“It’s not about the legs, but it’s about the heart and mind.” Eliud Kipchoge.
I have tried many times to write this piece. To write something perhaps illuminating, perhaps instructional on the overlap between mental health and sport. I have failed miserably on several occasions. The words simply do not come.
Perhaps I have been thinking about this issue wrongly, perhaps the way forward is not to research endless statistics but to make things personal. To make them relatable. To make them real.
I have settled on this: to tell my own, highly unoriginal, tale of perseverance.
When I came to Cambridge I had emerged from a school experience latterly devoid of dedicated running. My spikes had rusted in the cellar. Football boots lay unused, collecting dust. The only pair of swimming trunks I owned were several sizes too small; kids’ medium just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Determined to rescue a running career stranded in the doldrums, I ran. More specifically, I ran with the university athletics club. I am now on the committee.
Running, or more widely doing any sport, is about confidence and it is here that mental health enters the fray. For instance, the mental health charity Mind references a study claiming that increasing activity levels from nothing to three instances of exercises a week can reduce the risk of depression by up to 20%.
There is an old adage which states the hardest part of anything is the start, the first step. Anyone who has ever asked anyone on a date knows that it is plucking up the courage to do so which demands the most of oneself.
Getting out the door demands that one move beyond any issues relating to body confidence or self-confidence and open oneself up to the possibility of humiliation. From the first step, exercising, running in my case, demands that one have the mental toughness to persevere in the face of adversity. There may be some who see you on the street or on the track, and muse to themselves that they “could do better” or that you “should be running faster”.
But once over that first hurdle, the confidence only keeps accumulating. Each stride has the potential to fill one with joy. With every step you are getting fitter, getting quicker, improving. But one need not only think in terms of times, in terms of pace.
Running has the beautiful power to clear one’s mind. In this veritable academic pressure cooker nestled in a little corner of England there are trees galore to marvel at, and fields over which to gaze. One can even, and I have whilst running, dream up the back stories of the assorted passers-by.
This is my little victory, when I pull on those trainers and put my rubber on the road. I have beaten my inner defeatist attitude. The fear of failure is run away from and by the time I get back to my desk there is only a sense of accomplishment and this carries over to work.
When work threatens to drag you down, running offers that escape, that opportunity to succeed. It is a coping mechanism unlike no other.
The benefits of exercising need no further extolling; I will, however, add the following aside. Before last year I had never been injured, not seriously anyway. Nothing more than a broken wrist here, a twisted ankle there. But last year I could not run for maybe a month, I should not really have run for two. This was the most unhappy time of the year. Why? Because I had no out. When work got too much I couldn’t pull on trainers at 11 pm at night and run away from it all. I merely wallowed in a pit of despair.
This short episode opened my eyes: to run is to live. When interviewed after his attempt to break the 2-hour barrier for the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge had this to say: “I think many people were worried that if a human being ran two hours, he might die. I’m still alive.”
In this place, Cambridge, a bastion of learning, pressure can get too much for anyone. Coping mechanisms are a must.
You can always run away. The trick is to run back too.
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