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I whipped this up after my long run on Sunday and it hit the spot perfectly on a chilly January day. I tend to get very cold very quickly after a long run, and it isn’t uncommon for me to turn blue if I don’t have a shower immediately, but this served as an all-in-one recovery drink and a warm blanket, meaning that I didn’t have to wait for nourishment until after I’d showered.

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I made it with whole dairy milk because we had some on a short date in the fridge, but it could quite easily be made with scrummy non-dairy milk, too. Equally as easy, and n doubt just as tasty, for vegans and milk-lovers alike!

Protein recovery hot chocolate

1 scoop protein powder (we use pea protein which is GROSS on its own, hence the need to dress it up)
1 mug milk
1 tbsp hot chocolate powder (I use Green and Blacks, which is vegan, but any will do)
Half a banana (optional)

  1. Heat up the milk in a mug in the microwave for 2 minutes
  2. Meanwhile, blend the protein powder, chocolate powder and banana with 100ml of water
  3. Add the warm milk to the blender and whizz to combine
  4. Pour back into the mug and pop in the microwave for another minute until hot

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I’ve been running for over 10 years now, and have learned a lot of lessons on the way. I think most runners generally agree that running is awesome, and can make a positive contribution to many aspects of non-running life: from overall fitness, ability to run for the bus, self-discipline, motivation at work, being part of a great community…the list is endless. But, as time has gone on and I have seen my life and myself change in various different ways, I’ve also come to realise that there are some aspects of running that aren’t all that positive. During a long run earlier this week, which involved running 2-mile loops of York’s very flat racecourse for 2 hours, I came up with a list of less-good lessons that running has taught me: a much shorter but essential counterpart to the long list of awesome things that running has brought to my life.

1. A marathon is not a diet plan
I learned this lesson the hard way with marathon number 1. I’d gained some weight during the first months of working in an office after my MA, and while signing up for a marathon had nothing to do with losing that weight, I had hoped that it might help along the way. It really didn’t; despite the hard training, my body required some serious nourishing in response, and I got to the start line a couple of kgs heavier than my pre-marathon state. This has been consistent across all of the marathons I’ve done: the amount of training puts my body into survival mode, and I tend to gain a little bit of weight over the course of the 4 training months. Rather than trying to fight this, I’ve come to respect it, and make full and proper use of rest days to allow my body the space that it needs to recover. While running helped me lose 6 stone when I first started out 10 years ago, it now seems to have the opposite effect: when I recently took a month or so off for injury in autumn I suddenly found that my jeans were a bit too loose. Our bodies are pretty amazing, eh?

2. No matter how hard you train, it doesn’t always pay off
I’ve always worked with the mantra that the more I put in, the more I’ll get out, but running appears to be the exception to this. I’ve never worked harder than I did for UT55, and I got to the start-line feeling as ready as I could be, but at only 12 miles in things started to go wrong. The same goes for two marathons where I’ve put in a solid amount of training in the hope of a PB, only to lose out by minutes or even seconds on race day. And, as I push towards the longer distances, my ability to get close to my PB in half marathons has waned significantly. This is the risk we take with running; with all the months of hard work, early mornings, sweaty speed sessions and long runs when we’d rather be in bed or drinking tea with someone lovely – it can all go wrong in an instant. A mis-judged breakfast choice, starting out too fast, going over on an ankle, leaving it too long for an energy gel – there are many reasons why we might miss out on a time we’d been chasing, a finish line or even a start line. Accomplishing a running dream hangs on so many tiny choices and moments of fate. I’m so glad that this isn’t the case in normal life!

3. Some people are effortlessly (annoyingly) good
I’m sure we’ve all been there. You invite a non-running friend to try running, and they’re better than you before they’ve even started. Or the person who shows up to a race totally unprepared but finishes way ahead of you, despite the fact that you’ve given so much of your life over to training in the previous months. This was the case on my first marathon. Oh, and my second. In fact, I don’t think my Dad has ever trained for a marathon, but he’s still managed to come way ahead of me in all but one marathon that we’ve run together. And, miraculously, with nothing more than a week of mountain biking in the Alps as ‘training’, he managed to chop 25 MINUTES off his marathon PB at Loch Ness in September. I kid you not. The only comfort to this is that I share his genes; I just might have to wait until my 50s like he did before I start getting speedy.

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First marathon success.

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Haweswater 2012: the year my Dad had sciatica so ran the whole HM a meter behind me, telling me to run faster.

