Right from when I was young, I was always the chubby kid, and I was always on the receiving end of torment from other kids through my school years up until college. It didn’t help being in some schools that were either very close-knit where I was an outsider kid, or all-boys schools where sport was pushed heavily and I had neither the body nor mentality to have an interest in sport. It made it difficult to fit in as it was and the bullying just made it even harder.
From a young age I consoled myself with sweets and soft drinks and as I grew into teenage years while working through some tough family circumstances that led to a feeling of isolation and feeling generally negative towards life, sweets became take-out food, soft drinks became alcohol and my lifestyle evolved to be a sedentary one. Sure, I knew I ate a lot and I knew much of my over-eating came from boredom; I didn’t have really close friends at that time (thankfully I eventually did) and I didn’t have hobbies other than video games, so that was it. I was even too lazy to take the dog for any regular exercise even though it would have been a perfect way to at least have gotten out and gotten moving.
Life moved on, I made some great friends, college came to pass and despite some great changes in my life, my lifestyle remained the same. The adult in me was aware of this but I always told myself that it was okay as I wouldn’t be able to change anyway; I’d tried different diets and failed and there was no point in trying again so I might as well not bother. So I didn’t bother, and as college went and work started, my hobbies boiled down to playing golf and playing darts. Neither particularly taxing when it comes to exercise and the latter involving pub grub and pints two weeknights every week.
It took until I was 29 years old when one day a friend who had been staying with me was weighing herself and asked had I ever weighed myself – of course I hadn’t, I mean it’s easy to say you don’t have a problem when you ignore it, right? For whatever reason, and I don’t know why, I stood on the scales and to this day I’ll never forget her response when she looked down and saw the same number I did (just over 22 stone). She just said “Wow” and as I looked up I caught a glimpse of her face which had a mixed expression of shock, worry and uncertainty. What else could she say?
From that moment I started to make changes – eating a little better / healthier and walking a couple of times a week, but in the back of my mind I always had the doubt that I’d fail as I had before. There was a difference this time though – honestly, this time I was terrified. Genuinely terrified. Of what I don’t know – my health, people’s opinion of me, probably both and more. But seeing how heavy I was on the scale it was a different reaction to anything in the past.
As a 22+ stone 30 year-old I never would have thought I’d have been able to run. When I started to get myself in shape, I worked with a personal trainer (Michael) who helped me to structure my diet and add some exercise into my life. Part of that routine involved cardio activity which meant a couple of times a week I used to do some walk / jog combinations over very short times and distances – being honest I absolutely hated it. I used to get shin splints really badly, I was always wheezing, I felt really vulnerable and pathetic in my efforts as if I was getting nowhere. But I’d tried and failed at dieting and the gym so many times over the years that I had to give this new approach a chance – actual physical exercise – and the running was part of that.
I used to go out and do this run / walking late at night on quiet roads as I was really self conscious about how overweight I was and how heavy my breathing was as I agonised through a gruelling 25 minutes just to complete 2k. Bit by bit I added to this and it was while I was away on a business trip with a friend / colleague (Keith) that I first heard about parkrun. Over a few weeks he would encourage me to come along and give it a try despite all my protests at not being “good enough to do it”. In September 2013 I said okay, I’d give it a try, figuring that running would not be something that would gel with me – it’s safe to say I’ve proven myself very wrong! I stuck with it, and over time it became something I genuinely loved. I was never a competitive person by nature so sports didn’t appeal to me, but running was different as I could be as competitive as I wanted to be.
Before that first parkrun I remember sitting in the car encouraging myself to find every excuse I could not to get out of the car. The weather. A phantom injury. The churning stomach. You name it, I was going through the litany of “reasons not to run” and ticking them off one by one. I could see people passing by all in their running gear and I was feeling worse and worse as I sat there in my ragged old rugby shirt and old trainers as if I didn’t belong here, this was for real runners. But, before I had the chance to put the keys back in the ignition my friend from work was there and I didn’t want to duck out so I got out of the car and made my way to the back of the mass of people who’d assembled near the start and just told myself “it’ll be over in a while, you can always pull out if you want to”.
I don’t remember too much from during the run itself truth be told. I’d imagine the body was probably pushing every ounce of energy it had into moving so I wasn’t noticing the people or the park around me. There are photos from that day of me that I don’t even remember being taken while I was running. But as tough as it was, I do know i finished it as that first result appears on my parkrun profile back in September 2013 as a memory of where my running really began.
Afterwards I felt different. I don’t know how to describe it but I do remember it being a little odd. I was knackered, don’t get me wrong, that ragged old shirt was soaked with sweat and my shins were throbbing and as I got my breath back I realised something – I’d done it. I’d actually gone out and done it. It wasn’t easy, I couldn’t honestly say I had enjoyed it but throbbing shins aside, whatever I was feeling now, I was enjoying that. As I mingled with some of the new people I’d met, i started to feel like maybe I did actually belong here and that parkrun wasn’t for runners; it was for people who like to run. I remember noticing that there were plenty of other people like me, not elite sprinters but just your every-day people who were there for the bit of exercise and having the chats with friends. I made the decision there and then that I’d be back the following week and here I am four years later, 117 parkruns to my name, part of two parkrun Core Teams and an Ambassador for parkrun Ireland.
