I’m a little bit like a magpie. That is, I’m attracted to shiny things and I’ll go to great lengths to take part in a race based purely on the quality of its medal.
I was desperate to get the latest London Marathon medal, but I’d failed to get a place via the ballot so the only option open to me was getting a charity place. Having already done several marathons and fundraising challenges before, I decided on two things – one; I should fundraise for a cause close to my heart and, two; I needed to do something spectacular to justify asking people to sponsor me again. That’s how I ended up at 33 years old, doing 33 races in a year, to raise money for Rethink Mental Illness; or as I called it, #33at33.
I’ve always been a worrier. Ever since I was a small child I would get in frantic states about the smallest of things. Until my early teenage years, I would regularly have night terrors. At secondary school, following a period of bullying, I began to express suicidal thoughts and receive counselling.
The thoughts and emotions these experiences invoked have been familiar at various periods in my life. I’ve self-harmed, self-medicated and one time I was signed off work for three months.
In the year I turned 30, I started experiencing frequent and debilitating panic attacks, where every time I was convinced I was going to die from a heart attack.
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So, raising money for and awareness of mental health made perfect sense.
My challenged kicked off on 1 October 2017, my birthday, at the Kingston Half Marathon (I turned up late and hungover). Four weeks, and four races, later I had just run my third fastest ever marathon in Turin and was looking forward to running the original marathon route from Marathon to Athens in a couple of weeks.
Then I received some devastating news – my mum was terminally ill with cancer. Knowing how excited I’d been about Athens, my mum insisted that I still go, but I struggled in that race. I started drinking more frequently to cope and, as my mum’s condition worsened, so did mine – spending a lot of time back home in Yorkshire with my family resulted in a lot of time in the pub.
On Boxing Day, my mum passed away in a hospice surrounded by her family. I continued to drink quite heavily until after her funeral, but then belatedly started Dry January. By early February, my fitness was coming back and I’d completed race number ten, including the Marrakech marathon – my first race on a different continent.
And then, just as things seemed to be picking up, my relationship of five years came to an end.
The next few weeks were a rollercoaster of emotions as I came to terms with the situation. I was at a very low ebb and I started self-harming again for the first time in eight years.
Despite being in a very dark place, I only missed one race during this period and completed two half marathons (Brighton and the Big Half) and the Barcelona Marathon.
Coming through this particularly difficult time marked a turning point in the year for me. I completed four marathons in the following five weeks – Paris, Brighton, London and Milton Keynes. I still had episodes where I got too drunk, and I still had debilitating panic attacks where I thought I was going to die – but things did slowly and steadily get a little better.
Over the summer of 2018 I completed my biggest fitness challenges to date. I ran my first 50-mile ultra-marathon on the North Downs. I also completed my first full distance triathlon (aka an Ironman race); that’s a 2.4mile swim, 112mile cycle and a marathon at the end.
I completed my #33at33 challenge on 30 September 2018, the day before my 34 birthday, with the Ealing Half Marathon. By then, I had chalked off 11 marathons, nine half marathons, seven 10ks, a 5k and a couple of shorter triathlons, as well as my mammoth ultra-marathon and full-distance triathlon. I ran over 556 miles, cycled over 161 miles and swam over 6.5 miles in 365 days. Not to mention I travelled thousands of miles, including flying to five different countries.
A lot changed in the 12 months between me starting and finishing my 33 races. The grief of losing my mum in December was offset by the joy of welcoming my niece, Melissa, into the family in June. Similarly, the sadness that was felt when my relationship came to an end was offset by the happiness and excitement of a new one starting later that year. My mental health reached new lows, but now I’m off my medication and feeling better for it. And even though, at times, I became dependent on alcohol, I’m planning to spend 2019 completely sober.
So, what did taking on #33at33 teach me?
That a lot of people you know will be suffering silently from mental health issues. Throughout the year, so many people have been in touch to say they’re affected by poor mental health but haven’t spoken to anyone about it.
That physical exercise really can help your mental state. One of the hardest things about my mental health is a feeling that I’m not in control of what I think and feel, but running at least made me feel in control of my body.
And it’s a cliché, but if you set your mind to something and you’re determined to achieve it, you can do anything. I didn’t make any huge sacrifices, I didn’t even train that well, but I was single-minded and resolute about completing 33 races. Even when I wasn’t the fittest, or I was injured, or exhausted from doing two races in a weekend, I just kept going. By running an ultra-marathon and finishing a full distance triathlon I did things I never thought I was physically capable of.
Life can be unpredictable, and full of highs and lows. But whatever happens next, I know that running will always be there to ground me. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be gearing up for #50at50?
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird, wonderful and transformational life experiences. If you’ve got a story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.