4. Running isn’t always good for you
I learned this the hard way when I discovered that what I thought had always been a way for me to manage my mental health had turned into a major source of anxiety in my life. Especially with everyone sharing their escapades on social media, it can become increasingly difficult to feel that you are ever doing ‘enough’ when it comes to running and fitness in general. You thought running four times a week was a lot, but everyone else appears to go out five times. And everyone else is doing dynamic yoga and HIIT and spinning, too. And barre, whatever that is. And while you’re relaxing on the sofa in the evenings, everyone else appears to be locked to a ‘turbo’ in their living rooms, burning endless calories even as they watch TV. And then they post a picture of their ‘breakfast’ (seriously, does anyone on Instagram eat more than 500 calories a day?) and it’s smaller than the afternoon snack that you ate yesterday before an evening meal that contained CARBS. Lots of them. I think this is a growing issue for a lot of people: getting outdoors and doing something energetic is great, but it isn’t a case of more = better. I dealt with this by unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter as necessary, and also by writing about it on this blog. It’s a work in progress, but it has helped no end.

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Sometimes it’s more fun to just lie around.


5. 5km is a tough distance

Another lesson learned the hard way. I did my first ever 5km race two weeks ago, at my first ever ParkRun. I’ve never had any interest in this distance because I admit that I’m just not quick enough for it to be any fun. I’m much more excited to see how far I can go than how fast, hence 5km and 10km races tend not to be on my radar. But this year, I want to try pushing myself to get a bit faster. Nothing super speedy or impressive, but I do want to see my times improve over shorter distances again, even back to how they were a couple of years ago. So, I thought I’d give my local ParkRun a try. Only 5kms, how hard can it be? Whether I was naive or simply arrogant I do not know, but I set off at a comfortably speedy (for me) pace, rushing past lots of other runners and enjoying the opportunity to push myself hard from the start. About a mile in and I was feeling great, but not long after that the lack of breakfast and unfamiliar effort of running at that pace took its toll, and I wasn’t sure if I could get to the end without stopping to walk. Everything hurt, and I slowed to snail pace in the last mile, only hoping that I’d be able to make it to the end. I finished in 29 minutes, complete with lots of respect for all of those people who do a good job at running that distance. This Saturday I set off at a much steadier pace and shaved more than a minute off my time. Phew.

6. Enthusiasm is as important as talent
As I document over and over again on this blog, I love the Lakeland Trails events. I was lucky enough to win a season ticket to the Autumn series in a spot prize back at Cartmel in March, and so Autumn 2015 saw us take a number of trips up to the Lake District to take part in the four Autumn events. A couple of weeks ago my Dad texted me to ask if I’d seen the results from the Autumn series. I hadn’t, since being in the last quartile of every race I’d taken part in meant that I tried to avoid dwelling on how much slower I was than everyone else, but I took a look, just to be polite. What my Dad wanted me to see was that he’d come top in his category and eighth overall – very impressive. But when I looked at the ladies’ results I noticed that my name was also up there – a rather less impressive 20th in my category and 66th overall, but even so it felt fantastic to be so high up on the list. The fact is that it was my love for running in these races, and by no means my running skills, that got me there. And I’ll take that, no problemo.

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In my happy place

On going vegan.

I turned pescetarian when I was 16, and two years later made the full leap into vegetarianism. It always felt completely right; any worries that my family might have had about lacking energy or poor health didn’t pan out. In fact, paying attention to what I ate prompted me to get fit, start running, and was probably one of the main factors in losing 6 stone. It was a big part of my identity, too. Being one of three Catherines in my university friendship group, I was soon given the nickname ‘Veg’; I had a vegetarian birthday party, and put the icing on the vegetarian cake with a vegetarian wedding (my non-vegetarian husband was also keen, I might add). We’ve enjoyed living our lives around delicious meals packed with greens and pulses, and becoming vegetarian definitely lit the first spark of what has now become my huge passion for cooking and food.

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In 2014 I attempted Veganuary, with mixed results. It felt limiting, and I didn’t like the fact that I was eating processed foods such as vegan ‘butter’ and vastly increasing my soy consumption, but I did notice that my constant stomach cramps disappeared. I also missed butter. A lot. I went back to my normal vegetarian self, but earlier this year I noticed that, without making any effort or conscious choice, I had become just about vegan. Apart from (organic*) milk in my tea, I noticed that I ate dairy almost exclusively at weekends, when Daniel and I would share a pan of porridge or when I’d eat eggs or buttery toast after a long run. I started to experiment a little: almond milk in my tea, nut butter on my toast – I didn’t commit myself to anything, but I noticed that it was quite easy to avoid animal products when eating at home.

