In a recent episode the Runner's World UK Podcast, we spoke to Bryony Gordon: a writer, mental health campaigner and author of Mad Girl. We chatted about her experience of lockdown, how exercise impacts mental health, and an unlikely source of inspiration that pushed her towards taking part in the London Marathon.
How have you found lockdown, Bryony?
I’ve hated it. I thought I was OK. Initially, at the beginning of it, so this time last year, I thought, ‘I’ve been planning for this since I was nine!’ The world was going to end and everyone was freaking out and I was like, ‘I told you things were going to go badly wrong!’ So I actually was quite chilled about it, and there were bits of me that were quite relieved, the opportunity to just be in my house and not have to see people. But then I realised the bit of me that was relieved wasn’t me, it was my mental illness.
I think the situation we’re in is manipulating our brains into a depressive state. So I think it’s been really hard and I don’t think I’ve realised how hard it’s been until recently now things are starting to open up again and I’ve got energy and I want to see people.
Has running been something you’ve turned to in lockdown?
Yeah! It’s the only thing I’ve been able to turn to. I was training for the London Marathon when it hit. But it was interesting how very quickly without something to train for, I was like, ‘Oh I’ll just do 5k. There have been times when it really felt like I was wading through treacle. And honestly, if I have to run round my local common one more time – like 500 times I must have run around Clapham Common.
Are you someone who runs with other people or is it something you do mainly on your own?
I used to do it on my own and now I can’t do it unless I have my friend Emma with me. We run, but it’s as much about the ranting and the raving as the running. So we run three or four times a week together. That’s really integral; I don’t really know what I’d do without her. But I sometimes will pull myself out of bed and go by myself and listen to some music.
That first lockdown, when you couldn’t run with anyone else, there was a sort of anxiety about runners. And I myself would get really annoyed. I remember being very aware – and I carried on running because I need to get out of the house by myself – but I was that person who was throwing themselves into a hedge because they didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. I’ve not stopped running the whole time, that’s been really important to me. It was a way to change the scenery – I’ve been in this bedroom for a year now.
Can we talk about how you started running? Is it true it all came about through talking to the Royal Family?
I got invited to the launch of Heads Together in May 2016 [through Mental Health Mates, the network of peer support groups Bryony founded in 2016] . It was at the Olympic Park and I was introduced to the Duchess of Cambridge. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I was like, ‘Are you going to run the marathon?’ And she was like, ‘Oh I can’t, because security is a bit difficult.’ But I was like, ‘Sure, yeah, yeah, good excuse. If I can do it, anyone can.’ I thought, I don’t know why I’ve just said I can do a marathon, I can’t even run for a bus. But she was like, ‘Ohm are you going to do a marathon?’ I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to do the marathon!’
I signed up and it was a real revelation to me. I’d tried all of these combinations of things to try and deal with my mental health: alcohol, illegal drugs. I was getting to the stage of my life then when they weren’t working, they were making my mental health worse, and I was thinking, ‘Maybe the experts are right! Maybe doing some exercise would be good for my mental health!
I’d run before, I’d done the Great South Run like seven years before, but I never got into it. I guess the moment I started doing it for the way it made me feel rather than the way it made me look, something really changed in me. That first marathon was like, every week I realised my body could do a little bit more than I thought it could the week before, and it felt like magic. You would get to that stage in a long training run where you felt amazing, and you thought, ‘Wow, I did that myself, with my own feet.'
When I started running and when I did my first marathon, I was in active alcoholism still. I was what we call a high functioning alcoholic, in that I could hide it, but I was just about falling apart. And the marathon was just this incredible experience and I loved it. I saw this opportunity – it was like, I can do this!
Are you going to do the London Vitality 10,000?
Yes, I'm going to do it. After we did the London Marathon the response was amazing, so we got together with the lovely Penny at London Marathon Events, and she was like, 'How can we carry this on?' So we threw some ideas around. A marathon's a long way to go and it's a massive commitment, and we really wanted to get people that might not want to do that. It was about bringing in novice runners and encouraging them to get into it. So we were like, 'Why don't we try and do the same with the Vitality 10K?'
So in 2019 we had 1,000 women running it in their underwear. Unfortunately 2019 was the last year where there was an actual race – last year we did it virtually, so me and five of the other girls we did it virtually, and this year it will be virtual again. You don't have to run it in your underwear, you can just run it. But it's really about exercising for your mental health as well as your physical health – that tagline is 'run for your head and your heart.'
With lockdown and there being no racing, I think running has suddenly changed for a lot of people who were very time-driven before. All of a sudden they can't race so they're just going out for their runs and then they realise running has been keeping them going in the background.
Anyone who is lucky enough to have the use of their legs can run. It's just about getting out there and enjoying it. If I put you in a field full of marauding cows you would run! We can all do it, it's just the person that gets in our way is ourselves.
I certainly had this thing that if I was going to go out and run – I wrote a whole book about this, called Eat, Drink, Run – I thought people were going to laugh at me and be like, "Go to Burger King, that's where you belong." And the thing I've learned is that the Running Community is not like that at all. No one is really looking at you. Everyone's just out there doing their own thing, for their own reasons. If anyone does think anything, it's like, "Good on you, get on with it."
I do get the odd bit of criticism from someone, because I am a larger lady, I do get emails from people saying, 'What are you doing, your knees are going to give in, if you don't lose weight you're going to get diabetes.' I don't get why you're emailing me because I'm out here exercising three or four days a week!
I have just as much right to be out there doing exercise as anyone else. Just because I'm not breaking records... For me it's not about being the fastest or the strongest, it's about being content. Being able to breathe sometimes, when everything seems too much. I hope that in some small way I fly the flag for larger people and the benefits of exercise. It's such a crucial thing for wellbeing. So when anyone tries to discourage me from it, I just think: get in the sea.
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