Mind Over Marathon is a BBC documentary that followed 10 unlikely runners, all living with different mental health issues, as they trained for this year’s London Marathon.
To coincide with World Mental Health Day one of those runners, Claudia Barnett from Peacehaven parkrun, shared her story and explained how her discovery of running has had a profound impact on her health and wellbeing.
I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful childhood, and wanted for nothing. My parents were supportive, encouraging and loving, I have three wonderful brothers who would do anything for me, and a close-nit wider family to boot. I genuinely feel incredibly lucky for the upbringing I had, and if I was a religious person I’d go as far to say I’m “blessed”.
However, at the age of 17 (I can pintpoint it to the exact day) I was suddenly thrown into the depths of life-changing, all-consuming OCD. I did have ‘flickers’ of OCD as a child, but it’s only looking back now I recognise that as early signs of OCD. As a small child, rituals seem like an internal game, and came only in short waves.
One night, lying in bed on the eve of one of my all important A Level exams, I suddenly had an incredibly disturbing and horrifying intrusive thought. It was something completely out of my nature, and I was so horrified by not only what I had thought, but the fact it had even reached my consciousness, that I didn’t stop thinking about it. This was a domino effect that started months upon end of relentless intrusive thoughts, OCD checking, ruminations, sleeplessness and eventually led me to contemplate suicide. Part of the reason I suffered so badly was because I didn’t know what was going on in my head — I only knew OCD to be an obsession with germs, orderliness and counting, and not the horrific intrusive thoughts and rumination I was suffering. Instead, I thought I was fundamentally evil and was very rapidly going ‘mad’.
I got to the point when I avoided eating (for fear ‘losing control’ of stabbing myself or someone else with cutlery), bathing (what if I drowned myself?) and even having physical contact with my family and friends (in case, again, I lost control and hurt them). Anyone reading this without much idea of OCD will think this is completely irrational, and they would be correct. OCD robs you of your rational mind, it bullies you by taking what you love most (for me, my family, my friends, and my cat, Ted) and using it against you. I was convinced beyond any doubt that I would hurt myself or someone I loved, or even a complete stranger. I repeated phrases over and over again in my head to try and drown out the thoughts.
Finally, I couldn’t go on any longer, and decided I would rather be sectioned than arrested (no 17-year-old should be making that ‘choice’), and told a close friend about what was going on inside my mind. Rather unexpectedly, she didn’t instantly phone the police, instead listened to me and offered solutions, such as speaking to my doctor and parents. Her gentle and understanding reaction gave me the courage to open up to the people that needed to know, and fortunately started my road to recovery.
In Mind Over Marathon, I said that I had felt in the past that I “didn’t deserve to have a voice”. Because I didn’t feel my mental illness was “valid” (I didn’t have anything to pinpoint in on), and because my life seemed so perfect through the eyes of others, I had felt that I wasn’t allowed to speak about it or seek help. This notion is so damaging — it stops people that need help most from seeking it, because they feel they aren’t allowed or deserve help. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, old or young, what race, religion or planet you’re from: depression, OCD, anxiety, or any other type of mental illness does not discriminate. Everyone does deserve to have a voice — whether that’s to speak out and become a mental health advocate, or to talk to a councillor or even a friend about their mental health.
Fast forward five years, and I’ve successfully finished university, moved away from the New Forest to both London and then Brighton (where I live now), and taken part in a groundbreaking BBC documentary about mental health. I’ve nearly done a marathon, and I’ve certainly done two half marathons, two 10ks, and hundreds of unaccounted miles! My (ongoing) recovery for OCD, and the way I actively manage depression and anxiety, is down to CBT, being kind to myself, and of course, exercise. I started running two years ago when I completed Couch to 5k, plodding around Finsbury Park in north London before work. A mixture of things inspired me — my year in London I made a lot of very trendy, svelte running friends, I wanted to lose a bit of university weight, and I’d been through a horrible break up (so cliche!).
After the initial shock of forcing to do something my body just wasn’t used to (I quite often tell people I used to fiegn illness to get out of school PE) I saw my mental health and attitude drastically improve and even found myself getting up before sunrise some days to get a run in before work — something that anyone who knows me will think is absolutely unbelievable. The intrusive thoughts that sometimes came back with force didn’t seem nearly as threatening any more, and a comfortable run was all I needed to take my mind of a bad day (of which someone with ongoing depression has many). I found my energy increase, I got faster and fitter (though, I was still very slow… and still am now) and loved pootling around my neighbourhood. It was around then I heard of parkrun, after seeing a group running around the park near my house one Saturday morning, and it planted the seed of maybe, one day, running with others. I didn’t think about parkrun again until I spoke to Dawn Nisbet, the night before the London Marathon. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know who Dawn is, click here. You’ll almost certainly recognise her famous parkrun photo that appeared in just about every newspaper and website in the country!
