As Marcus plans out his race calendar for next year, mine is emphatically empty. 104 blank pages. It’s ok, I’m not going to burst into tears as I might have done two years ago, although my eyes still have a habit of leaking now and again. I’m not going to rush to put endurance cycling events in like I did one year ago (and then cancelled them all). I am quietly going to fill it with some knee rehab, thanks to delayed surgery, interesting bits of work and some time with friends.
It’s not just the lack of race entries that keep it empty. When I was running 100+ races, I would have work with brands, magazine photo shoots, podcast requests, and people who wanted to hear me speak about running. That’s all quiet now. It makes sense, I’m no longer racing. Just quiet little walks from my home as I exercise the dog and prepare for another knee replacement. There never seems much to say about those or people who want to hear about them.
Despite feeling balanced mentally going into the time around my osteoarthrosis diagnosis, it’s been a hard adjustment. Without those running achievements, the message my mind received is I am not interesting, not needed, not wanted.
The truth is, the races were long down the list of heroic efforts. Before I ran 100 miles I thought it would be so interesting, but looking back now it was just a fun weekend away from my desk. Ask me what my toughest times have been and I wouldn’t even think about those runs. I would tell you about the cold November week I spent in London looking for my lost brother before the Police found his body. I would tell you about sitting next to my Dad, hearing him take his last breath and watching my brother close his eyes. I would tell you about the day I found my partner cheating but had to immediately show up at work and not tell anyone. I would tell you about how night after night I went to bed with the hope I could sleep and end the insomnia yet still be awake at 3am. I wouldn’t tell you about running over some fields when my legs were starting to get tired. It was there I got the most social media attention though.
I have had to re-curate my social media since my osteoarthritis diagnosis. It was runners everywhere. At first, just being a runner was enough for me to mute or unfollow, apart from some close friends. Now seeing runners doesn’t provoke such a strong reaction and I am more discerning with who’s words and pictures I consume.
It comes down to ‘what are they celebrating?’
If the celebration is the joy of sunrises and sunsets I am there. If it’s a celebration of curiosity about what is out there, what is down that path, and what you can do without hurting yourself, then I am alongside them. If it’s a celebration of the wins of a new hobby, of pure enjoyment, the jubilance of us being all together here now, floating through space on a lump of rock and how weird and wonderful that is, count me in.
But was this the celebration I find in a lot of the running and runners I was following before? For me, it wasn’t. I saw a different focus.
In endurance sports, there seems to be a celebration of the suffering, the pain, the damage to the body. I stepped away from the posts where people finished races with stress fractures and were told they were courageous, brave, and a legend. I mute the ones where they boast about how they can’t sit still or take a rest day. I unfollow the ones who share memes of injured runners defying the medical advice to head out for a run. Just as I don’t consume fast food, I don’t want this going into me either.
There’s a quieter voice I unfollow too, the one that doesn’t make space for pain and chronic illness. The ones who tell me the only limit is my mind, which I saw this week, or the ones who tell me that getting out in nature is all I need. Nature is painful for me, it’s a delicate balance of trying to stay fit and strong but managing the constant pain. I don’t want someone to tell me it’s all in my head and I can do whatever I want if I just believe. I want someone to acknowledge that not everyone can exercise pain-free, or exercise at all.
Earlier in the year, Runners World referred to a report in Sports Medicine, which found that a substantial number of ultrarunners struggle with mental health issues and eating disorders. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine described the benefits of exercise for treating depression and depressive symptoms as following an inverted U-shaped curved with higher levels or excessive amounts of exercise having damaging effects on mental health. So I return, to what are we celebrating? Is it all healthy?
I find exercise something which we see in binary terms… exercise is good. It’s always good. But there is so much I see that is unhealthy and disordered, whether it’s from social media, people who came to me for coaching, or even what I see other coaches sharing (which is perhaps the most concerning). Don’t forget the curve, the tipping point, where excessive exercise is damaging. Going back to the comments of the runner who started and completed a marathon through tears with numerous stress factors, is this something we should call brave, courageous, and hail as a legend? We wouldn’t use those words with people who damage their bodies with alcohol or drugs, so why exercise? What are we celebrating? The idea that pushing through pain and suffering will lead to toughness just doesn’t work for me, and many studies agree.
I initially stepped away from the posts and boasts of runners to protect my mental health. I retreated to a lonely world where I felt bereft of such a part of my life and friends and the planned-out future. I sat, literally, with my own pain. But as I dare to hope I might be able to climb mountains again and do some multi-day walks in the future, I come back with a new perspective. One that we should look deeper at the achievements we celebrate.
If I could wave a wand and take away my osteoarthritis and knee replacements would I go back to ultramarathons? Yes, I think I probably would. But would I stop advocating for us to ask is it always healthy? No, I wouldn’t stop this. Because not everything we are celebrating is healthy. Not everything is an act of courage. What I do want to celebrate, the compassion and kindness to ourselves and our bodies, has been pushed down into the dark. I want to hold the light to it.
Running 100 miles is easy with time training if you have the privilege of a healthy body. But facing a life-changing illness, cultivating a healthy relationship with our body and mind, and being ok with who we are without the achievements and medals, that for me, is the true courage to celebrate. It’s also a lot more interesting.