You know that phrase - "you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps"?
I hate that phrase.
But more and more often, as I line up at the start of trail races, ultras and endurance races, I find myself looking round and thinking exactly that about the people on the start line. We’re all in our own ways, completely mental.
I’ve been running for about 8 years now. At the start, I would reluctantly drag myself 2 or 3 miles around East London on the recommendation of my doctor.
I hated it.
But it was the last ditch attempt to help myself. I was very ill. I had been spiraling in and out of depressive episodes for about 6 years at this point. After 3 failed suicide attempts, I was desperate to start getting better.
I would have tried anything at that point; I’d tried most things. Self-medication through alcohol, sex, self-harm – the greatest hits.
Nothing had worked.
And then I found running
This running thing was a final attempt to stop, or at least cope with, the voices in my head chattering away, constantly finding new and sometimes impressively creative ways of killing myself.
And it did work.
For 30 minutes a day I found myself more focused on breathing and not falling over than what a massive disappointment I was to everyone. Sometimes, that feeling spilled over into the next couple of hours. Sometimes I felt like a secret hero for the rest of the day, because I had managed to do 4 miles without stopping.
Science was at work. My serotonin levels were getting a big ol' top up. My blood was getting oxygenated. I was drinking, on occasion, more water than beer. It was nice. It was a quick fix, effective for a few hours, maybe a day at a time. But it was nice. And it was working.
The action of running or being a runner has not 'cured; me. I still have the episodes, it’s just now they are less frequent and sometimes they can be stopped before they have started.
I now know what triggers my depression.
Having no purpose - nothing to train for, or look forward to, is a big one for me.
Abandonment. Post adventure depression (a horror only prevented by either embracing it or having another one planned).
Running has taught me vital lessons in survival and control. Running has not cured me, but to this point it has saved me.
Some of the worst episodes of my illness came during the years I worked in the music industry. Failure was something that got you screamed at, humiliated and/or fired. Then someone else would be brought in to make the same mistake as you did, and nobody would say anything. Nobody would learn from it.
In the darkest days of my illness, I had no control whatsoever over my own brain. There was no structure or organisation to my thoughts. There was just getting from one day to another, by any means possible, whilst keeping my job (which ironically was killing me). If I was still alive at the end of the day, it would be a surprising bonus. It was exhausting, lonely and at times terrifying.
The lack of control in my head manifested itself in real life as low level OCD. I would choose one tangible thing, and control that instead. If this was being drunk all day on a functional level, with nobody finding out, so be it. If it was putting on work face but crying 6 times a day, at the same time, every day in the work toilet, so be it. If it was not eating anything but bananas for 3 weeks, so be it. I could trick myself that I was in control when I one hundred percent wasn't.
So, how does all this relate to running on any level at all?
Running has taught me strategy, defence and action. It has taught me to put in place signposts that will help me to get from A to B and prevent me from falling down into mental darkness, not only during an event, but also in my everyday life.
If you want to be a runner at any level at all, you have to take a little control. Just a bit. Whether you’re a fun runner, a PB chaser or a continent crossing endurance runner, the rules of the game are the same...
You have to motivate yourself to get up and out. You have to push yourself to put your trainers on. You have to somehow fit it in, and that requires structure. If you don’t manage to fit it in you need to be kind to yourself and rationalise that a missed run doesn’t mean a marathon DNF.
You need to find balance. You need to look after yourself a bit better in order to feel well enough to go out and run (running on hangovers is not fun. It’s do-able, but day after day it takes its toll. Believe me. I know...)
If you want to perform at endurance level, you need to plan.
You have to write a strategy, you have to go out on long runs and support yourself. You have to put controls in place for when things go wrong. You need to go out and test stuff. You need to work out what is best for you.
You need to note how you’re feeling and sit with it rather than distract yourself from it. What made you feel like that? What did you eat or drink or think to make you feel the way you do?
What is the weather like? How will you cope with these challenges on race day? You are forced to think and plan constantly.
And if you can do this with running, you can do this with your mental health on a day-to-day basis. You need to identify the warnings, the triggers and the possible pitfalls and put in place a coping strategy or emergency plan.
The rules for mental health strategy are essentially the same as for endurance running.
Let’s talk about failure
Failing is good - we learn everything we know through failure. In my pre-running days, I saw failing as a bad, bad thing, and put pressure on myself to either excuse it or avoid it - never to admit to it.
In my early running life, failure was not achieving a sub 4 hour marathon, not managing to get out for a run, feeling tired and having to walk a bit. Walking was failure. I believed that to be a ‘good runner’ you had to be fast. You had to be out to beat your PB constantly. I compared myself to every other person on the internet. Endurance running has turned that whole thing on its head.
Now I think that failure is not only necessary, it’s actually fun.
Every big adventure, every massive long run, every recce I do, something goes wrong and that’s brilliant and usually quite funny. It’s brilliant because it means that I can put things in place to ensure that those same things won’t go wrong again.
I now listen twice as much as I talk - you can learn a lot from other people. You don’t have to take the advice you hear, but it’s all interesting stuff to experiment with.
