I’m a runner. I run. I run hard, I run for fun, I run for fitness. I run for endurance and for stamina. I run for a clear head. I enter races. I run for the challenge. I also happen to suffer from appalling pre-race anxiety, that near enough wipes me out from my normal state of mind.
Now, there’s a key difference here between adrenaline and anxiety. Adrenaline is a driver, not an inhibitor. It brings about a state of “fight or flight”, and it’s a fantastic asset for athletes to utilise as a natural boost to their performance. Anxiety, for me, works in the opposite way. It sends me into a very insular mood, where I work my stomach into knots. I don’t want to think about whatever is making me anxious, but I’m unable to immerse myself into the real day-to-day world, either. I don’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone, but instead I journey into my own head and think about everything BUT the thing that’s making me anxious.
Sounds a bit whacko, doesn’t it? I ran a Half Marathon in Winchester recently. It was my third one, and I’ll just stride on in here with the spoiler alert: I did well. I didn’t get a PB, but it was my second fastest Half and it was by far the hardest I’ve attempted. However, in the build up to the race (and for part of the race itself), I was a mess.
My husband encouraged me to look at the course route that we’d been sent, along with our race numbers. I refused. “I can’t think about it,” I said. “Just leave me to wallow in ignorance.” He told me it’s good practice to study the form before race day. “Never go into a race blind, you need to manage your expectations. This is a hard course.”
LALALALALALALALALALA NOT LISTENING NOT LISTENING. It’s ages away, I’ll just worry about it all nearer the time.
In the week leading up to race day, some of my compulsions started to display themselves. I got my kit ready five days early. I planned the outfits I’d wear to work in the week AFTER the race, so that I didn’t have to worry about it beforehand. I purchased birthday cards for November, so that I wouldn’t have to concern myself with it during the race. I made sure that our meal plan for the week after the race was full of easy meals, because I didn’t want to spend the race stressing that I had a busy week of cooking ahead. I remembered that I needed to dig out a spare phone charger for my work mobile, to take on a trip with me in about three weeks time. I got it out, the night before the race, so that (you’ve guessed it), I wouldn’t need to worry on race day.
The gist of this is that my mind goes into such a hideous overdrive, that I try to remove every single niggling source of worry from my brain as a sort of compensatory measure for the immense fear I have of the race itself. In clogging up my grey matter with ridiculous, inconsequential diatribe, I’m giving myself the excuse I need to NOT address the actual shit-the-bed fear: that I have to run a race and I might not perform well.
The 24 hours pre-race are when I’m at my worst. I can’t handle social interaction, I fear my phone going off. I mute all notifications, then doggedly trawl through Facebook in case I’ve missed anything important, because I can’t cope with that either. I prattle on to my husband about absolute nonsense, such as “OK, please can we just talk about 28th March 2018 because I might need to be away for work. And please can you take the recycling bin outside because I’m scared we’ll miss the collection. And please can you write shower gel on the shopping list for next Saturday, because I’ve only got three bottles left in the cupboard.”
Joking aside, I do suffer with mental health problems. Ironically, my fitness is how I control it – it gives me an outlet to vent my frustrations, and it gives me absolutely crucial space to think and process. In a normal, non-race week, the gym is my number one calming tool, above everything else. I can run to the gym on the verge of tears with stress and anxiety, and return home two hours later in a completely rational and calm mood. I don’t know why a race should be any different. Maybe it’s the pressure I heap onto myself to get a good time, or maybe it’s the logistics of actually getting myself to a start line and then finding my family afterwards. I don’t know. I’m still trying to work it through.
I had intended to write this as a “hey guys, here are my five top tips for dealing with anxiety” post. But you know what? I don’t have any. I KNOW the good ones to quote, sure – breathing in and out slowly, trying to remain in the present, talking it all through with someone close to you – all very good tips, yes. But when I’m in it, REALLY locked in it, they don’t work. The only thing that DOES work is seeing it through. Feeling that fear, and pushing through it.
The obvious answer would be to stop entering races. To wipe out the root cause. Except I don’t think it is the root cause. I’m a good runner and I’ve worked really hard to get here – and the feeling when I cross the finish absolutely 100% negates ALL of the preceding crap. With each race I run, I can recognise a little voice that’s getting louder. “You CAN do this, and you know you can. You CAN do this, and you know you can.”
I know I can.
-SJW November 2017