Stirling Marathon. I had hoped to write today about how to use negative experiences for good – I expected that at somepoint during the race I would draw on my ‘personal worst’ training runs or races with the logic of ‘if i can get through that, I can get through this!’ There was a little of that yesterday; with four miles to go I remembered the time I ran 8.5 miles in Auckland humidity with no planning or fuel other than water at mile 7. And with 3 miles to go I reasoned “it’s just a normal parkrun…” Except, a normal parkrun comes with fresh legs, not 23 miles behind you.

It turns out there was another, and far greater, lesson in store for me: sometimes you get empty and you need someone or something (or both) to get you through. It is during those times that you can not rely on yourself.

I had been on target until about mile 16. I had been doing fairly well pace-wise, but I had been feeling rotten since the start and this feeling was only getting worse. Early on in the day I had a sense that nutrition was going to be an issue during the race, and this proved to be the case. By mile 20, as much as I really needed it I could not force down another energy gel. Eventually the doubts took over and slowed me to a walk for mile 20, and then an even slower walk at mile 21 – with stops and inner questioning to ask if actually today just wasn’t my day and whether dragging myself to the end was really worth it. I had given my all, and it wasn’t good enough. I really was not capable of finishing, as my back and forth with my wife showed.

marathon conversation.png

Mrs H knows I’m cross when I don’t put kisses

I was in the kind of place where no-amount of self-talk would have helped me. I remembered my personal worst but that was a totally different situation – I bonked in the middle of nowhere and still had a couple of miles to get back to the car. With neither money nor food I had to get back to the car, where-as I didn’t have to finish the marathon! I tried phrases from Don’t Quit lady,  so-called because she had those words pinned to her back. We had met a few miles back and ran for a couple of miles. But “I am fast, I am strong, I am powerful” didn’t work when I was alone because I was listening to my own voice.

This was three miles of just getting through it. Mrs H encouraged me to think things through. Which I did. Badly. All my thoughts were negative until it eventually clicked that this was the way it was and I just had to bear it. The question then became how to bear it. At length this led to more productive thinking.  I realised what I needed and asked for it.

When I saw she had a cereal bar waiting I was able to quicken my steps into a power walk for one more mile, and receive that welcome gift! Before she had even handed over that granola bar, Mrs H had lightened my load. I am 99% sure that if she had not been there I would have given up.

I feel like this has a parallel with healing from depression. At points, you cannot do anything for yourself. Even though you’re thirsty you don’t have the energy to pour a glass of water. Your own will-power, positive self-talk, reminders, phrases simply do not do the job. In this instance you need someone and possibly something – medication, counselling, exercise – to help. I tried going to the doctor many times, but eventually just needed to be taken. I overtook Don’t Quit lady on lap 2, which I was running (my fastest miles were miles 25-26.2!), and repeated that phrase aloud to her, which perked both of us up. We somehow found each other after the finish line for a massive hug!

So in those times when you feel like you are running on empty I encourage you to keep moving. Somehow. Don’t quit. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you feel like you ought to be going faster and hate the slow pace. Just do your best, and shuffle on. In time you will be able to pick up pace again. And when you do, you will be proud that you kept going. But the struggle is a heck of a lot easier if you ask someone to be there for you. Because like it or not you need that person.

The Depressed Christian: part 3 – healing.

Last weekend, before Mental Health Awareness Week, Premier Christian Media posted a podcast with the title “Should Christians Take Anti-Depressents?” It is a 45 minute seminar hosted by psychologist Dr Rob Waller. This makes it difficult to listen to for the first ten minutes, as the mic doesn’t make its way round the room for feedback from discussion groups (he does summarise each point). He then goes into a really detailed talk in which he picks up different themes.