A month or so later, and my heart felt like it wanted veganism. I’d been doing some reading and I wasn’t happy about eating animal products at all – despite being perfectly happy with our organic milk at home, having a cup of coffee or even a meal while out started to bother me. I wanted to know about what I was eating; were these eggs in my vegetarian breakfast from happy hens, or was I unconsciously tucking in to something I wouldn’t eat if I knew where it had come from? So I went vegan.

I addressed some of the issues that I’d encountered during Veganuary by avoiding processed ‘veganised’ food; I ate tahini and nut butters by the bucket-load (literally!), and steered clear of processed veggie sausages. I made sure all the tofu we bought was organic, and bought only organic almond and soya milk. It started to get very expensive, especially as my running increased towards ultra-distance and I was hungry all the time. I was eating pulses every day, and bags and bags of greens. The only things I genuinely missed were yogurt and butter, but I kept a large stock of homemade granola, bread and vegan cookies to keep myself feeling chipper (I was still hungry all the time). It was during this period that I gave blood, and was pleased (and slightly surprised) to find that my iron levels were perfectly healthy.

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Writing all of this makes it sound idyllic, but there was a dark side. Plant-based foods are of course very good for our health, but one of the main reasons for this is their fibre content. Veg, fruit, pulses, wholegrains, nuts – all high in fibre. Even the almond milk that I put in my tea was adding yet more fibre to my diet. For a long while I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible. I was under a lot of stress with the final months of my PhD, pushing myself hard physically, and travelling a lot for work and races: I’ll say no more. I ended up in the doctor’s surgery, convinced that I was dying of something terrible; I felt bloated and tired all the time, was afraid to leave the house in the mornings, and I started putting on weight despite lots of running and exceptionally healthy eating. I had some tests done. Lots of tests. I was secretly praying to be diagnosed as coeliac: I would have happily given up scones and bread for the rest of my days, if only I could have stopped feeling so awful. The tests were all clear – I wasn’t infested with parasites, I didn’t have Crohn’s (thank goodness), and I wasn’t suffering from coeliac’s disease either. The doctor suggested adding some stodge to my diet: ‘does vegan stodge exist?’ he enquired.

No, not really. So I started eating eggs, cheese, milk and all the other non-vegan but perfectly vegetarian things again, and I started to feel a little better. I stopped waiting indoors all morning until I was confident that I wouldn’t need the loo for at least another 20 minutes. Life started to feel easier. I wasn’t so hungry, and I had a lot more energy (mainly because the food I was eating stayed put long enough). Moreover, I didn’t feel that I was doing anything contrary to my ethical values – in my view, sticking with organic dairy and well-sourced eggs is a perfectly ethical way to go about food consumption. I had observed first-hand how veganism simply wasn’t for me, and couldn’t support me physically through the amount of running (and perhaps also PhD-ing) that I wanted to do every week. Importantly, I realised that I could eat in a way that I was happy with, and make good food choices, that would also allow me to feel good physically: the way I was eating worked for my heart, my mind and my body.

Eventually, I started to feel a bit bogged down with all the eggs, and I found myself turning in an unprecedented direction. I started eating fish again, and just before Christmas I had my first bite of chicken since that chicken burger back in June 2003. It tasted bland and completely uninteresting, but it was ethically-sourced organic meat, and I genuinely felt that it did me some good physically.

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Recovery shake of dreams.

Since then I’ve been eating chicken and fish once a week: always choosing things that I’m confident are as ethically good as they can be. I recently saw a comment on Twitter about meat-eaters being basically animal killers, but I don’t think that this is true. The source of our food, from the simple British-grown carrot to the dodgy reconstituted chicken meat of a supermarket-brand nugget comes with big issues, from the question of waste and fairness, through environmental impact to animal cruelty. No diet is immune from the pressures of ethics, and a thoughtless vegan diet can be more problematic than a thoughtful meat-lover’s.

This Veganuary, I’m feeling all sorts of intermittent guilt and disappointment for not being able to take part. It’s a great experiment to take on just for a month, and it can be really eye-opening. There does appear to be a general move towards veganism, which is of course awesome, but it’s a way of eating that simply isn’t for everyone. Whether for health reasons, practical reasons or simply because you just love butter that bit too much, veganism isn’t the only way, and neither is vegetarianism. It’s perfectly ok to be an omnivore, and to find a balance that works in all directions. Other veggies will probably agree that vegetarians are often put on a pedestal by meat-eaters, as if they are somehow better than the regular omnivore, but with the new availability of good food, and the increasing awareness and casual activism seen in this area, this is a distinction that simply doesn’t have to be true.

