Human Race: ‘One step and then the next’

Photography by Ben Knight

I never planned to be a runner. The first time I tried I was 19, had depression and was desperate to improve my life. I made it 200m along the road before giving up. The depression gradually passed with the help of medication and counselling, and I forgot about running.

The second time I gave it a go was four years later. Now I had an ultra-runner boyfriend who’d promised to teach me to ski, but only if I got fit first. He encouraged – then dragged – me along the river in Oxford, refusing to let me rest until, gasping, I had thudded my way back. I hated it. But I really wanted to ski, so I forced myself to learn to run. Not in the progressive way you’re supposed to: no walk-jog-walk; no 10 per cent increase in volume per week; no warm-ups and cooldowns. Instead we’d go five, 10 or (once) 30 miles at a time. Inevitably I was unable to walk for days afterwards and vowed never to go again. Until the next time.

I got very fit over the next few years, regularly running marathon distances off-road. I discovered a sense of lightness and freedom in the third or fourth hour of moving fast across Lake District ridges. I found joy in racing 2,000m down Alpine trails. There was the time we ran across Skiddaw [a 931m mountain in the Lake District] on the night of a full moon and clear sky. There were exhausted, joyful, childish attempts at sprints back to the car at the end of these days.

In the last week of May 2011 my now-husband and I set out to run Wainwright’s Coast to Coast route, 190 miles across the North of England. Late on the final evening we hobbled into St Bees. The pubs had stopped serving food, so we celebrated with beer and crisps. By any measure I felt I could claim to be an endurance runner.

Less than a month later I had a second depressive breakdown. It seemed to come out of nowhere, though with hindsight my all-or-nothing, utterly uncompromising approach to life had a lot to do with it. The psychiatrist labelled my breakdown ‘very severe’. I spent the next three months mostly in bed, in the small space of a locked ward. When I came out I couldn’t walk the half-mile from my local station to my home without stopping to rest halfway up the hill.

The breakdown – and the immobility and medications that went with it – destroyed my fitness. My body shape changed more dramatically than it had done since puberty. I developed bulimia. The stress of dealing with the causes and consequences of the breakdown drained all my energy. With fluctuations, that crippling tiredness lasted for more than three years. My confidence was destroyed and I had to take a lot of time off work. But I also began to write a novel, about depression and recovery. Getting my experiences down on paper started to help me understand what was going on. And as I wrote, I started to run again, too.

My body was fragile to begin with. I had to take it very gently, knowing if I pushed too hard I’d be setting back my mental recovery as well. I learned lessons from this gradual return to running that transferred directly to writing fiction. My instinct was to jump in and only stop typing when my brain collapsed from exhaustion. So I had to learn to start at 500 words a day, to take breaks, get my nutrition right and take rest days – all good running lessons. One word and then the next. One step and then the next.

With a gentler approach to running, I began to enjoy it more as well. I varied my runs to experience different things, choosing routes myself, not just going where someone else wanted. In my writing, too, I learned to meander through ideas, characters and events.

Running and writing began to feed off each other and last October, in the same week that I signed a publishing contract for my book, I ran a half marathon. Slower than I would have liked. Slower than most of the field. But I ran it. It mattered.

Through the years of my breakdown I yearned for the experiences that I’d had through running. Running is more than just exercise; it is a form of meditation. It was what first gave me a sense of my body. I wanted to be in the middle of a harsh landscape with the sun setting, trainers on my feet, in the lightest of clothing, knowing my body would take me safely home. I did not believe I would ever run again. I could scarcely believe I had ever done it in the past. I was convinced that I had irretrievably lost the person I used to be.

Running that half marathon proved me wrong. Writing a novel did, too. Today, I’m running regularly and loving it. I’m also writing a second novel. Finally, I am moving forward.


The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong is out now.