As a teenager, my mum was county champion at tennis and went to trials for the Scottish hockey team. They told her to drink a pint of milk a day and come back in a year, but by that time she was working and couldn’t afford to think about sport any more. She’d come down to my school and coach badminton classes, and play tennis with us on the knackered, potholed courts by the bowling green. She never went easy on us, like my granddad hadn’t been easy on her. He used to say, “Don’t come home until you win.”
I was ten when I was handed a bib for the ‘B’ team at netball, which translates to ‘You are not good at this.’ When I started high school, I was given a hockey stick for my birthday so I could follow in my mother’s footsteps. I had my paternal grandfather’s short ‘duck’ legs and I was slow and uncoordinated. One of the skinny girls in the year below would scream at me, and more often than not, I would end up cheering the team from the subs bench. I was insanely competitive but had no talent. When I was done with high school; I decided I was done with sport too.
My early twenties were filled with sporadic trips to the gym, Tracy Anderson fitness videos and ‘bums, tums ‘n’ thighs’ classes where new mothers go to lose their baby weight. The inevitable had happened; exercise became about what my body looked like, as opposed to what it could do. I had no interest in being strong or supple, or even fit. I just wanted to be smaller.
I was in an unhealthy relationship at the time with someone who constantly berated me for not going as fast or as far on the treadmill as I’d have liked (I once stopped running to kick him in the shin and storm off…not my proudest moment!). Instead of encouraging me to do better, the criticism broke me down and my body didn’t change.
Exercise soon become a punishment. When I did it, I wasn’t thinking about how good it was for me. It was about how stupid I was for eating a bagel for breakfast. It was about being thinner so a man would finally tell me I was good enough. It was about hating myself. What little joy I’d ever received from holding a racquet or running up and down a pitch had now been extinguished. Doing those things became about calorie burning, not pleasure.
At the age of 24, I moved to London by myself. That unhealthy relationship was out of sight and out of mind. I had nobody looking over my shoulder, I had no slimmer friends to compare myself to, no one was watching but me.
So I started running.
I lived in Brockley and ran round the little park near my house. Run run run. Actually, I was really slow and had bad knees, so it was more like hobbling. Hobble hobble hobble.
I moved to Greenwich and my little hobble became a little jog round the O2 every evening. On the really good nights, I’d come in under the 30 minute mark and do a dance on my front doorstep. My knee muscles strengthened and stopped hurting. I moved house again and again, as I do, and my running shoes came with me. I left my bad relationship and found a good one. I ran and ran and ran.
I ran into depression and anxiety like it was a brick wall.
Running became something else to criticise; not fast enough, not far enough, rather than the escape it was supposed to be. So I stopped doing it and went back to hating myself instead.
Depressed people know they should be exercising, ok? We know. But when the thought of going to work has you crying into your breakfast, and doing housework seems as plausible as climbing Everest, nipping out for a quick 5k is out of the question. My legs started to twitch and when the weather was good, I’d find myself thinking that it would be the perfect time to run. The few times I did try it, I’d come home in tears, disappointed with my performance.
My boyfriend Mike asked me, “Who are you in competition with? You play sport like you’re trying to make a living.” That’s when I realised I had never exercised for the pure pleasure of it.
Last week, I went out in the morning to run before work and it felt harsh on my, now, untoned legs. My movement was no longer a job or a hobble, but a plod. Plod plod plod. ‘This is rubbish’, I kept thinking. So slow and so out of breath. Rubbish! And yet I found myself smiling. When I reached my front door I thought to myself, “That wasn’t my best and it was difficult, but I really enjoyed it.”
Mike, still half asleep, asked: “How did you get on?”
“It was rubbish and difficult and I really enjoyed it!”, I answered, glowing.
Exercise is no longer a punishment, it’s my reward for getting out of bed. It’s my pat on the back for making it through a day at work. Running is my form of self love. Some days I plod, some days I hobble. I feel like I’m running away from my depression. I run and run and run.