I’d spent so many years as an unfit person having no exercise and no confidence and now all of a sudden I was comfortable to be out in public, being seen by other people and not feeling embarrassed or ashamed or like everyone was judging or ridiculing me. I got this great sense of freedom, like all of a sudden I felt like it was okay to think outside my comfort zones and that I didn’t have to assume I’d fail and take success as a “bit of luck”. I made some great friends I have to this day at parkrun and with their encouragement it wasn’t long before I turned my hand to trying a 10k and as I started to work towards that distance, I felt myself becoming more comfortable and more confident exercising as as the weeks past, my parkrun times started to come down and every Saturday became like a shot of adrenaline right into my self confidence.
As I got healthier and improved I started to look at doing races – 5k at first and then 10k events and it was just about a year after my first parkrun I did my first half marathon, and another year until I did my first marathon. Since then I’ve joined a club (Dublin Bay Running Club) and have done scatterings of all sorts of race distances (including 16 marathons) in Ireland, the UK, America and even Australia. As much as I enjoy doing parkrun and participating in races, one of the most enjoyable things for me is pacing at parkrun – I love the chance to do for others what was done for me and to be there to help support and encourage others who are on their fitness journey. I have no doubt whatsoever that there is no way I’d be where I am today were it not for the support of those around me and anything I can do for anyone in that same context I am happy to do. It’s rewarding to help others and I’m thankful to be able to do it for them.
Without wanting to sound dramatic or cliched, I genuinely don’t know if I’d still be around if I hadn’t come on this journey. I’m pretty sure either my emotional or physical health would have taken too bad a hit and it might have been the curtain call for me if it did. I look back and I sometimes wish I’d started all this sooner, but I am happy that at least I did, and I did when the time was right for me to do it and be able to stick with it. I’m seven stone lighter than I was, I’ve better general condition I’ve a healthier diet and I don’t spend all my free time in front of a screen. Despite the physical change, it’s not the biggest nor the most beneficial to me; that’s come from my self confidence. I used to not have any, whereas now I’m more outgoing, willing to try new things and I have belief in myself in all aspects of my life; I’ve made great strides in my career, I’ve immersed myself in new community groups and I’ve even been on the dating scene the past two years, somewhere I pretty much steered clear off through my 20s and early 30s.
I don’t beat myself up so badly anymore and I’ve a much more positive perspective on life in general. I suppose you could sum it up by saying that I’m genuinely happy now and I’m proud of who I am, something I wasn’t for a very long time. I have made some great friends, lifelong friends through parkrun and without that engagement I know I never would have stuck with it. I’d have given up the second it was too cold or too wet or I’d had a tough day. But just being around people with such diverse stories yet a shared enthusiasm – be it parkrunners or marathon runners – it’s energising and it’s encouraging and I know it makes me a better person as it makes me want to share that encouragement and that energy with anyone else around I can.
There is a great expression that sticks with me – “Don’t measure yourself with someone else’s ruler”. If anyone told me they were going to embark on the journey I’d been on I’d stop them and tell them no, they’re not. They are embarking on their journey and let my story be nothing more than evidence that good things can come from the smallest of beginnings. It doesn’t matter how big or small you perceive the achievement – CELEBRATE IT! Tell others around you, look in the mirror and give yourself a mental high-five, accept the compliments with a smile and a “thank you” and be proud of the steps you’ve taken because no matter how fast they were or how many of them there were, you took those steps and that’s an achievement in itself.
This year I hope to get to complete my 25th marathon (having done 16 over the past three years, 10 of those last year alone). In June I have signed up for my first ultra-marathon event – that’s a 50k race in Donadea Forest in Kildare. Does the idea of it scare me a little bit? Yes it does. Am I expecting it to be a tough challenge? Yes I am. Is the challenge and the little bit of fear the reason I’m doing it? You bet! If I’ve taken one thing from my journey so far it’s that you never know where you’ll end up!
In October 2014 posters advertising a ‘parkrun’ began to appear around our local town and on social media. Not having any running experience prior to this, running wasn’t something we ever saw ourselves doing and definitely not getting out of bed on a Saturday morning to do! However, curiosity got the better of us and…
Name:Rachel Phelan Age:25 Local parkrun: I’m quite the well-travelled parkrunner – having attended the likes of Wexford, Ennis and Galway before, however Kilkenny and Dublin are my local and most frequent courses. Number of parkruns completed:12 How did you get involved in parkrun? My boyfriend has always had a passion for running and suggested it…