Unfortunately on the Facebook thread following Premier’s link most people answered a simple “yes,” as if there was no discussion to be had. The following was a well-written commonly held point.

should christians take anti-depressents

I see Jim’s point, but there is more to the story, and it seems most people didn’t actually bother to listen to the podcast before spouting their simplistic understanding. This irked me and prompted me review what I had already written about healing in relation to depression, a post that I left unfinished as the editing was too great a task! It has taken the full week to write this post. It is not as structured as I would like, but I could sit and tweak for ages and not be satsified. I only hope it makes sense.

In part 1 of this short series on being a Christian with depression, I tried to define the beast. In part 2 I wrote a bit about sin.

And now we come to thinking about healing.  What is healing? A simple definition might be the physical and emotional symptoms lifting. But can we ever achieve that completely and how do we achieve that?

For the Christian there is ultimate healing in Heaven. The well known verse in Revelation 21:4 says “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” What an awesome promise! No matter how crap things are now, we know it won’t be like that in Heaven. I very much look forward to that time!

But what about the rest of our life on earth?

What you believe about depression determines what you believe healing should look like. If you believe that it is completely sinful, you would believe that healing comes through Faith in Christ alone. As you put your trust in Jesus, your thoughts and mind will be transformed and the depression lifts. You experience the ever increasing happiness that Hannah Whithall Smith enthuses about in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

I don’t completely deride that view. Romans 12:2 strongly calls us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Although depression causes negative thoughts which are impossible to lodge by mere thinking, our negative thoughts can cause depression. For example, one of my triggers is my anger at being wronged and my inability to deal appropriately with it at the time by politely debating the point. There are two thinking processes to tackle: the actual or apparent wrong done by the other person; my perception of myself. These can be transformed by scripture, but it is not straightforward. Last week I was cycling home really angered by someone and realised I needed to forgive that person. It took me the whole 50 minute ride to get my brain wrapped round it and into the right gear. It took even longer to actually forgive the person and myself; to trust the fact that God forgave me because of Jesus – and to trust that that does mean that I can now forgive others. So, yes, trusting Jesus does salve.

But when we are depressed we are unable to do this thinking process. We are unable to trust. I don’t think the pneumatic style of counselling works for depression; in pneumatic the goal is to get the person’s thinking in line with scripture. This is a noble task, as it is the whole life-goal of a Christian, but a depressed person is not in the kind of place where they can do it!

I like to think of healing from depression like the journey of a marathon. Those 26.2 miles are a long way.  You aim for the finish, knowing you’ll get there sometime, and you don’t often feel like you’ll get to the start, let alone the finish. But keep plodding, and you’ll get there.

Is there a finish-line for depression? Everyone is different. But I believe that yes, there is a finish line. We just can’t see it yet. What evidence do I have? None. But I believe because I have to. We fight in the hope there is a finish line.

In Mind Over Marathon the BBC held an experiment in which they took 10 people with various mental health issues, and trained them to be able to run a marathon. I have only watched one episode – I cried so hard I am waiting for the ‘best’ moment to watch part 2. all the way through). It’s telling that the participants talked about ‘coping’ rather than ‘being rid’ of their mental health issues.  One of my favourite moments was when participant Jake and presenter Nick Knowles discussed whether he was actually in a good place, or whether he was in a state of flux. He thought about this, and replied that he could feel his depression coming; that it was “in the mail, but I don’t know when.”

I think of my healing in part as coping with depression when it comes, and doing my best to prevent it coming again – knowing all the time it may strike again. In the Facebook thread, people likened depression to a broken leg: if you break your leg, you would go to the doctor. This is true, but that’s where the analogy stops. When your leg heals, the fact that you’ve broken your leg doesn’t put you more at risk of breaking your leg again. But that’s not the case with depression.

I know full-well that I may have another major depressive episode. In that instance, I will go to the doctor, and get on the right meds. I think medication is crucial. Apart from a very small minority of people (I assume), most people would agree that Christians absolutely should use medication. After-all, they were given by God, and we don’t have issues with using painkillers. If we had no issue about seeing the doctor with a broken arm, surely we should have no problem going about a mental health issue?