Two years later, and I’m living in Brighton and still running, and fortunate to be able to say I’ve dragged myself on solo runs in Sorrento, New York City, The Hamptons, Singapore, and so many other wonderful places, and that’s before I even signed up for Mind Over Marathon. I can’t say I run religiously, and I certainly don’t always enjoy it (anyone who says they enjoy every single run is a liar!) but I always feel better afterwards, if not physically than certainly mentally. I’ve also volunteered as barcode scanner at my local Peacehaven parkrun, and I would recommend volunteering to everyone.
I found Mind Over Marathon through an advert on Twitter by the casting agent, and pinged her a one line email saying I really enjoyed running and a few words about my mental health, expecting to never hear back. I can’t even say what was going through my mind at the time — I think maybe I just wanted to tell someone about how much better running made me feel, but I’d never really heard anyone talk about the relationship between running in particular and mental health. The concept of the show had put these two things on a plate for me, and I couldn’t resist seeing what it was all about. A week later, I was offered a place on the programme, which I tentatively accepted, having absolutely no idea how big it was going to come or how much it would change my life.
Dawn and parkrun
Obviously, the climax of the show was the London Marathon, and those who’ve watched it will know that I didn’t get to claim my medal that day. As a child I fractured my spine in an accident, and to this day still struggle with severe pain and sciatica, meaning sometimes even short runs hurt! Sadly, despite hours of physio, religious rehabilitation and every anti-inflammatory under the sun, as my miles increased, in turn my mobility drastically decreased, and I got close to the marathon struggling to walk, let alone run. The night before the marathon, aware cameras would be capturing me admit defeat and sob as I watched my friends live my dream the following day, I felt desperatley low and broken. As any millenial would, I took to Twitter.
I saw Dawn Nisbet’s wonderful, joy filled face come up on my feed, at exactly the right moment, arms in the air in gay abandon, finishing parkrun in “last place”. The happiness on her face, the flushed cheeks and the way she clearly just doesn’t care about how fast or how far she’d run, reminded me why I loved running in the first place. It’s not about medals or PBs, or even proving people wrong, it’s about “falling in love with the art of moving forward” (as one of our coaches on the show, Charlie Dark, profoundly said). Despite severe pain and broken spirit, I got in contact with Dawn and promised her that I too would sign up for parkrun the following week and would run it when I was ready. Part of the emotional side of not running the marathon was allowing myself to be in pain, heal, and be mindful about my physicality, just like my mental state. I “jeffed” my first parkrun a week after, and remain firm (Facebook) friends with Dawn.
I don’t remember much from that first parkrun, as the second episode of Mind Over Marathon had just aired and everything was a blur. But I do remember the overwhelming spirit of inclusiveness and (aside from the handful of club runners sprinting at the start) lack of competitiveness, something which I think puts so many people off from organised sporting events. People said hello to me, introduced me to their friends and told me about their favourite runs and upcoming races—that’s not because they’d just seen me on the TV! No one told me off for walking, and not one person laughed at my trademark T-Rex technique (not aloud, anyway!!). I didn’t feel any stares at the state of my running kit or that I didn’t have a device on my wrist to monitor my steps or time or distance. I couldn’t wait to do more parkruns.
I’m a creature of habit and love having my routine in place, and parkrun offers me that, as well as a place to meet new people (and not just the ‘type’ you’d expect to find running on a Saturday morning. parkrun is wonderfully diverse), a safe space to walk if I need to, and a community, something which as a long term anxiety sufferer, is so very important.
parkrun helps me keep my training, and more importantly, my injury rehab ticking over. It gives me a sense of purpose those Saturday mornings I struggle to get out of bed when the black cloud descends. In contrast, it gives me something to look forward to for those much better days, when I look to the future for purposeful activities. parkrun provides me the flexibility I need to allow myself to miss a week if I’m feeling low, or my injury is flaring up, meaning I can be fair and kind to myself. Most importantly, parkrun is just like a little reminder, written in my calendar every week, that although I didn’t make the London Marathon, I found something so much more valuable and meaningful to my mental health: a healthy, loving relationship with running.
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