A bit over six months ago, I wrote a post setting out my plan to start a run along the Pyrenees in summer 2023. I had promised (or threatened) to document the various elements of my preparation. Instead, I have posted neither word nor picture since. What happened?
The answer is, in short, a depressive episode from which I am gradually emerging. And as there are fewer descriptions of these than of long races or mind-boggling adventures, I thought I would share my experience. Just in case it resonates with others who may find themselves in a similar position either now, or sometime in the future.
Feelings are real
While mental health is not quite the taboo subject it used to be not so long ago, I still feel self-conscious about sharing: mostly over how trivial my concerns must seem compared to what many people go through daily without making a song, dance and blog post about it. I fear that I might come across as terribly self-indulgent for talking about the things that make me sad, considering how good I have it by almost every measure.
This was the first hurdle I had to overcome before talking to anyone about my feelings: my sadness is valid and real, regardless of the objective severity of the event(s) that may trigger it. And so are its effects on the people around me. I then had to convince myself that opening up had no reflection on my mental strength, either: I liken it to the (very different) sadness and upset young Philip (my 5-year-old son) feels over something that to me or his mum might seem trivial (being presented with the ‘wrong’ ice cream cone, after a long day at school and after-school for example): The triviality of the situation doesn’t invalidate his emotions of the moment.
It certainly doesn’t mark him as weak of spirit either: he can take things in his stride that might cause me to wobble (the loss of our pet dog last year, the recent performance of Leicester City FC, even the departure of his beloved Kasper Schmeichel from the squad at the start of the season); it was only the other week that he set off on the second lap of his junior parkrun with a cheery “let’s concentrate on our run now”, having just received first aid for leaving most of the skin of his elbow on the floor of the first lap.
The actual physiological causes and mechanisms of depression are outside the scope of this post (and way beyond my limited knowledge of the matter), but this was a point I wanted to make clear: that our feelings are real, whether they are “justified”, “proportional” or anything else in other people’s – or our own – eyes.
So with this out of the way, let’s talk briefly about how I experienced the past 10 months or so:
The period from October to late November last year (2021) was marked by impending and actual loss (including that of Dash, mentioned above, and other losses which aren’t mine to share), lack of sleep and the tension that such things bring. What I took to be “release” from grief came during the Christmas period, but unfortunately it was in the form of too many crisps and too much alcohol (even allowing for the festive period) rather than long runs in nature, journaling or anything helpful. In other words, I sought solace in things that helped me repress my feelings as opposed to giving them some release. No judgement, just a statement of fact.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t help improve my emotional wellbeing. On the contrary it led me to put on a significant amount of weight (much more in 9 months than my wife put on during her entire pregnancy) directly because of stress (pesky cortisol!) or indirectly through a stress-caused increased consumption of alcohol and crisps.
This then put me in a vicious circle, as the added weight made me feel worse about myself, and the fact that I was putting more on despite my attempts to control it made me feel more helpless, mentally and physically weaker than I used to be, and in middle-aged decline.
My last proper run was the Excalibur trail half-marathon in May 2022, and I remember the sensations of a large knot sitting at my diaphragm and significant bloating as I ran. I kept waiting for running to shake them off, but they only got more pronounced as I ran. I am lucky enough to have access to private GPs through work, and they referred me to a range of exams and specialists: they have all returned normal. In the meantime, my joy of running kept receding, to the point where I bailed out of a lovely mid-length run by the canal a few months ago, for no other reason than that I could not be bothered to carry on…
For context, I should add that I had been diagnosed with mild depression well before October 2021, so I was already receiving regular counselling as well as antidepressants. My prescription was increased at the start of summer as a response to the sustained deterioration in my mood, but other than more vivid nightmares every night I did not see any tangible effect (then again there was no control version of me, so this is most certainly not a comment on the efficacy of the medication).
Black Horse Riders to the rescue
It took a bike ride with the Black Horse Riders, an unofficial cycling club affiliated to a lovely local pub for me to internalise the realisation (if you will forgive the clumsiness of the expression) that the root cause of my complaints was stress: That was what I should be targeting then, instead of imposing stricter diet and training regimes on myself, which in my state at the time only led to a vicious circle of even more stress.
I made a conscious decision to stop running for a bit (as opposed to missing my runs and beating myself up for it afterwards), as the dissonance between the subconscious’ memory of what running felt like and the body’s current state was unhelpful.
I also deferred my London Marathon entry for October 2022 (this ironically being the first time I got in through the ballot) to the following April and, if I can get in some sort of state for that, I still hope to start my Pyrenees running adventure next summer. But I needed to ease back before I could launch forward again.
Instead, I turned my attention to cycling and weight training, activities which I enjoy greatly, but in which I didn’t have any set expectations to haunt me.
Photos: my own (but you won’t catch me taking selfies in the gym!)
And splitting logs: We had lived for a number of months with the sliced remains of a large tree that had fallen in our garden during February’s storms. Loath to let so much timber go to waste, but not knowing what to do with it, I had just let it be, a pile of huge logs just lying there making the garden look untidy. As part of my new fitness regime, I bought the heaviest axe I could find and got to work! I loved the physical effort involved, first tidying the logs into a large pile, then working under the trees next to the canal, to see the pile slowly dwindle as the logs turned into firewood. I’d usually work on it after I had got up from my desk job and continue as the afternoon turned into dusk and nature settled.
