Picture this: A freezing, rainy February day in beautiful Mile End. I’m homesick. The Philadelphia Eagles have just won the Super Bowl. My friends back in the States have travelled home to be there for the celebrations. And I’m stuck. In London. Across the ocean. With nobody to celebrate the historical Super bowl Win with. (Kinda laughing at myself that I felt this way because I genuinely don’t know how football works and may be the least invested person in the sport).
I decide to do what I have always done for over six years. What I only know what to do: I strap on my trainers and head out for a run. As I run towards Victoria Park from Lindop House, I turn on the ‘The Daily’ Podcast and listen to the uplifting news from Washington. It was a horrible run. I was miserable and cold and barely moving and depressed from the news. And as I made my way back after my loop of Victoria Park thinking the day couldn’t be more miserable, a bus drives right next to me and drenches me in the filthy city water. Covered in polluted water, I wanted to cry, but instead, I laughed.
Why, Maria? Why? Why and what the hell am I doing out here?
If you know me, you know I ran, I run, I will be running. everyday. It’s a habit. A part of me. But why? What ticks me to come out here every day?
My Mum loves to say that my running journey started when I was 3 years old… So the legend has it that I was running around the track at our local university when, after almost a mile, my parents decided to stop me because they didn’t think it was normal for a toddler to be running that distance. Whether or not that’s true is debatable. I started consistently running when I was 13 years old. This was the year of a new school, a transition. I remember coming home and before doing anything, strapping on my sneakers at 3:30 pm to go on the same mundane half an hour loop. This habit continued all through high school. And I have – without a doubt – run that loop over a thousand times since. But this doesn’t really answer why. And truthfully, until last month, I could not tell you. I used to say, it clears my head, it helps me write my papers, I like to listen to podcasts during it. My answer changed constantly, and I was okay with that.
However, last month I read two books oriented around the subject of running, Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougal and Bella Mackie’s recently released book, Jog On, and as a result this habit of mine has been enlightened. In a nutshell Born to Run, published in 2010, tells the story of the Tarahumara tribe in the Copper Canyons in the Mexican state of Chiguahua. In search for answers about why he keeps on injuring himself from running, McDougal learns about the Tarahumara’s legendary abilities to run absolute insane distances off of a very basic diet – in inhospitable conditions – without getting injured. In trying comprehend how these super athletes – whose society is 500 years behind us – would outrun today’s elite runners, readers are offered fascinating information around the history and physiology of running. And before you know it, you too, will be persuaded into thinking that: “if you don’t think you were born to run you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.” A ten out of ten read. I could go on forever about it. But essentially, it affirmed my instinct to run. As the book suggests, “we were born to run; we were born, because we run.”
As I was finishing up this book, I was listening to Emma Gannon’s Podcast, CTRL ALT DELETE, in which she was interviewing Bella Mackie on her brand new book Jog On. Knowing nothing about Bella, or who she was as a journalist, I quickly become interested by her conversation with Emma on how running helped her through her lowest of lows (divorce, anxiety, deaths etc) which inspired her to write Jog On. At an all-time after reading Born to Run, I literally bought Jog On at Waterstones that night in the hope to be even more inspired.
While Jog On is also brimming with fascinating research around the science of running, it is intertwined with Bella’s personal struggle with anxiety and the way it has helped her cope. I love Jog On for many reasons. Firstly, it not only clearly outlines the most common anxiety disorders: (OCD), Panic Disorder, Phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, and GAD (Generalized anxiety disorder), but also engaged my understanding of the epidemic of anxiety and how it is relevant to twenty year olds like myself.
In one instance, Bella insightfully suggests that “while aspects of anxiety will be present in kids from a much younger age, early adulthood is the perfect time for more serious aspects of anxiety and depression to hit, and hit hard. And that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone – after all, this is the time when carefully regimented structures of education and family fall away and you are mostly in charge for the first time. Some thrive with new responsibilities that they’ve been given, but many will not. I did not.” I challenge you to find me one person in University who is not at least acutely stressed. Stressed about university, deadlines, societies. Stressed about careers, internships, where the heck their life is going or the question of ‘so what’s your plan after Uni?’
Bella refreshingly admits the confusion of her university experience when saying, that ‘your twenties are a time for experimenting, having done and enjoying everything that life may offer you, or so we’re told. Instead, for many people, I think it is a time of massive insecurity, debt and a sense of displacement – a decade of worry and fear.’ As you learn (if you read Jog On), it is not Bella’s twenties or years of anxiety and panic attacks that pushes her into running, but rather the crumbling of her marriage in her thirties.
Bella relates her urge to run one week into her newly single life by likening it to ‘a moment in the Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caulfield runs across the school playing fields and explains it by saying: ‘ I don’t even know what I was running for – I guess I just felt like it.’ From this point onward in the book, I dare you to not be inspired to try running. Bella’s journey is accessible for all; runners, non-runners, smokers (like Bella), and people who have never exercised before. I also especially loved Jog On, because her story is all situated in London (from her panic attacks on the tube, to her blissful runs around Regents Park) so I think for us students in London, it is especially relatable.
And for me personally, I think epitomizes my experience of running. I run. I run when I’m tired, happy, sad. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I feel complete joy. The first five minutes will never not be hell. And truthfully, I am a terrible runner, with terrible form. In fact, I should win an award for how slow I am – considering I have been doing it consistently since I was 14. While it would be unfair to relate my stresses to Bella or anyone who seriously struggles with mental health, I’d be lying if I’d say I was never stressed or anxious. Therefore, like Bella, “Running is my relief. Relief after hard times. Your relief might come in a different form, but please do try and find it – don’t stop until you do. Demand it, because you shouldn’t spend another day in misery.” For Bella, ‘Running was [her] hope. Or maybe running gave [her] hope, I don’t know. But either way, it got [her] out of a lifelong cycle of anxiety and depression.’
Therefore, I challenge all you to just try, even if it’s just one minute of running down the street. And if you don’t like it, that’s fine. We all have different outlets of relief as Bella suggested above. I think so many of us can easily be swept away by life, that we become out of touch with our emotions. While running shakes and centers me, ultimately you need to find the thing that shakes you into peace and clarity. Bella poetically ends her book, by invoking us to consider Alain de Botton’s statement that ‘the largest part of what we call ‘personality’ is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness.’ Jogging defends me. I am hopeful it can help defend you too.
Below are Bella’s top tips for getting started.
- Don’t buy masses of shiny new kit just yet.
- Go slowly. I mean it, as slow as possible without walking
- Download a beginner 5k App.
- Take Water.
- Podcasts and Music help.
- Take care of your feet.
- If leaving your safe places make you feel very vulnerable then start small, do a loop of your road.
- Remember that running does not mean marathons.
- Nobody is looking at you.
- Be Kind to Yourself.
- Focus on what your body is telling you, but not too much.
- Have fun. I know it’s obvious, but running shouldn’t just be a joyless slog which you endure because you’ve heard exercise can be good for your mental health.