On Loss and Limits – an Ode to my One True Love

Once upon a time, running was my one true love. As a child I was the muppet happily volunteering for the 1500 metres on sports day and genuinely looking forward to the annual school cross country race while my classmates feigned illness, set off the fire alarm or prayed for an earthquake. In later years I regularly pounded the pavements for fun and ran a marathon by the time I was 24. I could rely on my feet to get me wherever I wanted to go, at a reasonable pace, and it felt great. Then illness and chronic fatigue struck and the love affair took a long hiatus – my health took a nosedive and my trainers gathered dust. Five or so years passed before I was to try and lace them up again.

I thought I would never run again. When my body broke down fragments of my mind splintered away too and any confidence I once had in my physical abilities drifted away into the abyss. My days of chugging through the countryside listening to dodgy 80’s music became a distant memory – it’s tough to picture yourself flying round the park when you’re struggling to just get to the end of your bed. But, incredibly, over the last couple of years, slowly and tentatively, my legs have come back to me.

It started with the occasional five minute run round the block as much-needed respite from the day-to-day treadmill of strife (my boss, terrible choices in men, running out of loo roll, COUNCIL TAX), then five minutes became ten, ten became twenty and soon I could comfortably run 5k. Having been completely unable to coax my body into moving further than a few hundred metres for several years, this was huge and genuinely life changing. I couldn’t quite believe the things my body was allowing me to do – this body that I’d come to loathe and mistrust, having let me down for such a long time. It felt like I was the captain of my own ship again and I could do anything.

However as well as being elating, exhilarating and joyful, the experience of getting back to running has also brought crushing disappointment.

Disaster struck. Carried away on the winds of exercise success, I overdid it and nearly broke myself in the process. This feels great! I’m invincible! I’m going to run a HALF MARATHON! I got as far as five miles. Too much. Body and mind completely broke down, I felt terrible and had to stop completely as old fatigue and burn-out symptoms reared their head. I rested, ate my body mass in crisps and houmous to recoup the calories my body was motoring though, and felt like a complete tit. I felt so stupid for even thinking I MIGHT be capable of anything the old, pre-sickness me could do – and that I’d gone backwards. My body was laughing at me again – I was no longer captain, more misguided stow-away – unearthed and about to be cast out to sea.

Because, as it turns out, I’m not invincible. We all have these things called limitations – especially those of us navigating complicated recovery journeys. They’re mind-bendingly frustrating and tough to accept – but very real and exist for good reason. I was in complete denial over a difficult and uncomfortable truth – that I’m not where I thought I was, and may never be. This body probably won’t ever run a half marathon again.

But there’s a lot of freedom to be found in accepting your limitations. For me, part of my recovery journey has been about letting go and slowing down. Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot about being present. Mindfulness, staying in the moment, practicing consciousness – whatever you want to call it, I’ve practically nailed a PHD in stillness. Because when life gets tough sometimes you just have to sit tight and face the demons.

Not being able to gallop through the fields for miles, in the rain, while the fresh smell of deer shit fills your nostrils may not seem like the worst thing to have to live with – and yet, somehow, I was crushed. For me it was a huge loss and I mourned hard.

I picked myself up and very slowly found my way back to doing what my body feels like it was born for – moving. But in a different way. No more gruelling runs. I stick to activities that don’t deplete my limited energy levels – like yoga and swimming – and I take much longer breaks between workouts. I walk more. These days more often than not my lunch break includes a 30 minute stroll, which takes me away from the work environment, re-boots my brain, fills my lungs with fresh air and generally improves my day. My new normal really isn’t so bad.

When I do choose to run now, I don’t go far – nor do I look like much of a pro. Others steam along in branded lycra; I’m a slow, lumbering melange of neon, mismatched layers and a bobble hat. It’s Flashdance meets Father Ted.

There are no 10ks or half marathon events in my 2019 calendar anymore. I’m not setting myself any particular exercise targets at all in fact – other than to do something active (and fun) twice a week, if I feel up to it. I’ve come a long way these last few years but some things are still out of reach, and, more importantly just not right for me. I have limits, my present looks very different to my past, and that’s OK.

Chronic fatigue or lazy-itis?

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Having conquered an entire four lengths of the swimming pool, my doctor now wants me to try lifting some light weights to build up muscle density. She said I can even start at home with canned goods.

Four years ago last month I ran the London marathon. Twenty-six-point-two miles of sweat, back ache, wild cheering crowds, being overtaken by obscenely fit pensioners and the occasional camel – it was one of the greatest days of my life. Today, I risk ending my days trapped underneath a pile of baked bean tins. A lot has changed.

Has my attitude towards exercise taken a dramatic turn over the last four years? Have I suddenly become terminally lazy? Survived a terrible car accident and lost the use of my limbs? None of the above. Relentless fatigue simply arrived in my life after contracting a tropical disease abroad. I started needing a nap just to get through the afternoon in one piece, my daily threshold for physical exertion began to comprise a simple walk to the corner shop and, at it’s worst, I was bedridden and seething with bodily aches and pains. All for no apparent reason.

And that’s the biggest problem for those suffering through the phenomenon GPs are labelling TATT (Tired All The Time) when the blood tests come back clear. Call it chronic fatigue syndrome, ME, burnout, breakdown…whatever you want – most people that feel exhausted all the time for no logical reason simply don’t get a clear answer. And in the absence of a scientifically rooted conclusion, the chronically tired are often just shipped off for psychiatric treatment. If in doubt, it must be all in the head.

And because there’s such a vast grey area circling my condition, the demons of self doubt are never too far away. I’ve often wondered if the problem really is ‘just in my head’? Maybe all those judgey and intolerant people on the outside are right – I’m just lazy.

However a vast proportion of the population that wakes up exhausted after a full night’s sleep every day says otherwise. It’s estimated that around 250,000 people currently live with chronic fatigue syndrome in the UK, and countless others are struggling with persistent, unexplained tiredness and exhaustion.

There are a whole host of possibilities for what’s causing the body to struggle – vitamin and mineral deficiencies, digestive problems, food allergies, inflammation, infection, trauma – but the problems are invariably subtle, chronic and only identifiable on a trial and error basis. Some complicated combination of factors has run the body down over a long period of time – and while chronic exhaustion isn’t necessarily life threatening, it’s certainly life limiting.

I’ve done a hell of a lot of reading over the last year or so, and self education has been key for my burgeoning recovery. The internet is a great starting point for self-help literature, but beware articles written by those that think you’ll spontaneously combust if you eat a non organic grain of rice. It seems there’s a growing population of experts out that that have identified the source of all worldly problems – and it is gluten.

I’m hopeful that in the future the medical profession will be better informed about mystery fatigue ailments. It has to be – unexplained tiredness seems to be mushrooming in modern society. After all, what sort of future can our children look forward to if instead of working together to create a better world, we’re all having a snooze? Until then it’s up to those with tangible experience of chronic weariness – us – to talk and write about our experiences and better educate the wider public. After a nap.