*since we moved in together in 2010 we’ve only ever bought organic milk and butter. We’re now trying to make sure that all of the animal produce that we buy is organic.

There appears to be a lot of talk about run-streaks on social media these days, from running every day for a month to some of the crazier attempts at getting out there every day for a year (check out Shell’s blog for some inspiration). I’d never really been interested, as I believe that rest days should be rest days, and any day with even one mile of running in it doesn’t constitute my definition of a rest day. But I have heard some really positive feedback about run-streaks on Twitter, and when approached sensibly, it clearly can work well.

As December drew closer I started to hear talk of Advent Running: running at least three miles every day from 1st to 25th December. Since I’m no fan of advent calendar-style countdowns, I was quite attracted to this running-based alternative. And, to be perfectly honest, with the beginning of December came the end of two major challenges in my life: my PhD viva and the end of the Autumn term’s teaching. The perfectionist in me was instantly drawn to a way to fill in the ‘challenge gap’. I was intrigued to know whether I could take on this new running challenge, and keen for some form of distraction from the blank space of December that lay ahead. So I quietly decided to give it a go.

It was all going well until 4th December. That’s right – I hardly made it out four days on the trot without having to push myself hard. I rarely run for more than three days in a row, so this was clearly the first hurdle for me. The 4th December also happened to be the day after my PhD viva (one of the biggest challenges of my life), and an especially challenging day of teaching. The weather was bad, and I had excruciating stomach ache. I made it 1 mile down the road before I was convinced that I was going to be sick, so half a mile later I walked home as fast as I could and curled up on the sofa in pain and exhaustion. Not a good start to the first week!

After that, it was mostly a slog. My legs were tired and I felt noticeably more sluggish than normal (!); I gave up on any attempt at intervals and instead just pushed myself to get through my daily three miles as painlessly as possible. Weekly mileage was high, as I was doing 3-4 miles five days a week, and two long runs of 6 and 10ish miles on top of that. But none of the miles were doing much for me other than making me more tired. There were some enjoyable days, but by day 12 I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the 25 days.

On 12th December we headed up to Northumberland for a week of disconnecting and rest. Here I got a couple of really enjoyable runs in the bag: some trail running, some beach running and one very muddy run which did not go to plan. One of the best runs of the year was had during this week, when I headed southwards down the St Oswald’s national trail to Alnmouth, getting in 3 hours of incredible coastal scenes. It was hard and conditions underfoot were pretty awful at times, but the views were spectacular. I highly recommend this trail to anyone who loves some off-road running. Daniel met me in Alnmouth with some wet wipes and a recovery shake, and we celebrated a brilliant holiday with a big bowl of soup and a chunk of fruit cake at a local café.

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I felt that things were going well by this stage, but then it all fell apart. Who knows what hit me – exhaustion, probably, but at the time I thought I had contracted either some strange virus or was developing appendicitis. I missed a day, but only because I actually couldn’t move due to extreme stomach pains. The next day I felt better and tried out a tentative three miles, but the day after that I was back in my comatose state, swigging from a Gaviscon bottle and trying to work out who to leave all of my belongings to. Then we were back on – short runs at first, and then I dared a few extra miles.

I made it to Christmas Day, finishing with a sluggish but festive 4-miler in the pouring rain with Daniel. 101.5 miles in 25 days, including 2 days missed due to uncomfortable proximity with death. Some good runs, but mainly runs that I didn’t want to get out for, didn’t enjoy and didn’t get anything from.

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The most tired of all the legs.

 

Would I do it again? Definitely not. Whatever anyone else is capable of doing, run-streaks are not for me. It took the joy out of running, and left me with a constantly burning anxiety about when I’d get out, or how on earth I’d get out when I just didn’t feel like it. Life can be incredibly demanding, and the added pressure of turning a hobby into another commitment doesn’t seem very sensible to me. What I need more of is days of saying no, switching off and allowing myself to not do, not go, not push. I feel annoyed at myself for pushing so hard over a period of time when I really needed space from challenge and commitment: instead of being mindful during that difficult time, I pushed how I felt to the side and ploughed on regardless. I suspect that, for many people and not just myself, learning to stop is more of a challenge than pushing to go.

I’ve spent many a holiday in the Lake District, but until November last year I had yet to experience the delights of Ullswater. Driving along the lakeside road in the rain, grey Novemberishness lit up with stunning autumn colours, I quite quickly fell in love with the place and was adamant that we’d be returning. Fast forward a few months later and the Lakeland Trails Dirty Double weekend seemed like the obvious choice for another trip up to Glenridding, so I booked myself on both events – Hellvelyn 15km and Ullswater 14km challenges, on Saturday and Sunday respectively – and treated Daniel to the Hellvellyn challenge as a birthday present.

