Why excessive running is not the answer to your post-uni slump
By Jenny Rowe
I learnt it the hard way.
A few years ago when I made a resolution that would become my most memorable and most frightening. I took up running in an effort to create structure during my “lost year” after uni. At first, it seemed like a great way to stay healthy and happy. Then, I became convinced it was the answer to all my problems. And eventually, this healthy pastime developed into a toxic obsession that pushed me to the brink.
After I finished university, like most quarterlifers, I was left with a sudden void inside me.
I was finally free from the relentless cycle of “revise, examine, result, repeat” (the nerdy alternative to eat, sleep, rave, repeat). This mantra had been tattooed onto my brain since the age of about 11 and even after my name was printed on that final, definitive certificate, saying I’d managed to actually get a degree, the mantra continued to ring in my ears. With the months stretching out before me and no sign or routine or a coveted grad scheme, the ringing quickly became a torment.
I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist. It was that very drive and determination that helped me thrive during my university years. But, with no goals to channel my energy, I became clouded by anxiety and utterly directionless.
After one too many Netflix binges, I decided that I needed something new to focus on.
Running wasn’t my immediate choice. Before I started pounding the pavements, my thoughts were initially focused on landing a job in publishing or a literary position of some kind. A lot of my friends had started to escape to big, once-in-a-lifetime trips abroad, which was a tactic I had tried in the past to rescue myself from aimlessness. But, while doing my best impression of Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love while roaming around India was amazing, this temporary distraction had only made me even more aware of the need for structure.
At this point, I had finally made peace with the fact that my contentment depended on climbing a ladder in a regular job. I wanted something that reflected my interests but also gave me the kind of security grad schemes offer. So, when I got the position as assistant to an author, which also offered remote working, I felt like I had landed the dream job.
While my impressive sounding grab job suited me in so many ways, it was also an unstructured nightmare.
I was doing something I loved, but my job had no boxes to tick. I couldn’t even cling to the sense of challenge that keeps The Devil Wears Prada’s Andy Sachs strutting around London, answering panicked phone calls and giving wry smiles to no one in particular.
I’d been used to always having hoops to jump through. I would diligently work until I attained the necessary standard, feel temporarily accomplished and then move on to the next one. Like many of us trying to get a foot onto the career ladder in their first grad job, I missed the reassurance of a teachers’ “well done” or “needs improvement”. I’d never dreamed that it was the hoops themselves that I’d miss when they were gone, rather than my own ability or drive. I was treading water without any sense of where I was going or what I was aiming for.
In the absence of anything else to cling to for structure and purpose during my “lost year”, I booked a place in the Brighton Marathon of May 2017.
I’d always loved running, but I’d never set myself targets relating to it. It had never been bound up with the concept of my own success or failure, but they quickly became inextricable. I printed off a colour-coded training schedule and started to cross off the days, like every revision schedule I had ever devised to get me through an exam since year seven. Spoiler alert: this exam failed.
My obsessive training caused me an injury with just three weeks to go to the race.
Race day came and went with a few tears and lots of Ben & Jerry’s eating. Even though there was no way I could have run with my injury, I couldn’t forgive my body for what it had done to my mind in depriving it of the race and the ability to say “I’ve found purpose”. The failure I could bear; the stagnation, I couldn’t.
I’d always run to clear my head, now I was running to fill it.
But even more dangerously, by this time I was becoming so dependent on running that the needs of my anxious heart and empty mind were overtaking those of my body. I ran my first 10k race in November 2017, shortly followed by my second. I first rolled out of bed for a parkrun on January the 6th 2018. I had to cycle through freezing rain just to get there, but such was my love of running and, by this point, racing.
Things took a turn for the worse in June.
The pressure cooker of my own making was now in overdrive. Attempting to run a sub-1-hour-35-minute half-marathon on a hot summer’s day was my aim. Unable to adapt to the reality of the day’s conditions, I stubbornly stuck to my guns, my mind beating my body into submission. Though my head felt too heavy for my neck to support from mile ten (alarm bell number one) and my legs buckled with a few hundred metres to go, I careered over the finish line and draped myself over the shoulders of a bewildered event volunteer. Then I promptly collapsed.
My body temperature had reached a dangerous 40 degrees (anything over 38 is considered a high fever). My clothes were cut off me - in any other circumstances I would have been mortified - and an oxygen mask was placed over my nose and mouth. I was unconscious. I came around to the sight of the bright blue sky and the sound of an urgent voice commanding me to breathe – in and out. I breathed like my life depended on it.
My heart-rate had rocketed and I couldn’t remember my mum’s phone number, home address or birthday.
When I spoke my name the words sounded foreign to me. When I touched my face, my nose didn’t feel familiar. It felt like someone else’s, as if my mind had detached from my body. I lost my memory for four to five hours during which time I couldn’t multiply three by two. I was terrified that I had ruined my life forever for the sake of obtaining a result - a random number that my burnt-out brain couldn’t even comprehend anymore anyway - all because I couldn’t cope with the absence of high hoops and impressive accomplishments. This was when I learned the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learnt about resolution-setting…
Purpose and fulfillment are important, but results are not - especially if the journey to get to them is miserable and dangerous.
I made a quick recovery, and was overcome with a sense of gratitude for the second chance I felt I’d been given. I had some honest words with myself in the mirror and, spurred on by the memory of how close I'd come to not recognising the contours of my own nose, I drew new boundaries for myself. You’ll still find me racing, but I’ll be running at an even keel. Life comes first, always, and it’s the indefinable, timeless parts like love and passion that give us most purpose and keep us moving forwards (not the superficial structures of education, work or goals).
Goals can be both the making and the undoing of us, if we cannot work out a relationship with this drive that works for us.
Grinning and bearing it isn’t a way of life. Grit shouldn’t push you to setting new year’s resolutions that impact your health, happiness or wellbeing. But, if channelled and controlled, this grit might just get you up at 8.30am to run in a park with a load of strangers on a cold, drizzly Saturday morning. It’s all about balance after all.
Image by Emily Parker.