The painkiller analogy isn’t the best. Consider the following drugs: would you be comfortable taking them? why, why not? Pparacetamol. Morphine. The Morning After Pill. Most people in the seminar agreed that paracetamol was fine, but the morning after pill definitely was not. There are clear ethical implications. Morphine split the room in half. Personally, I would be concerned about the potential for addiction to morphine after the initial problem had been healed. In this instance, morphine might not actually be helpful for me, but a hinderance with regard to my overall healing. I hope I never have to find out!

Similarly, anti-depressents should come with a health warning; and doctors should work hard to ensure the patient is on the right ones for them, and that the patient is actually doing their part. Anti-depressants for a long time hindered my healing process. Having heard about people on them for a very long time, I wondered if I was destined to be one of those people and I gave up hope. For some people, life without medication would be simply not worth living. I believe for some people it is right to continue to be on them. I believed my meds would completely heal me and became dependent on them, and for a long time ignored the hard work of addressing the issues potentially behind my depression. Dr Waddell also discussed the fact that for some people anti-depressants can worsen their condition. They are clearly not a one-size fixes all.

One of the best discussions during my healing was with my psychologist. I came to realise that what was really healing me was the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – in which I learnt about my thought processes and some tools to help – my meetings with the psychologist and my running. My medication was simply enabling me to do accomplish the real work. Maybe my medication was hindering rather than helping me; maybe I was dependent on them for something they weren’t giving?

This is what Dr Wallar and other professionals posit. That for deep depressions, medication can and should be used. Wallar talked about them helping someone go from a “minus 10 depression to a minus 5.” This was my experience, and is what my GP told me – that by themselves they won’t heal. Wallar went further, and said that for minor depressions they don’t help because in minor depressions aren’t so much about missing chemicals, so it won’t solve the general unhappiness.

After I had realised that, I started to look at coming off the medication. It’s another story in itself, but I’ve now been off them for a year. My healing is ongoing, but I am healthier than ever.

Next time: keeping depression at bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Why the first Stirling Marathon will be my last.

It’s the old joke: your body and mind scream right after a race “never. again.” But as soon as you’ve cooled down and somehow get some food into you, your thoughts turn to “well, maybe”, and before you’ve gone to bed you’re looking at the calendar for your next one. So feel free to doubt me when I say: my next marathon, which is Stirling’s first (21st May), will be my last.

OK, maybe it won’t. Not until I get faster, or stronger, or mentally snappier, or. No. It will be my last. I am bowing out of marathons, having satisfied myself.

I have not had a fantastic career. I’m an also-ran. Always back of the pack at school, I stopped doing sport as soon as I could. I started running a whole year after my doctor prescribed exercise to help fight my depression, about 7 years ago (I’ve lost track). I made my way through the Couch to 5K program. After I accomplished that goal,  I let it slip to the extent where I had to redo the second half and founded I what I really needed was a goal. I wondered whether “someday” I would do a marathon.

So I signed up and completed a half marathon in 2015. I decided that before my 30th I should just get ahead and do a marathon, giving me three years. I signed up to Edinburgh Marathon 2016, and got round it alright, but at mile 22 I was taking a walking break with a marshal for one of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had.

I learned that he was a 5k specialist, and loved trying to get his time down; the training involved lots of speed work but also lots of easy miles – much like marathoning training. He said he found “all of you so inspiring.” After all, it takes a lot to run a marathon.

There’s the long runs (up to three hours), and it’s not just the running that takes time – but the eating properly beforehand, and refuelling afterwards. It’s planning and adjusting routes as mileages increase. It’s adjusting your schedule to fit in all your workouts, complicated for me by my need to commute by bike. That takes mental energy, too. In marathon training, you work on accumulated fatigue; so you’re running or cycling on tired legs. This can have a draining effect on your body. You start feeling niggles in your body and wonder whether you’re injured – I call it marachondria (maratho hypochondria). And running so much can tip it from enjoyment into a chore, especially if you do the same routes all the time – which is why I started doing Parkrun!

