It’s early; that haunting kind of early where there’s nobody else out, the air is eerily still and every hill and valley feels like your own personal playground. I run unfettered along walkways, beneath overpasses, across those patches of grass that brighten up the Milton Keynes pavements. I have total freedom. This world outside my window is a veritable Garden of Eden. Pity, then, that I feel like hot shit.
I stop. Double vision kicks in and my head sways drunkenly. I almost crack it against the lamppost that I’m leaning on for support. “You’re doing great!”, my best friend and Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson enthuses. “Keep it up!”
“Oh, fuck off, best friend and Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson”, I expel through laboured breaths, confusing two nearby tradesmen. They’re right to be a little rattled, as Michael exists only in my head — or more specifically my earphones, as the endlessly optimistic companion to my Couch to 5K mobile app.
Yes, a heady cocktail of unwanted flab and further-unwanted clinical depression has led me down a desperate path: I’m a runner now, careening down your pavements at 6 in the morning like a wayward meat bobsled. Somebody — presumably a war criminal — told me that running would do wonders for my depression, pumping me full of endorphins and instilling me an indomitable confidence. So far I’m not convinced, and neither are my sides, which have developed 5000 new pain receptors in protest.
“Okay, get ready for your next run!” Michael pipes up. I’ve only known Michael for a week, and he coos and smiles and makes me feel loved, all while subjecting me to cruel, unusual torture. He’s the man we warn our daughters about.
From my gruelling, limited experience, I’ve concluded that running is sorely misrepresented, but not in the way you might think; it’s actually a billion times worse than people tell you. And I don’t mean because it’s strenuous, or because it forces you out of your comfort zone, or because it takes a long time to yield any true results. I say it because, after all three of last week’s running sessions, I spent each day nervous, agitated and more depressed than ever.
Where I fully expected to approach the post-run working day with a “can-do” attitude (popularised by besuited women in Tampax ads), I instead felt like a bug, trapped beneath the fingers of crushing existential despair.
Crushing enough, in fact, to be completely debilitating. Following all three runs of this inaugural “Week One” period, I had spent my days clicking through emails, peering out my window and pacing back & forth across my living room, all in anticipation of a threat that never materialised. As somebody who took up running to combat their depression, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed.
In the midst of my run-induced panic attack, I took to the internet to make sure I wasn’t the first born human with a clinical exercise allergy. Sure enough, hundreds of people with depression and anxiety were reporting the post-run blues. It’s especially prevalent in Panic Disorder sufferers, where the elevated heart rate can trigger perceived personal danger, emotional threat or uncertainty. But knowing why this was happening wasn’t softening the blow. If I couldn’t even benefit from the magical curative abilities of running, was I just destined to be miserable and unfit?
I posed the question to a similarly depressed friend of mine, who had also left an abusive relationship with running. She asked me why I started running in the first place.
“To lose weight”, I replied. “And to make me feel happy”.
“And did it make you feel happy?”
“No, it made me feel like shit”.
“And are you aware that there’s more than one way to lose weight? Not all of which have to make you miserable?”. She’s a smart friend. It’s why I keep her around.
The thing about wellbeing, both mental and physical, is that you can’t achieve it without a sense of self. You’re not at the behest of an app, or your best friend and Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Johnson; you’re at the behest of you, and you alone. Couch to 5K provided me milestones (or kidney stones, it’s hard to tell), but the journey to each was nothing but agony, the reward little more than the relief that it was over. You don’t cure pain and disappointment by willingly subjecting yourself to them.
So I gave up on running, but not on the dream. I dug out my dumbbells, found a weight-training app, and re-discovered an exercise which I’d loved long ago in my teenage years. On week 2 of my running plan, I instead poured myself a pint of water, stepped into the back garden and breathed in the damp Autumn air as I crunched my way through a series of lateral raises. Peering downhill from where my garden is located, I could see the every street and house that leads to my front door. Combined with my tingling biceps, the euphoria is Godlike.
My phone chirps from my gym short pockets. I check it out during my app-mandated rest period.
“Strap on those running shoes!”, a desperate notification insists. It’s Michael again, adamant that we start my second week of his torturous bi-daily routine. He’s desperate to keep this dream of his alive, where he and I jog merrily into the sunset, our silhouettes defined by their immaculate calf muscles. But the dream is long since dead.
There must be something I can tell him. A comforting lie that gives him hope, even though his efforts are plainly pathetic.
“You’re doing great”. I tell him. “Keep it up”.