When we ran Hellvelyn last year, the weather was pretty awful. Both the start and the finish of the race were accompanied by torrential downpours, but we were lucky to have a dry-ish run for the race itself (not including my temporary disappearance into a rather deep bog!). So, when we saw the awful forecast for this year’s Dirty Double weekender I wasn’t too worried: I’d done it before – and done a pretty good job, too – so I could definitely do it again. Having started to build my training back up after injury I was feeling pretty fit and relatively confident, and was looking forward to getting in some good hills after weeks of flat running in York!

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The start of the Hellvelyn challenge was just brilliant – the atmosphere seems to get even better when a group of trail runners are presented with adverse weather and mounds of mud to run in! I caught up with a few familiar Lakeland Trailers and enjoyed some of my homemade energy balls to get me up those first few killer hills, and then we were off! Ambling over muddy and uneven ground, glad to be out running with such a friendly bunch once again, and looking forward to what I knew was a brilliant route ahead accompanied by my funny husband. The last time I was running through Glenridding I was in the first half of the UT55 and already beginning to falter; this time I had only 15km to run, and could look forward to a delicious lunch and a hot drink in an hour or so. We ran up and up and up, and just as I was about to take my first walking break I spotted my Dad and his friend, both of whom would be setting of on the race in an hour’s time – I kept on running until we were out of their sight, and then gave myself a break!

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It’s such a stunning landscape, and the heavy rain had filled the waterfalls to bursting. We stopped to take photos and I commented on the fact that I hadn’t stopped smiling since we got to the start line. Then, tracks gave way to a rocky narrow footpath; pretty treacherous after all the rain, so we slowed to a walk for a while. Once the danger of a sheer drop to a muddy death had passed we were running again, but – woooosh – I was over in the mud, glad of a husband to pull me back up so I didn’t have to get my hands covered! After this point the weather started to set in pretty badly. I wasn’t cold, but the wind and rain were exhausting, as were the footpaths which had turned to streams and waterfalls underfoot. It was hard-going with the wind in our faces, blowing rain and snot all over the place. The terrain seemed to be trickier than I remembered, and I couldn’t focus with the noise of wind and rain in my ears; actually, I felt pretty disorientated.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

We were still a good 4km from the finish when the first runner in the race overtook us – normally this doesn’t happen until the very last km, so I was quite disheartened. I knew we were going slowly, but until then I hadn’t realised how slowly. I kept having to stop to walk, stop for snacks, stop to rearrange my layers or have a drink. Finally we got to the final track which I knew would take us down into Patterdale, but then running even on this easy surface felt way too hard. For the first time in a long time I got to the end of a race with nothing left in me – I could hardly string a sentence together, my lips were blue, and I felt dizzy and in desperate need of warmth. It had taken us 15 minutes longer to run 8.7 miles than it usually takes to run 13 – very demoralising indeed! We made our way to Fellbites cafe, where we had a wash and tucked into pots of tea and cheesy toast with soup. It took a hot chocolate for pudding before I started to feel human again!

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The next morning, the owners of our B&B couldn’t believe that I was planning to run again – they kept reminding me that there was 100% chance of rain. Clearly they hadn’t met many trail runners before! I set out in full waterproofs, initially reluctant to run, but increasing in excitement as I saw the other people, just as crazy as I was, walking to the start in all manner of waterproof gear. In the tent I bumped into a UT55 buddy, who had to deliver the bad news: the Ullswater steamers couldn’t steam because of high winds, so the race was being re-routed, to start two hours later at midday. I ummmed and aaahhhed for a while: I had to be home in time to prepare a lecture for the next day, and the 10am start had been appealing for that reason in particular. I didn’t want to miss out, but at the same time I didn’t want to put myself in a bad position for the next day, and equally I didn’t want to wait around getting cold for two hours since we’d already checked out of the B&B. Tail between my legs, I collected my tshirt (what a fraud!), and instead decided to take myself out for a little jog around Glenridding – I was already in my running togs after all. I bumped into a marshal, and when I explained what I was doing he gave me some brilliant insider tips on trails in the vicinity. I ended up getting in a fantastic 7 miles along muddy trails, with a few notable hills to satisfy my love for the Lakes. I met up with a couple of other non-racers and we jogged along for a while, comparing notes from the previous day, and as I headed back into Glenridding people cheered and marshals stopped traffic: friendly runners, friendly marshals and friendly onlookers, as well as plenty of mud and hills – it wasn’t so different from a Lakeland Trails event after all!