This for me turns running from something which helped heal my depression into something which hinders me. Throughout Couch 2 5K I hated the shin splints, feeling out of breath, not being able to get up the hills and the self-consciousness about my running gait. Yet I kept going for two reasons: the achievement of reaching a time or distance, and the impact it had on the rest of my life. Over time running began to energise me, I was able to sleep slightly better at night, and I had energy to get on and do the rest of the things that needed doing. I also had an increased motivation to eat healthier.

I have found I am not dedicated enough to stop my marathon training interfere with basic life stuff, while the physical and mental energy required saps me, often leaving me unable to get things done. This includes writing; I’ve very much let this blog slip!

Mile 22 marshal was inspiring because he showed me you don’t need to do a marathon to get the benefits from running.

However, shortly before meeting this marshal I had decided I would do another marathon, but would learn from my mistakes and do it better. That’s what Stirling is about. When I realised a few weeks ago that marathoning was not the best distance for me, I was able to readjust my goal from a specific time to just enjoying it. This actually should help me with pacing in the first 16 miles – because in order to enjoy the last 10, I will need to slow down enough in the first 16 miles (so in that sense I am expecting a better time than last year’s)!

Mile 22 Marshal also inspired me for his dedication to reducing times in that shorter distance. Because it takes as much work as a marathon does. I would love to run a sub 2 hour half; a time that is for most people normal, but for me requires a huge leap of 18 minutes. And a sub 25 minute 5K – achievable, as in this marathon cycle I’ve knocked 2 minutes off my 5k time. Doing a marathon was about pushing my limits, to see how far I could go – now I want to push myself at how fast I can go.

The shorter distances are great because they don’t take as much time. I joked recently that I wouldn’t be able to attend something in a couple of months because I’ll be training for my next half (Dundee – 16th July). Someone quipped that surely you don’t need to train for a half if you’ve ran a full! But I will! Me breaking 2 hours for the half will be as miraculous as Kipchoge nearly breaking 2 for a full.

It will take my training into a new direction, and I’m really looking forward to it. It will require a different type of dedication and I’ll be able to easily vary the workouts without much planning. And best of all, it won’t take over my life, so you will get the best of me!

5 things I learnt while watching Nike’s #breaking2 attempt

This morning Eliud Kipchoge became the person to come closest to running a sub 2 hour marathon. Had he done it, it would have been a milestone, like the first sub 4 minute mile, or the first sub 10 second 100 metre sprint. He came tantalisingly close. Although technically it was the fastest marathon ever ran, it doesn’t count as a world record because various conditions weren’t met (for instance, the distance between the start and finish lines; the ability to have fuel whenever they wanted as opposed to at set points on the course; the use of pacers). But that’s not the point of the experiment.  Zersenay Tadese, Lelisa Desisa and Kipchoge all still needed to run their hardest for all 26.2 miles.

Before I became a runner I never would have watched any distance – not even the 10 seconds required for a 100m – let alone a marathon. But loads of non-runners on Twitter seemed to also find it a nailbiting 2.00 hours. I’m sure we all learnt a lot.

If you want to do it, you’ll go ahead and do it

I am not an early riser, but I had to get up at 4.40 am on a Saturday to watch the thing. And I saw all bar the first minute and a half. This presents a challenge – if I was that desperate to watch a handful of men run for two hours to get me out of bed long before I needed to be, what else should I be excited to do? I’m sure if I wanted to get up and go for a run at that time, I would make it happen. Or read the bible and pray.

Failure is as much about a state of mind as it is a thing

Given the aim of running 1:59:99 or below, the time-stamp on Kipchoge’s run of 2:00:25 is a failure, as are Desisa’s and Tadese’s comparitively slower but still flipping fast efforts. So, yeah, Nike failed to break the 2:00:00 barrier. But does that make them a failure?

