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How Running Away Can Save Your Life

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People say you should never run away from your troubles. I ran as far as I could.

I am not a natural runner. The most I could previously run was about 500 metres before either feeling breathless or tripping over the smallest bump in the footpath. I could barely climb a set of escalators, I couldn't keep up with my kids on their bikes and every time I put active gear on I felt like a fraud. Yet somehow, after my husband died, I both instinctively knew I needed to run and somehow found the capacity to do it....

I started slow. Run the short lengths of the local park, walk the longer straights; then run the straights walk the short lengths. Then, finally, one day I managed to run the whole way once around the park. Then twice. A couple of 4k fun runs and finally, almost 2 years later, I made it to 10 kilometres.

What had begun as a desire to become strong enough that I could lift a suitcase or pick up both kids or do any of the other physical things my husband had always done for us, became, almost imperceptibly, little by little, something so much more important to my recovery.

More surprising than the running itself was the fact that I wasn't hauling myself there or needing to push myself to get on the track. Quite the opposite. I was scheduling my days to make sure I could fit a run in at every possible opportunity. It was truly addictive. If I didn't get a run in, I would fade by 2pm. I felt elated when I finally achieved that 10k goal. I started to call myself "A Runner". And then, whilst running about 500 metres in wet shoes I fell and broke my foot. I'm convinced a new years resolution to run a half marathon was my undoing. Pride literally went before the fall.

Ive always said that it was the endorphins from running that had kept me sane in the first weeks, months and then years of widowhood, but it took losing those happy hormones to confirm it. Google running and grief and you'll find a hundred articles from people who have similarly found hope in hitting the track. Turns out the fight or flight response is actively engaged when you run. And lord knows I needed that fight response. (Flights not an option when you have a fear of turbulence!) I needed whatever fight there was in me to get up each morning, deal with my kids and work and bills and taking out the rubbish and bumps in the night and everything else that I could no longer rely on a partner to help with. Running had given me that mental and physical strength, and then all of a sudden this thing that had become my scaffolding was gone. I felt lost.

Contrary to my early lofty goals to use the enforced 8 week downtime in a moon boot to become more organised, I found myself at various times back in the paralysis of those first few weeks of widowhood, wandering the house when I was on my own, finding it difficult to ecide what to do next let alone get it done. I kept going for the kids. I slapped on my best "brave face" and went to work... but without the relentless thud of one foot after the other I got stuck in the relentless thoughts. The what if's. The at leasts. And the inevitable What happens next?

It took me a while to realise that in losing the capacity to run (or even go for a long walk) I'd also lost the music... I realised that part of the joy of running for me is the release that comes from the combination of the ground meeting my feet and the beat in my ears. Put those ear phones in, turn up the volume, listen to the same playlist for days on end til each song blends to the next and it becomes just this backdrop to a heartbeat. Put the sunglasses on and it doesn't matter what feelings the lyrics evoke. Let the tears fall and pretend its sweat if you happen to bump into someone you know... (Pro tip: waterproof mascara) Without music the silence left a gaping hole for the thoughts to creep in and the memories to become a flood.

Yoga gave me some air to breathe but not the adrenaline I craved. Writing was an intellectual catharsis but also made the thoughts more intense. Ive always known that distractions are key to this journey but no matter how many extra things I crammed into the days, there is always, inevitably, the night.

Looking up was the only available fail safe cure... Seeing the beauty in the way the sun shines through two sky scrapers, a pink clouded sunset, the red leaves on an autumnal tree... In those brief moments I found I could let go and breathe out; but even those precious minutes would be fleeting, unlike the adrenaline surge from running that lasts all day.

A few weeks back when I could finally take the moon boot off for extended periods I headed straight to the park for a walk. I knew I couldn't run yet, but a walk seemed doable. In went the earphones, on went the sunnies and up went the volume on a song which met my pace perfectly. Over and over I played the same song and kept on walking. I probably overdid it for my foot... But for my head it was the perfect Goldilocks moment.... just right.

Today I start what Im calling "moon boot to 21k". Starting once again with the short lengths and then adding in the straights. At some point Im sure they'll meet up and Ill go the whole way around again.

Like Alice, perhaps I will find wonderland after the fall.