We grabbed some lunch and yet another hot chocolate, and some of the faster finishers from the 12:00 race started coming in to the cafe as we ate. Everyone had clearly had an amazing time, and the bad weather and change of plans had only brought out the best spirits in everyone. I was sad to have missed out but equally relieved to be heading back early – the weather, true to form the entire weekend, made the drive back especially challenging; even our car had to deal with muddy terrain and knee-deep floods as it chugged its way back to Yorkshire!

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Note: this is a reposted version of something I wrote on my other blog on 12th March 2014. Most of it is still entirely accurate.
There has been a lot of dedicated time for discussion about mental health issues in the media recently. From #timetotalk day at the beginning of February, to Eating Disorders Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago. Appropriately for me, there was also an OCD week of action recently. OCD is something I rarely talk about outside the comfort of my own home/CBT session, but its presence in my life is becoming more noticeable as I see people rising to address mental health issues via social media, and I feel I owe it to myself as well as any other OCD sufferers out there to acknowledge OCD for what it is, which is probably way more than most people think it is. According to the OCD week of action is was “time to act”, but in my case I’ve been acting (knowingly) for more than 12 years, and I realised that it’s probably time to stop acting. Contrary to the usual mantra, it may, finally, be time to stop acting and start talking, so here we go.
I don’t feel any need to ‘come out’ about my OCD – no reason to apologise or confess anything in particular. Those who matter to me never ask me to, and never question why I behave the way I do. It’s not something I’ve purposely hidden, but have instead come to keep sealed under an ever-tightening lid of reflexive excuses. After all, it’s not something that arrives easily into conversation, and while in retrospect I wish I’d had the guts to say ‘it might seem like I’m a bit weird but actually it’s OCD’ to every new friend I’ve made over the years, somehow that doesn’t quite work in reality. I know that to a large extent it’s down to the endless stereotypes of neatness, checking the front door twice, using hand sanitizer, and so on, and partly down to the trivialization of the condition by so many people who self-define as being ‘OCD-ish’ because they like to iron their shirts in a certain way. Anyway, it’s obvious that the general public’s idea of OCD is completely misconstrued, so maybe it’s time to explain.

OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. According to OCDaction.org.uk:

intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with a chronic feeling of doubt or danger (obsessions). In order to quell the thought or quieten the anxiety, they will often repeat an action, again and again (compulsions).

I would also use the word ‘irrational’ here. Often intensely, ridiculously irrational but perfectly sensible and obvious to the obsessive compulsive person. There is nothing obsessive, compulsive or indeed irrational about washing hands before eating. I think that actually comes under ‘good personal hygiene’.

As this is a condition that is very much grounded in behaviours, OCD symptoms are unlike the symptoms of many other mental health issues because they are (often) visible. You need to look closely, but they are there. It has been my preoccupation over the past 12 years to make them as invisible as possible, and while in some ways this has been a therapy in itself, it’s also caused a whole load of compulsive behaviours to stay locked up as habits and reflexes. I should add here that at the moment I’m more on top of these habits and behaviours than I have been in a long time – some days I’m not even aware of the presence of an OCD in my life, and I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. But when I think back over time and how the behaviours that I see as ‘mine’ have mutated, largely alongside the periods of life that have been the most difficult, I’m generally pretty amazed by the way this thing has taken hold of me. Strangest of all, some of the things that I could never have faced back in the early days of my OCD diagnosis are perfectly fine for me now, while back then I was able to do things that I wouldn’t dream of doing now. And when I see other people doing those things (which I do, every single hour of every single day), my insides recoil in horror and I experience just a prickle of the fear that stops me from doing them myself. Weird eh? However, this also gives me hope that one day I might not be this weird at all – maybe one day I’ll be able to do it all, and that would be awesome.

A little mantra that I go by is ‘get out of your comfort zone’. Usually I’m referring to PhD-related activities, or to running or climbing or even trying a new kind of food or music genre, but in reality outside my comfort zone is my default setting, and it’s when my comfort zone is completely out of sight that the OCD behaviours really take hold; generally during periods of high pressure, stress or upset, or when there are lots of people to deal with all at once. There are other times when I’m able to push those comfort zone boundaries as far as I can, and naturally this is during periods when I’m especially chilled out or having fun – it’s the reason I can run in races (pre-marathon toilets are no one’s idea of a safe environment) and that I’ve surprised myself so much on occasions at friends’ houses when all of my OCD behaviours go out the window and I can chill out with a glass of wine. Those days are the best.

