I’m finally winning the race against anxiety - but I’ll never reach the finish line

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This is the third time I’ve tried to write this piece - I’m desperate to say something after the wonderful effect of my article on mental health and running last year, but every time I try, it feels forced and artificial.

I feel like something of a fraud even writing this - I feel so much better this year that part of me worries that I’m just putting this up because I want the world to hear my story. Last year’s piece about the pain of running with anxiety scratching away poured out of me, a journey desperate to be recounted, but it also changed things for me massively.

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The worst part was putting it out into the world last year - the flash of panic that coursed through me when I hit publish, realising that I’d ‘outed’ myself as weak and unstable, someone who could no longer relied upon because I let the mask finally slip away.

But what happened - and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised - is that the messages of support and recognition poured in. I posted the link on Twitter, Facebook and runners’ forums I frequent, and everyone was kind, humbling and wonderful with what they said. I realised that I wasn't weak, or unstable, in any way.

It led me to running some mindfulness running groups, to have the confidence to open conversations with people about anxiety when I used to worry about whether it was appropriate… and the sheer volume of people that are fellow warriors is incredible.

I hadn’t done anything special. I’d not opened the world’s eyes to something that they didn’t know. I just happened to write down the thoughts that were rolling around the raw minds of so many around me - and it engaged people in a way I couldn’t have expected.

Not because I’m brilliant with words, but because so many people thought they were alone in this. People that didn’t consider themselves to have ‘traditional’ mental health issues, but just struggling through life and not knowing why.

(One of the most beautiful moments happened at a pub a week or so later - a chap I was friends with asked me to come into the corner for a chat. We got there and he locked me in a big hug for a few seconds, and told me that he felt so relieved someone else felt the same. I didn’t really know what to do - I’d just told the world how I was feeling, not expecting anyone to really listen - but just talking to him afterwards was a truly wonderful experience.)

A familiar enemy

I won’t pretend that the marathon was easy last year - in fact, since I’d been 'exposed' as an anxiety sufferer, I felt the pressure of not letting my mind clamp down even more acutely, and that certainly didn’t help.

I didn’t walk though, even when the panic began flashing at mile 22. I forced myself to promise to be proud of every 100 metres I conquered, not to care about the pace, not to worry about what was coming next. 

I shouldered the demon and ran as it scratched me up and down with its serrated judgement.

I did it. My time was far too slow in my mind, the training ‘all wasted’, but I didn’t crack once. I forced my ailing body onwards, and while I still don’t really feel content with that or proud, I know that I should and I hold onto that.

But then things changed. For reasons I won’t go into here, my situation in life changed dramatically, and I was suddenly faced with a number of new challenges I never wanted to face.

The thing was… these challenges were real - real things happening to me that weren’t locked away in my mind. I was forced to experience, feel and decide about things and watch as they possibly fell apart.

But while every day should have been a struggle, I was thriving. I continued seeing my therapist (and continue to do so - it’s without doubt the greatest investment I’ve ever made) and just made a conscious effort to tell the truth.

When I struggled to grasp the nettle of any situation that fell in front of me, I forced it in the open, rather than locking it away into the corner of my mind and hoping it was something I never had to deal with.

It'll be much harder race conditions this year - but I feel ready.

It'll be much harder race conditions this year - but I feel ready.

In many ways my life was falling apart, but I was feeling more mentally free than I ever had before. Where before I used to see anxiety as something to try and wrestle with (but finding that it was the same as trying to grab steam out of the air) I became passive, forcing myself to be more of a shadow than it could ever be.

To paraphrase Taylor Swift: if it was a ghost, then I was going to be a phantom.

And it took an awfully long time for it to have any change. We’re talking a single percentage point every so often - but the direction was going the right way.

Here’s the thing that I found the most strange - and bringing it back to the point of this piece: I got faster. My 5K time tumbled to below 18 minutes on a day I was a bit hungover. My 10K race pace smashed past 38 minutes. I battered my five mile, 10 mile best times. 

Even my half marathon PB nearly fell, but the thing was I wasn’t training any harder. In fact, I wasn’t training hard at all. I was feeling a little guilty that I was slacking off, and scientifically I should have got worse.

But I didn’t - and the only reason can be that I was finally resting and healing both my body and mind. No longer slogging through runs out of duty… I was running when I felt like it, curtailing sessions and trying to do things socially rather than specifically for power.

This continued throughout the year, the run of great results making 2017 one of my worst years emotionally but one of the best in terms of race results. It made no sense.

A race with no finish

I’ll admit, I’m still struggling with what I’m writing. I’m panicking slightly that I’m coming across like some sort of guru who’s ‘got all the answers’, or ‘knows the secrets of overcoming anxiety’.

I am definitely neither of those things. I’m someone who’s lucky enough to not only have a forum to put my words out into the world, but an incredible team of people to support me in writing about something so non-techy on a website called TechRadar.

Taking over the editorship this year has been one of my proudest moments. This site is a passion as much as it is a job, and having been there from the start and watching it grow has been wonderful.

So taking over stewardship (along with the the inimitable Marc Chacksfield) is a position I’ve dreamed of - and it’s not something I could have done, mentally, a year ago. 

There are still days where I struggle to get out of bed in the morning. But I do. There are days when my appetite drops and I get a burning panic that I’m going to ‘fall’ back into anxiety again.

But I’m slowly starting to gain confidence that I won’t… because I’m living with it every day. I’ve stopped seeing it as a shrieking demon, just a well-meaning but overly-oppressive parent, and trusting that I know how to deal with it, that this episode won't be the one that 'sends me back'.

With running, I know that I’m not going to to keep getting faster forever - and actually I’ve already started to slow down. It was going to happen at some point.

Going into the marathon, the combination of an injury-disrupted training plan and the excessive London heat predicted mean that I’ve got no hope of emulating last year. There’s no point even trying - this may sound negative but it's perhaps the most positive thing I can do in the situation.

Every race should have fear and excitement in equal measure.

Every race should have fear and excitement in equal measure.

I’m going to go out slow. Frustratingly slow, watching the time (and chance for glory) slip away step by step, until I get to the point where I began to crumble last year. 

I’m going to crack out the most energetic tunes, get my adrenaline flowing and slowly begin to pick up the pace to prove to myself that I don’t need to run as hard as I can, all the time, to feel happiness. That I waited until it was right for me.

I want goosebumps to start flowing as I begin to sprint towards the end, riding on a wave of positivity that I created, not because it accidentally happened. I want it to represent that this year I’ve fought without fighting, become the best warrior I can be without landing one blow.

I know that I’ll never reach the finish line in this race against anxiety because… that’s my life, and anxiety will always have its own race number and be running somewhere in the field.

But if you’re struggling with the same thing, know this: there are more people out there than you can possibly imagine feeling exactly the same way, and if you can take any step at all - any - to own a little bit of what stops you sleeping, able to see friends, to do the things you think ‘normal’ people should be able to do, you’ll start pulling ahead.

If you recognise any of the feelings listed above, please take the step to talk to someone about it - whether that's a friend, family member or one of the numbers listed here. You don't need to suffer alone. Honestly.