Almost two years ago, I made a decision I genuinely never thought I would make- I decided to stop running.
Having ran at a competitive level since the age of 15, this was a big, one might say; ‘lifechanging’, decision.
You see, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine a day without running, let alone two years, yet that is how long it’s been- two whole years.
There are days when I miss it, don’t get me wrong- days when I convince myself that I was a happier, more interesting person when I ran, and days when I think to myself; ‘Where would I be today if I was still running? Representing my country? Qualifying for the Olympics?’
I can’t help questioning who I even am now that I’m not ‘Lisa the Runner.’
What am I good at?
What is my purpose?
What will I be known for, if not for running?
It all gets to me, sometimes, when I feel like I have ‘thrown my potential away.’
I should note that the days when I find myself questioning whether the above is true- whether I really was happier and ‘more interesting’ when I was still running- are usually relatively quick to pass, for I know what running ultimately cost me…
I can rationalise that, whilst yes, I undoubtedly had some great times during my running ‘career’- it brought me some amazing memories that I will cherish forever, and it led me to meet some incredible people- I also went through some much darker times with running. This, the ‘darker side’ I talk of, was evident in all the sacrifices I had to make to get to a ‘decent’ level in the sport, a level where I finally felt like I was doing ‘well’ at something, like I was finally ‘enough.’
So, ‘what exactly did you have to sacrifice?’, you may be wondering. Well, it was my health, mainly.
When I was running, my heart rate was dangerously low, as was my weight, body fat percentage, and bone density.
Even now, despite me having not ran for almost two years, the damage that I did to my body through the intensity at which I trained is still present. I still don’t have periods, my relationship with exercise is still not what I would consider to be ‘normal’, and, perhaps most worryingly in terms of the impact it will have on my long-term future, I have a diagnosis of Osteopenia (the early onset of Osteoporosis…)
My happiness is something else that I had to sacrifice, too, for running was what I devoted my whole life to. Even when I wasn’t running, I was doing something that I hoped would help me improve my running, whether that be obsessively reading Athletics magazines, researching the ‘healthiest’ recipes for runners, buying new running clothes/shoes, signing up to races, or doing 2-hour long workouts to ‘improve my strength and endurance.’ It was what my whole life revolved around, and, in the end, it all just became too exhausting to maintain, and I knew that something had to give, with that ‘something’ either having to be running, or, ultimately, my life.
There was only one option, really. I didn’t want to die, and so, I chose my life, and, with that, I stopped running…
When I think back, I feel what I can only describe as an undeniable element of sadness, not because I stopped running, but because I ultimately had to choose between trying to be a professional runner, the very thing that I had devoted all of my teenage years towards, and trying to keep myself well. The sadness I feel, then, is because I didn’t feel capable of doing both of these things. I had to stop the thing I once loved so much, in order to keep myself well…
I am writing this post today because I think its important to highlight the darker side of the sport, the side that you don’t see when you’re watching the Olympics, or even when you just see someone running past you in the street.
You see the medals and the trophies, the endorphin driven smiles, but you don’t see the exhaustion, both mental and physical, or the tears…
When I think back, I do wish that my running club had done more. I know its easy to say in hindsight, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult to work out that I had a problem…
Other athletes in my group would enjoy a piece of cake or a donut after a hard training session, but not me. I would politely decline, with this, like the excessive number of miles I was running, being met with praise for my dedication, rather than concern for my mental illness– an illness that could’ve cost me my life.
I feel really sad when I think about the way in which I was portrayed when I was ill- as a ‘role model’ to the younger members of my running group, my ‘dedication to the sport’ being seen as something that they too should ‘aspire to.’
I worry for young girls, and boys, entering running clubs today that, albeit unintentionally, tend to have a very strong culture of eating disorders within them. Such a culture is, disturbingly, able to remain largely hidden amongst all the numbers (miles run, PBs, body fat percentage, macros…) Its hardly a surprise then that eating disorders, an illness that is so often triggered by numbers like these, are so highly prevalent in the sport… This, however, is something that needs to change, to prevent more people like me who, in their pursuit of success, become dangerously unwell.
Whilst the majority of people who run can do so in a balanced way, I hope that this post has opened your eyes to the potential dangers that the sport can pose if done to excess (again though, it’s quite sad that I even have to write this. You shouldn’t need to be warned about the dangers of exercise. Running should be fun, an enjoyable activity for both your body and mind, not something that could potentially land you in hospital.)