Not in the slightest. This was an experiment. And all that science, selection, training, drafting, use of pacers, individually tailored fluids to the quantity and makeup of their sweat, and – yes – the trainers with a carbon fibre insole, clearly worked: Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon ever – the WR being 2:02:57 – while Tadese got a PR.

Humilty maketh a man great

I don’t know why Nike chose to have comedian Kevin Hart on the side of the track. Probably to appeal to those not in the running community as he could bring some fun into all the data and discussion given by commentators Paula Radcliffe and Craig Masback. He was amusing during the clip of him racing the pacers (he lasted maybe a minute), but he managed to turn everything toward him. While talking with Carl Lewis, he failed to give Carl time enough to voice his thoughts before he talked about how he could do it, just give him time. It was by then a tired and laboured joke. I think I actually shouted at him at one point.

Compare this with the pacers, tasked with setting the pace for the three men, getting them round the course. Each of them seamlessly entered and exited the group. Each of them had to take time out of their own seasons to practice all this in the weeks leading up to this attempt. Each of them did 4.8k before a 30 minute rest and another slot – as someone said “it was like a good, hard workout for them”. And each of them were darn thrilled for Kipchoge. One of my favourite memories is of them coming round the last bend, pointing to the finish line, screaming encouragement and smiling as if it was them achieving it.

Also compare with Kipchoge himself, who when being interviewed by Lewis stated that he was happy that “the world is closer to the sub-2”. He could have easily said “I am closer to sub 2 than anyone else.” This was for him about testing the boundaries not only for himself but for all of us – or at least the ones who might be able someday to do it! He also made a point of jogging past the fans and signing shoes, high-5ing, selfies. So chilled.

Human physiology is amazing

The science could only do so much: these guys still had to run fast. For two hours. In a way that isn’t (or wasn’t) really possible. Most records are set by running the first half slower than the second; the Nike team realised that they had to have the guys set off as fast as they were to finish. Watching Kipchoge was memorising. The fast leg turnover, the stable torso, the arm swing. His form did not breakdown at all until the final push when he somehow gave more than he had already been giving, and I honestly had to look really hard during his post-race interview before I noticed the tiniest bit of sweat.

Tadese and Desisa had completely different form; Nike had chosen them all for their running efficiency (how much oxygen they get pumped round their body) not on a perceived “perfect form”. That two of them gave the best performances of their career shows that running style can vary from runner to runner – at least in elites. There are basic principles which as a back-of-the-packer with terrible form I am working on – but it was encouraging to know there is some leeway.

The mind-battle must be fought, and can be overcome

I’m amazed at Tadese and Desisa for finishing. Runners aim to have a stronger finish in mid to long distances because starting faster means a lot of pain at the end of the race. They kept ploughing on, despite the searing pain their legs must have felt. Once they realised that the sub 2 wasn’t going to be theirs, they must have felt like giving up, because, well what’s the point? They could have so easily gone “nope, it’s not happening today.” (for other stupefyingly courageous mind-over-matter battles, watch Akwhari finishing the ’68 Olympic Marathon  , or Derek Redman in Barcelona – i’m sure you’ve seen that one).
Kipchoge has also spoken about how much he wonders if the battle is psychological.

He didn’t accomplish the goal, but the attempt and all those other finishers are so inspiring because of that drive to keep pushing to test the limits. The question Radcliffe kept asking was “what’s your sub-2?”

The day I achieve a sub 2 half marathon will be amazing for me. But that’s the point – to think about your dream, and question whether any of the barriers aren’t actual but perceived. There may be some physical ones (I am not built for speed, so I doubt I’ll get much below 2 hrs for a half), but before the sub 4 mile, 4 minutes was a psychological block. Now some people run under 4 minutes regularly. I definitely used this psychology in my long run today. Setting off for somewhere between 8 and 15 miles, I pushed my barriers and, very much glycogen depleted, nailed 16.1 miles; driving me to think that a sub 5 hour marathon in two weeks might just be possible.

So, as Radcliffe asked – what’s your sub-2?