Last Sunday I completed the Virgin Money London Marathon. My time was five hours and 37 minutes, which is great as it was my first marathon and my only goal was to finish. I chose to run for Heads Together and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. When I heard that Heads Together was campaigning to end the stigma around mental health, this resonated with my personal experience.
Since childhood I have struggled with anxiety and depression, and it's only through talking with others about my difficulties that I have been able to feel better. My dad also has anxiety and depression, and we've both experienced stigma and misunderstanding about what we're going through.
So, it was an easy choice to sign up for what Heads Together calls the first 'Mental Health Marathon', and I feel so lucky to have met Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry in the process. The Royals have used their high visibility to share the crucial message that it is OK to talk about mental health difficulties with other people, and that this shouldn't be something shameful or stigmatizing.
After visiting the London Eye for World Mental Health Day last October, I knew I was committed to completing the marathon. I discussed my non-existent training plan with Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon and Prince Harry, and Prince Harry assured me that as long as I started running in January, I would be fine. Turns out, he was right - although he left out one crucial detail: training in winter is terrible.
There is no way to sugar-coat it. January, February, March (and let's be honest, April too, yay England!) were wet, icy, windy, dark, slippery, cold, and rainy. Most nights I wanted to become a blanket burrito on my couch and watch Netflix with a glass of wine - instead, I forced myself to go outside and jog around while lecturing myself in my head about making and keeping promises and blowing warm air on my hands. However, after about five miles I would start to feel the endorphins kick in, and I found that I would always finish feeling better than I had when I had started.
I even began to feel the old joy I would get from running cross country when I was a teenager - I devoured Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, spent hours creating epic playlists with upbeat running tracks, bought a load of necessary and unnecessary gear, watched Marathon Man starring Dustin Hoffman (great movie, but not about marathons...), and took pride in my growing assortment of blisters.
The Heads Together Facebook group and my fundraising efforts with Tom and Dawid (who also ran the marathon for the Centre) were crucial in keeping me going in the most difficult period of training. I received an outpouring of kindness and support from my husband, colleagues, family members, and friends in the days leading up to the marathon, for which I am hugely grateful. The Wednesday before race day, feeling extremely nervous and worried about the race, I attended an event at Kensington Palace with other Heads Together runners. Together we met Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, who thanked us for raising awareness about mental health. We discussed how you're never too young to talk about mental health, and how parents are instrumental in facilitating these conversations with their children.
After meeting the Duchess, a fellow Heads Together runner told me her reasons for running the marathon - like myself, she had experienced depression since childhood and had had a particularly hard time at university. She told me that the worst bit for her was not being able to tell others what was wrong and how to help her, and feeling guilty for not being able to "get better" on her own. I felt like she was putting into words what I thought many times in my life, but was too ashamed to actually voice.
Later, as we walked back into the Palace to get our things, she turned to me and apologized "if she had shared too much" about her difficulties. I realized that this was the whole point of the Heads Together campaign - mainly, it's OK to say. And it's enough just to listen. I hope the legacy of the Heads Together campaign continues to encourage these kinds of everyday conversations about mental health.