The worst thing about having OCD is that it’s all-consuming; there are very rarely periods of down-time, even when I’m well within the boundaries of my comfort zone. It’s a bit like being stuck in a cage, which shrinks and shrinks as anxiety increases, until the bars are squeezing in too tight and the noise is too loud and I’m pretty sure the only option is to self-combust. There have been times when I’ve rushed out of a shop halfway through buying something at the checkout, or thrown out large quantities of food ‘just in case’, or whole days when I haven’t had a glass of water or something to eat, just because I was too stuck in that tightening cage to be able to grab on to anything rational to help pull me back out. It’s here that I quietly recognise the very tiny number of people (n=2) who I’ve shared my thought-processes in detail with – one of whom has meandered slowly out of my life, and the other who has committed to putting up with me for life – and their patience and resilience in the face of these unpredictable reactions to normal life situations. Living with someone with OCD is pretty tough – walking on eggshells would be an appropriate expression – as OCD eyes and ears are constantly looking out for threats to the safe (for me) environment of home. I’ve trained myself not to look as Daniel hangs out the towels or empties the dishwasher, but there’s still that rush of fear when I hear him going about these perfectly normal jobs without my standards being imposed on him as he does so. Imagine having to do every task yourself in order to make sure everything conforms to the rules of an OCD. Exhausting. Equally exhausting are the myriad ‘normal’ tasks that come with being an independent human: I could write a whole blog post on the intricacies of making a cheese sandwich with OCD.

Most people have to face their biggest fears at certain times in their lives. Some people choose to do it – climbing the Eiffel Tower and peeping over the edge of the top balcony, doing a sky dive – while others just go for it when presented with the opportunity – picking up a spider and popping it safely out of the window, stroking a dog – and then there’s the awful, unavoidable things that sometimes force people to face what they’re most afraid of – taking a trip on a plane, speaking in public. That feeling of relief when you face something that terrifies you and realise that you’re ok, that you’ve survived at the end of it, is not comparable to anything else. Relief combined with pride combined with the aftershock of terror, sort of like being drunk momentarily – it’s quite a good feeling, from what I can tell from my own experiences of jumping off things or peering over things or talking in front of large numbers of people. Similarly, while it’s been a while now since I ‘faced’ door handles, and over a year since I mastered the technique of eating a tangerine without touching it with my hands, still every time I do these things (every day) I notice, and my stomach sort of flips and the cage bars rattle, and then I remember that it’s ok because I’ve ‘survived’ it now hundreds of times in a row*, and then my heart and my head do a little victory dance together, and slowly those bars get a little bit further away. I call these moments small victories, comparable to jumping out of a plane time and time again, forever grateful for surviving, yet always aware that next time I might not. So then I touch the nearest chair or doorframe, just in case, and continue on my way.

Edit: Rose Bretécher is doing some great work raising awareness of OCD, and in a recent article criticized a hideous report on Good Morning Britain where Michelle Mone talked about how having OCD was great because it made her more organised. Rose details a list of some of the common intrusive thoughts that OCD sufferers deal with. These include intrusive thoughts about sexual violence, fears that you might want to murder or harm your child and fears that you may be terminally ill. I would also add to the list the fear that someone you love has died (every time the phone rings) and the belief that everything you touch is contaminated.

If you like to laugh while learning about OCD then check out my friend Adam’s stand up set,OCD Octopus!

*here I pause to tap on the coffee table, just in case

We spent a few days in the Lake District at the beginning of September. We camped in Seatoller and took the opportunity to climb Scafell Pike on the Thursday, and then headed to Keswick for some B&B luxury the next day, in time for the Lakeland Trails event on the Saturday. Even before the start of the holiday I’d been experiencing some strange (and pretty nasty) aching in my ankle, and had barely done any running in the two weeks before the event. I climbed the mountain fully aware that it might put an end to my hopes of running that weekend, and when I was able to run I did so with full acknowledgement that I wasn’t doing myself any favours. My ankle was fine for the first few miles, but 9 miles of technical trails were just about enough to make walking painful the following day.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

I wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me that I’d need to stop running. What did surprise me was that I was totally ok with that. For the first time, I listened to the advice I was given knowing that I would pay it some heed and not push myself. Something about pushing myself has become old news around here – it no longer interests me, and not running turned out to be one of the most revealing (at times painfully revealing) experiences I’ve had in a while.

Not running allowed me to address all of my reasons for being afraid of not running, and in turn, allowed me to reassess all of the reasons why I run. I realised that running had become much more a part of my life than it should be; my weeks were planned around when I would run and what sort of running I wanted to do; there was a non-negotiable commitment to the plans I had made, and, well I guess I had become a bit boringThe idea of going three consecutive days without a run had become unthinkable – I ran on holiday, on days off, when I was more in need of pyjamas and pizza than exercise…every part of my life was tied to running in some way.