It’s an activity Philip loves to be involved in too, and another opportunity for some dad-son bonding over “manly” stuff (I wonder who’s need I am addressing most here – but that’s a subject for another
therapy session blog post).
Incidentally, I know some people might flinch at the sight of a five-year-old wielding an axe, but I believe in teaching him the correct use of tools from a young age. And that while an axe and my Swiss Army knife might look exciting, at the end of the day they are all just tools, all potentially dangerous (inc. screw drivers, wrenches, cable cutters, hammers, pocket-knives, axes, saws, matches…) and not toys to use without supervision, play with or glamourise. So far he has been very responsible and proved worthy of my trust.
Photo: my own
My pedagogical theories aside, I realise with hindsight that I felt and acted much older than I am, not only physically, but mentally too. I found myself wondering whether I will ever be fit to run again, and sad that I would never get a chance to do any serious running with Philip! At the age of 46, having ran at least one marathon a year in the past 11 years, and otherwise healthy, that was at the very least over-dramatic.
Hindsight being a gift that keeps giving, I now see that this belief that all is lost and that all doors have just shut closed on me never to open again, is a recurring theme for me in a depressed mood: At 21, following a car accident that wrote off the car with which I planned to drive from Athens to Bradford a few days later, I was convinced that I had missed my only opportunity to drive across Europe. I was about to start my final year at university you see, so it stood to reason that once I started working, I would never have free time to drive around. That proved to be the nonsense it sounds like, and I have since driven across Europe a few times: alone, with a friend, with Dash, and with Dash and Demi.
The way out
But back to this year: The gradual improvement in my mood started with a family camping expedition in a woodland campsite in June: The connection with nature, time with family with no gadgets to distract us (there was no signal or power points to recharge them), and the feeling I was being appreciated for being handy in outdoorsy stuff…
Holidays in Greece the following month also helped get me back on an even keel, and a cycling weekend in the Peak District (an adventure spawned from the same seed that gave us the Pyrenean run) with a good friend helped set me on a steady course to recovery.
Photos: David Crain’s & my own
So where am I now? Physically probably the un-fittest I’ve ever been, but mentally in a much better place. And 16 weeks before I even need to start my marathon training, I started running again. Nothing fancy, and certainly nothing pretty: humble little runs, taking it a day at a time: but on a long term trajectory that should gently take me to 40-mile (64km) weeks (and a few kilos down) before Christmas. Sure, some days are better than others, but I am back to realising that this is part of the course, and nothing to get all upset about.
And most importantly, I have learned more about the transient nature of such episodes. Despite how I felt at my lowest, I am not doomed to a life of obesity because I put on some weight in my mid-forties!
First of all, I owe a heartfelt thank you to everyone who supported me over the past few months: the Black Horse Riders for getting me out, the team in the Black Horse pub for welcoming me in, my family and friends near and far for lending an ear (and David especially for putting up with me over 2 days in the Peaks), Philip for being a source of endless joy and inspiration, and Demi – for everything.
And to everyone who read early drafts of this post, were generous with their comments and encouraged me to publish.
After I’ve drafted a post, and before actually posting, I pause to consider why anyone would read it: Am I telling readers something they didn’t know? Am I regaling them with a captivating tale? The answer is usually ‘no’, but that doesn’t stop me!
This time I have hesitated a bit longer and asked for feedback from friends and experts on early drafts. I know that this is a sensitive subject: On one level depression is a very serious topic, but on another a middle-aged, middle-class, white, heterosexual male complaining about putting on some weight because he ate and drank too much, is unlikely to generate much sympathy.
Which is fine, because the purpose of writing this is not to fish for sympathy: As I said, I know that I have it better than many people. I am supported by a loving family, friends and competent professionals. Even at my lowest there was plenty of happiness. And I feel I may be through the worst of it.
Nor does this pretend to be an educational article on depression: As I’ve already said, I have neither the knowledge nor experience for such an undertaking.
Perhaps it is a small (or, judging by the size of my followership, very small!) contribution to raising awareness of the subject and different people’s experience of it. A warning cry of “bollard!”, “root!” or “branch!” to the runner immediately behind you on a large group run, if you will.
But I would also like it to be a reminder that these episodes pass: even if when we go through them it’s often easy to confuse the symptom (in my case the weight I have put on) for a cause (i.e. the depression, triggered by a combination of stressful events, all occurring in a small space of time).
I suppose this may be another reason why it’s hard for us men to talk about things like this: Tell your mate that you are feeling down because you’ve put on some weight and (after the obligatory ribbing), he’ll go straight in problem-solving mode, and give you (possibly sound) advice to resolve the issue as presented. When just to get to the real issue can take time, introspection, gallons of unhelpful drinks, mountains of crisps, some more time, more missteps, eventually stumbling across a sense of purpose, and hundreds of miles on a bike.
Or whatever works for you.
PS: happy to talk about any of the subjects I’ve touched upon, either publicly in the comments section or social media response or privately using the form below.