Running has taught me to fail with humour and grace and even to tell people about it, admit it and revel in it, because that way maybe they won’t make the same mistakes I have. My failure is their win. Therefore it is my win too. Great logic. Makes sense.
Endurance running, like life, is a journey full of pitfalls and unexpected obstacles. If you’re hungry to learn, this makes the journey a happy and fulfilling one. You have so much more in you. We are incredibly resilient creatures.
Putting what I've learned to the ultimate test
At the end of last year, I went out to Panama on a recce for the wonderful people at Rat Race Adventure Sports. I was prepared for the worst, but I didn’t know how bad it would be. We were self-sufficient in the jungle for five days (it was supposed to be three) and we traversed some of the harshest terrain on earth.
28,000ft elevation in 5 days. This adventure was on the back of a week and a half crossing the Namib desert and I was physically and mentally exhausted. It was during my time in Panama that my mental health coping strategies were properly put to the test.
It was only here that I could truly sit (or in this case walk) with my feelings without any type of distraction. There were only 6 of us and we spent much of the time in silence, marching in single file through the jungle. In the evenings we were too tired to talk. Our mobile phones were redundant. No signal, no people, no nothing. Just you and your brain, trying to survive.
The question of why was a constant. Why am I doing this? Why can’t I go faster? Why is it taking me 13 hours to go 8 miles? The physical exhaustion became secondary to the mental exhaustion of having to be in my own head 24 hours a day. I thought of ways I could get out of the situation. Fake illness, break a leg, call a helicopter – because the helicopter was the only way out.
On paper, I was living a dream – I was undertaking a world first in a place that most people in the world will never get to see, but in reality my own self-flagellation was putting a huge dent in the experience.
There were times I truly believed I couldn’t go on, but I did. And it was the simple structures that I put in place for physical survival that kept me going. The routine of putting my hammock up and tidying my camp and getting organised.
Methodically making sure that my kit was organised and having structured meal times. Rationing food and having tiny snacks at certain times, the methodical way that I filtered and filled my water every couple of hours.
Thinking about how my body was working – taking enough salt and electrolytes in order to prevent dehydration and fatigue. Putting in mechanisms to prevent downfall. The jungle around me seemed to be in chaos – we didn’t know where we were going or how far it was. We had no idea what terrain we would face next.
But the coping strategies I employed were the same as the ones that I had needed in the real world to control the cycle of chaos and negativity that had threatened my wellbeing since my adolescent years. And they worked. And we got through it.
When I arrived home from the trip, things got worse before they got better and I fell into a pretty severe depression. The jungle had a profound effect on me – more than any adventure I had ever been on.
I struggled to find meaning in what we had achieved – ultimately a recce for a race company – a trip to see if the route was possible. On reflection now, I see that what we did was help open up a wealth of opportunity for people to go out and see the world and to achieve things that they maybe thought were impossible.
Opening that up to people is a truly amazing thing. I see that I pushed and tested myself more than I had in any other race or event. It was the closest I had come to breaking but I hadn’t broken.
In the months after the event, I became calmer, more patient and so much kinder to myself. I realised the importance of not only self-care, but also of listening to myself and my thoughts as opposed to distracting myself from them. I had never really had the opportunity to do that in the world I had lived in. If I don’t like myself, I will distract myself. In the jungle, I had no choice. I had to accept and work through things.
There's always light at the end of the tunnel
I would never wish this illness on anyone. It’s a horror. But I sometimes believe that without it, I wouldn’t have achieved half the things I have within endurance running.
So in a way I have made it work for me, and I continue to do so. I am less reckless. And despite the occasional episode, I am happier. I will freely admit when I am suffering – if I say it out loud it has less control over me.
Being honest about it and talking about it is one of the best ways to signpost away from falling further into depression. You don’t have to have a reason to be depressed, just like you don’t have to have a reason to have cancer.
But you do have a duty of care to yourself and those who love you to medicate and put preventative measures in place to get through it. The running, and especially the endurance community, is open kind and compassionate.
On the surface I am a pretty positive person. I say funny stuff and drink beer at aid stations and I’m the first person to encourage any kind of ludicrous running adventure. But that doesn’t mean I'm cured. Depression hides in plain sight. It’s only by talking to people that you can unmask it and that’s key to suffocating it.
Demonstrating to your own demons you are capable of so much more is a sure fire way of shutting them up, at least for a while. If I can run 100 miles in under 24 hours, I can get through a depressive episode. There will be light at the end.
There are so many things I want to do, from Dragons Back to the Barkley Marathons, but I know I have to be strategic and throwing myself into them will not end well. There's a journey to endurance greatness, just as there is a journey to better mental wellbeing, and it is a journey that I will be on for many years.
Allie Bailey has run over 70 races, from half marathons to 185 mile ultras. In 2018 she completed her second sub 24 hour 100 mile ultra, became the first woman to cross the largest body of freshwater in the world on foot, taking part in a 100 mile multi-stage event on Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia and also became the first woman to run 300km of the Namib Desert and traverse 200km of Panama from Pacific to Atlantic coast self-sufficiently on foot. She is also a running coach, motivational speaker and brand ambassador for Rat Race Adventures, White Star Running and The National Running Show.