I have read that when you run, the hardest journey is from the sofa to the front door. There have been lots of days when that has been true, but I’ve never had a run that I’ve regretted.
As I have short legs and poor hand-eye coordination, I was not a success at sport when I was at school, and PE lessons were usually a source of embarrassment and stress. I discovered dancing, which kept me fit through my teenage years, but as I got older, life inevitably got in the way. I had a sedentary job, other commitments kept me busy outside work, I didn’t find a lot of time for exercise and my fitness levels declined.
When my father was 49, he had a massive heart attack. He recovered relatively well, albeit with significant scarring to the heart muscle. In his sixties, he suffered an Abdominal Aortic Aneurism, and was very fortunate to undergo a pioneering repair operation. Unfortunately, at the age of 69 he suffered another, fatal, heart attack. Sadly, his own father had died at a young age, also from a heart attack. This family history became a source of great concern to me, and I developed severe anxiety about the health of my own heart.
I began to suffer from arrhythmia and became a regular visitor to my GP to discuss my worries.
The situation quickly became a vicious cycle of issues with my heart rhythm, which caused anxiety and made the arrhythmia worse. Major changes at work left me feeling even more anxious, and I declined into more generalised anxiety, depression, panic attacks and eventually agoraphobia.
knew I should be exercising, but I found that it exacerbated the arrhythmia, worsening my anxiety. I felt trapped in my fear and a sense that life had slipped out of control. A change of job helped me to regain some of normality, and I gradually worked my way back to a place where the anxiety and depression were manageable. However, the arrhythmia was still there, and I was still afraid to do anything that increased my heart rate too much. Looking back, this now seems ridiculous, but I was just trying to get through the days without people realising how terrified I felt all the time, and what a failure I was.
Just over four years ago, when I was 45, I noticed my clothes were getting a bit tight. I decided I had to do something. Having tried getting back into dancing and living to tell the tale, I started to feel a bit braver. My husband had recently completed the NHS Choices Couch to 5K programme and was delighted with it. He had previously made a few attempts to take up running but had always ended up struggling and being put off. The C25K programme allowed him to build up gradually until he was regularly running 5K and really enjoying it. Being a lovely husband, he even agreed to go back to the start of the programme to keep me company.
I don’t think either of us really thought I’d get to the end. We started out on cold, dark January evenings, and I still remember the time I tripped over a speed bump in the dark and ended up sprawled on the road. I didn’t let it put me off, though – I just shouted to my husband to pause the app so that I could carry on when I’d recovered my composure.
The design of the programme ensures that the challenge increases in a manageable way each week, so that rather than feeling too daunted at the end of each week by what was coming next, I was excited about trying it and seeing what I could achieve.
I eventually got to the end of the programme and found that I could run for 30 minutes without stopping. I wasn’t covering 5K in that 30 minutes, but it felt like a huge achievement. As well as developing my physical fitness, which has made a massive difference to the arrhythmia, I discovered reserves of mental resilience which I had not believed I possessed and found myself feeling more positive and confident than I had for years.
I discovered a great company called RunThrough, who organize races in London parks, and we signed up for a 5K race in Hyde Park. I was very nervous, as I was sure that I would be the last to finish, and everyone would have gone home by the time I got to the end. I think it took me about 37 minutes to complete the course, and I was so delighted that I had finished, that I leapt over the finish line.
We entered a few more events over the following year, and in September I plucked up the courage to try a 10K race. I was filled with trepidation at the start and a bit worried that I wouldn’t get round the course within the cut-off time. However, I managed to get round in time, and was thrilled to reach another milestone. The following year, I was so addicted to the atmosphere of race day I completed three half-marathons, and I still can’t quite believe that I can say that.
Last year, we were delighted to be able to take part in the Bath Half Marathon. Thanks to wonderful friends and colleagues, I raised over £700 for the British Heart Foundation in memory of my Dad and crossing the finishing line that day is one of the proudest moments of my life. Two more half-marathons followed, along with lots of other 10K and 5K races, all of them bringing lots of fun and a sense of achievement that I never expected to feel.
Since then, many things have changed dramatically for everyone, and the world feels like a different place. Alongside the challenges of lockdown and the general uncertainty and anxiety about the pandemic, I’ve undergone months of tests and finally surgery to remove half of my thyroid.
Throughout this period, regular running has helped me to stay calm and focussed, given me targets to distract my over-active imagination, and helped me to make a good recovery from the surgery.
I’ve tried to maintain momentum by taking part in lots of virtual races which I’ve done from home. Through social media, I’m able to keep up with the activities of lots of fellow-runners and share in their achievements, too, which is a great antidote to the isolation and a reminder of how many people are being helped by exercise through this difficult time.
I have read that when you run, the hardest journey is the one from the sofa to the front door. There have been lots of days when that has been true, but I’ve never had a run that I’ve regretted, and I definitely don’t regret setting out on the C25K journey.
I can’t recommend this programme highly enough.
It has changed my life in more ways than I could ever have imagined, and given me some of the best memories; from running past York Minster in the morning sunshine as the bells were ringing to running down The Mall and through Admiralty Arch. I wouldn’t swap any of those experiences, particularly the hard runs when I thought I was beaten, as those were the days when I built the resilience to hold on just a bit longer and get to the finish. I hope that I can inspire someone else to take up this challenge and to find that they have more inside them than they had ever dreamed.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in Ailsa’s story, you can find advice and support from mental health charities, organisations and support groups at nhs.co.uk/conditions.