So, when I stopped, the first thing I noticed was relief. I was tired, and actually, I was a bit bored of running; a break was good news. The surprise here was that I didn’t frantically start rushing out to a spinning class or on daily bike rides instead: I upped my weekly swim to twice a week and, if the weather suited, went on a short bike ride at the weekend. I couldn’t really walk far (my Doc advised to avoid walking where possible), so I paid more attention to the unavoidable walks that I had to do, appreciating the time outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I also noticed that I didn’t become depressed. I had been convinced that my mental stability absolutely depended on running: nope, I was wrong. Of course, getting outside and moving is essential for good mental health, but so is coffee with friends, long morning lie-ins, quality husband time, an evening with a great book and furry cat cuddles. And, as the constant pressure on myself to get out running five times a week was no longer there, I felt in a much happier place then I’d been in a while. If anything, not running removed a huge burden from my life. Because running had become a burden; the thing I thought I did to keep myself happy was making me unhappy.

And this leads me to The Space. I would perhaps have been tempted to refer to this as The Gap previously – the idea that stopping running would leave a big gap in my life and I’d just sit feeling sad, getting fat and being bored (I am a bit ashamed to be typing these words, but I think it’s true of how I used to feel). But no, suddenly there was space. I got in touch with the friends I hadn’t contacted in a while, I went to my favourite coffee shop on empty afternoons and treated myself to some reading time, I stayed in my pyjamas until noon on Sundays, I bought myself some new things. I applied for (in one case successfully) some exciting jobs and took part (unsuccessfully) in a baking competition. I made bread for the first time in ages and stocked up on homemade jams and chutneys using veg from the garden and foraged blackberries. I made homemade ketchup – red and green! I visited my family for Sunday dinner and spent an afternoon at a rugby game in my home town. It’s not that I never did things things before, but before they always had to fit in to ‘a busy schedule’ of keeping up what I thought was my favourite hobby. It turns out that grassroots rugby and mushroom pie is really quite fun too. Life became fuller than it’s been in a long time, and at the same time there was more space to sit and breathe, slowly.

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The best loaf of bread I’ve ever made

Of course, there were moments when I desperately wanted to run. This is the best time of year to get out there, and the weather has been perfect for long Sunday runs. It was those moments when things were most difficult that I was able to find something new and exciting. This is where I was able to really question myself – am I a runner or not? Do I ever want to run again? For about three weeks I was convinced that I had to stop running altogether, and those moments were the only glimmers of what the future might hold as a runner, and not as a non-runner. On many an occasion I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, in a sort of meditation I suppose, and just listened to what my thoughts were telling me. This non-running existence is slower, unpressured; life is fuller, more peaceful; I am happier and more whole. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that this weird paradox where we run marathon after marathon as a way of justifying or finding worth in our actions and existence – well, it’s just another excess of modern life. To a certain extent running has become a consumer product, like a designer handbag, perhaps. We want more and more, because the getting, rather than the having, feels so good. It does feel good – there’s no denying it – but it also makes us feel bad, guilty, not good enough. And thus the cycle begins. I half-speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finally, eventually, I came to the place that I’d been looking for. I realised that the important part of my non-running journey had passed, and I was left with a sensible balance of wanting to get out running and not wanting to ever feel pressure ever again about doing or not doing something that I choose to do for fun. It took four weeks for the thought processes to gather in a happy place where I no longer felt fear about not being injured any more, or about starting running again (and having to make the decision about whether or not I would). Finally I was comfortable about starting again with a new ‘only when it feels good’ approach.

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Four weeks isn’t a long time – could you do it? It was one of the nicest four weeks I’ve spent in ages. Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question, I don’t own a set of scales, but my slightly-too-tight-to-wear jeans now fit nicely; I wonder if this is my body’s response to relaxing and being allowed to regulate itself without constantly fighting for energy? It was hard to accept that I was feeling this way about running, and I’m glad that I was forced into it with an injury because I never would have taken the time to stop otherwise. After the break (and still with an ankle that needs caring for) I was glad to start running again, but now my sole goal for a run is to feel good and shake off the day (I’m yet to manage a morning run – I’ve become too fond of lazy breakfasts with my husband). So far I’ve been paying attention constantly to how I feel when I’m out, and questioning my reasons for getting out there. Never again do I want to find my running schedule on auto-pilot, where a hobby turns into a burden and thus a drain on my quality of life.