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Rob's Story - Running for Wellness

“You aren’t as good as those other dudes other there.” These voices sounded scarily similar to those I had been fighting with for the year prior. Scarily similar.

I am not a runner. I am 6’2” and vary between 100-108kg. Running and I are like orange and chocolate (or F-76 and water for the stokers out there!) – things that just do not go together. The prospect of running 21.1km is not an attractive one at all – many unattractive comparisons of what I would rather do could be made but these are best left to the imagination.

So why did I run a half marathon? And why do I run?

I have not been well for quite a long time.

Having spent a long time away over a long career and sacrificing my family for it, many things came to roost all at once and it sent me to a very dark place. I really was not well and I asked for help.

Professional support was very quick to do it’s thing and swing into action around me but it was a totally exposing experience to take that step and ask for help. There is still so much stigma around mental health and trying to find the right people to tell was a real challenge. As a senior leader, my fear (be it rational or irrational) of being judged and put in a “box” was absolutely consuming. While the professionals did their thing, what I had real trouble in doing was the proverbial “seeing the forest from the trees”. I was having real trouble gaining perspective. As my treatment progressed, the continued nagging (in the nicest of ways) from the medical officers was around PT and physical exertion and including this in my plan. My typical answer was “yeh yeh yeh, I will… promise”. I didn’t.

The scientific links between physical and mental well-being are well known and reported. But anybody that has ever started or struggled to start a fitness plan will know how hard it is. Where I was at mentally, I saw it as just another thing consuming my time when I was already under immense pressure from all corners; home, work and my own professional pride. The get-well plan I was following (all aside from the fitness) and the mental fatigue this was causing meant the prospect of doing PT, simply a further drain, I just could not face. What made things worse was my intent to hide my “condition”. I did not want people to see a different me, mainly because I did not want the endless questions and having to re-tell what was going on. Putting that “normal face” each day and maintaining it was killing me.

So why did I run a half marathon? And why do I run?

I don’t know what it was that actually got me out the door on day 1 of my running journey. I genuinely don’t. Maybe I just needed to breath. Maybe I just wanted some alone time. I don’t even remember if it was a conscious decision or not. But I put my shoes on and shuffled my fat-arse around Ngataringa a few times. I didn’t have any music. I didn’t have my phone. I just ran.

It hurt. Not right away but my lungs felt like they were about exit my body on strike and give me a punch in the kidneys on the way out!

But, for the first time in almost 6 months since my diagnosis of depression, I was able to be alone with my thoughts. Now that seems a scary prospect when you are unwell, but it is just so liberating. I had silence. All I had to focus on was putting one foot in front of another, breathing and keeping my head up. I could stop pretending I was ok, I was not on show, I was not worried about how I was coming across and would anybody pick up just how unwell I was.

This is no dream ride, where we cue a montage to inspirational music. My legs were sore, my gut hurt from bouncing around and I was asking “what the actual **** are you doing?!”

But that time of being able to drop the façade, being able to break my existence in that moment to simply moving my body in a single direction and allowing all-else to zone out was able to afford me a little recharge. I felt fresher mentally, was able to carry my “I’m ok mask” a little easier and get through the day with a little energy to spare. So I kept running, 3 times a week and looking for routes I could run where I was more alone to permit my zoning. I was not running for pace or to beat people, I was running for alone time, for quiet time. I was running for a rest.

With the little bits of recharge this time on my own gave me (plus all the physical-psycho benefits of endorphins etc etc), my recovery from depression started accelerating from the seemingly glacial pace it was prior.

With all training and recovery – be they physical or mental, there are plateaus. I hit mine for both. Given the demands from home, work and recovery had me committed to everybody else, it became apparent pretty quickly that I needed a focus. Getting well is great but it is ill-defined and movable. I needed a selfish me-focussed goal that was at such a level I could not ill-prepare and forced me to have more alone time – the pyscho-physical benefits of the PT becoming abundantly clear at both home and in the workplace as my mood increasingly lightened.

Running a really long way seemed a good idea at the time so I picked an event in the future that afforded me enough time to prepare but equally not enough to put things off or muck about! I picked an event that cost quite a bit of money so I was invested in this and then set about training. Truth be told, the Navy Half Marathon simply slotted nicely into this plan. Yes you read that right – 21.1km was a training run! But this in itself took some preparation for as I would suggest there are few in the Navy who could just run that distance tomorrow. About 3 months of training went into the Navy Half to ensure I could run it well.

It hurt. A lot.

When you run any kind of distance that is a stretch for you, you are constantly fighting a battle with your internal dialogue – not unlike mental illness. You find yourself forever quelling the doubts that spring up, telling that voice that says stopping is ok to ****-off and sticking to the plan. Now, high performance athletes will tell you that you should listen to your body, know the signs and know when you should ease off the gas and so-on. But this is different to your inner voice causing shadows of doubt over your abilities and telling you to throw it in.

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“Nobody will know.”

“Nobody will care anyway.”

“You are too weak for this.”

“You aren’t as good as those other dudes other there.”

These voices sounded scarily similar to those I had been fighting with for the year prior. Scarily similar. And the same dialogue of reduced worth and all of that damaging self-doubt occurs any time we are stressed or pushed. If we can counter these voices when we lift that big weight, run that distance, push that limit then we can counter them with mental illness. But sometimes we need help.

During the run I hit the wall HARD at about the 12km mark and my previously great pace slammed. The voices started circling and my body was not responding. And then a mate of mine ran past and slowed to my now-terrible pace. He asked “how are you feeling bro? You look like you are doing it tough”. Funny how that sounds like the same question we are encouraged to ask our oppos when we see them out of character. We chatted about what I was feeling and he listened. Then he asked me what my training distances were usually; “8-10km is an average I guess”. “Sweet as then bro – you are 12km down already, just a training run to go eh!” He then fore-went his own race to run with me until I had elevated from my slump.

We have no problems having this conversation when we see an oppo struggling physically, we spot them that weight at the gym, we help them pick up the things they dropped, we help them with that piece of work, but we feel nervous to have the exact same conversation around mental health.

So why did I run a half marathon? And why do I run?

I ran a half marathon because it was a selfish goal I could focus on and force myself to just get away from the noise and simplify my life to major building blocks for 30 minutes at a time. To force me to focus on myself, for just a small period, when outside of this I was focussed everywhere else but on myself. It helped me get better.

Why do I continue to run? I am still 6’2” and hover the 100kg range. Because I still need the quiet. I need the isolation. I need the recharge it gives me. I need the reversion to something more basic.

Now that I am on the up-stroke of getting better, I run for another reason.

When I was talking to a colleague who was helping to arrange the Navy Half Marathon he said one of the reasons he was so hot on encouraging participation was he found blokes (in-particular) are rubbish at talking. No real light-bulbs there right! He continued in his observation, blokes are more likely to talk when out doing something together like running. I know – talking and running at the same time! WTF?! But he is right. When you run with somebody for an hour (or two?!) you can only talk about the weather and Super Rugby for so long… It actually lends itself to having more than casual conversations and this may actually lend itself to breaking down some of these staunch “bro-barriers”.

So there are two reasons I keep running, I still have my massive and selfish goal to achieve which still allows me to have my quiet time, but I now also run so I can have those “bro-convos” with my mates. I know how unwell I was and how very few (if any I didn’t tell) people picked up on it due to my “mask”. I like to think I am a pretty strong dude. I figure if I had/have a time of struggle, then others probably do too. If I don’t know about it – am I being a good enough mate? Probably not. This is my way to be better at being a mate and to pay forward the support I got in my darkest moments.

That is why I ran a Half Marathon and why I still run.