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How Running Has Changed My Life For The Better By Anna Williams

by Alexandra Parren

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All photos credited to Lee Collier Photography

Five years ago, I was on the verge of being seriously underweight, I smoked between 10 and 30 rollups a day, I binged on white wine on my days off, I ate unhealthily, and I did absolutely no exercise bar the odd dog walk with my mother who I had moved back in with.  I thought I was having fun, but really, I was in self-destruct mode.  I had got to this point as the result of leaving my husband after I found out all was not as it seemed with our life and with him, even my experienced solicitor had never seen anything quite like it…  But that is another story!  I saw a therapist for a year which was a big help, but in all honesty, I believe that running was the most important therapy I could have had. 

Today, I am back to a healthy weight, I don’t smoke, I am very nutrition and health conscious and have been vegan for almost four years.  I still like a glass or two of white wine, we all have our vices, but it is in moderation and often with soda water.  And I run.  I love to run.  Like everyone, sometimes I think I can’t be bothered to go out, but I pretty much always still go, and I never, ever regret it. 

For me, running was the start of my new and better, happier life.  It all began when I was sitting on my mother’s patio in a rural Dorset village having a rollup and a glass of wine by myself.  I suddenly, out of nowhere, decided I must do something good for myself, not keep using what had happened, and was totally irreversible, as an excuse for not caring about myself or what the future held.  So I stubbed out my cigarette, went to my room and rummaged around in my clothes and found some old tracksuit bottoms, an old baggy t-shirt and some worn out trainers and told my mother I was going for a run, she looked pretty stunned but said ok (she was used to me being a bit unpredictable at this point!) and off I went.  I managed to run the two-mile loop around our village as the sun was setting.  It took me almost 30 minutes.  Not fast, and it was not pretty!  I was out of breath, my legs were knackered and at the time it felt awful.  However, when I got home, I was on such a high!

I was hooked.  However, I realised the smoking was a problem if I was going to keep running, so over the next few weeks I was far more conscious of how much I smoked.  I cut down, but when I was drinking it all went out the window, so I then became more conscious of how much I was drinking too.  In the next few weeks, I bought an e-cigarette off the internet and began to cut down on the quantity of wine I was consuming.  The quitting smoking was easy because I suddenly really wanted to stop as I had a reason – I wanted to get better at running.  I had tried to quit before, but when you don’t want to stop it is hard, this time though I really wanted to stop so it was not a chore, it felt like I was working to some amazing goal.  I stuck with the e-cigarette for about three months and then that became a hassle, so I gave that up too.  In the meantime, I had kept on running two or three miles, two to three times a week and it had surprisingly got easier much sooner than I had anticipated.

One weekend, I looked on Google maps and memorised a route that would take me about four miles, this would be the furthest I had ever run.  I got lost.  I went the wrong way and had to retrace my steps to get home.  When I arrived home, I worked out where I had gone by looking on Google maps again, I had run over six miles.  That was it, I suddenly realised I could do it, if I could run six miles I could do ten or even more! 

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A few weeks later, a guest arrived at the house (my mum and step dad did b&b at the time) and the first thing he did was get changed to go for run before dinner.  My mum told me to go and talk to him and tell him a nice route to run.  It quickly dawned on me that I was talking to a seasoned runner who certainly did not need any tips from me!  We spoke for at least half an hour, only about running.  He was amazing, he told me that he had won the age group category in a few marathons and half marathons and he was a member of a running club (something I had never thought about).  He was so enthusiastic about it all, it was one of the most uplifting conversations I have ever had!  He told me to join a club, buy running magazines, read books written by runners, run with friends, run if I only had 15 minutes or if I had hours, go for long runs and short runs, just run because why not?!  I felt absolutely inspired and like someone had just opened a door to this whole new world of information and enjoyment.  So, he went off for his run and I went straight to my mum’s laptop and Googled ‘running club Dorset’.  The first club that came up was the Dorset Doddlers.  I emailed the contact advertised and the next day I received an email saying I would be very welcome to the next session on Thursday at the local leisure centre, I was so excited.

Thursday came and my excitement had turned into extreme nervousness.  This was, at the time, a really big deal for me.  My confidence was pretty low and although I had made a few lovely new friends at the local pub across the road I had not gone much further afield to be sociable since moving in with my mum.  I arrived early and waited.  People started coming in to the room, I smiled nervously but they were so friendly and chatty.  I had had nothing to worry about, I could not have been made to feel more welcome.  My first session was fantastic.  The coach spent a lot of time with me, giving advice and making sure I understood what was going on.  I could not believe that I could just turn up and be part of something so brilliant!  For a tiny annual fee I could go to two sessions a week, one of which was coached, I could and enter races and officially run for the club, I could actually be a runner!  I paid my membership in full the next week and I was officially a Doddler!  I went every Thursday and looked forward to it every week.  I wasn’t keen on entering a race at first but loved the training sessions.  I could see how much my running was improving, I was getting fitter, stronger and faster, I had gone from being one of the slower runners to being in the middle group. 

I started identifying as runner, it felt great – I had a hobby, I hadn’t really had a proper hobby before!  I started researching running, everything from trail running shoes to the Mexican Tarahumara tribe for whom running is a part of their culture.  I loved it.  I eventually found out about Scott Jurek, the amazing ultra-runner, I read his books and it was there that I first learned about veganism and the importance of food as fuel for your body and health.  I thought if he can do what he does eating only vegetables, then maybe I could give it a go too and see what it does for me.  I started researching food, vitamins, minerals, different diets, recipe books and cooking.  The more I read the more I thought a plant-based diet was for me, it sounded perfect.  And so, I made my decision and over a period of two weeks I went from omnivore to vegan.  Everyone thought it was a phase of my ‘recovery’ from a difficult time as I had always been a serious offal and rare steak eater!  But I have never looked back, I am vegan for life.

Eating a fully plant-based diet takes a bit of work at first, but with some research and patience it is easy.  I suddenly had a passion for cooking where previously I could not really be bothered.  I learned so much about what keeps your body going, what you need to survive, what you really don’t need to survive, how food marketing works, how labelling can be misleading, how so much ‘healthy’ food nowadays is actually very processed and that it is without doubt true that what we put into our bodies is reflected on us inside and out.  I also learned about how meat and dairy etc. is produced in our modern world and the impact it has environmentally, I realised that I had been wilfully ignorant about what I ate because it was inconvenient to make a change and I learned that we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves and make an informed decision about what we and our families eat. 

About six months after joining a running club and three months after going vegan I ran my first race.  The Eastbourne half marathon.  It was a bit out of the blue! My brother and my three cousins had all signed up to run it with their girlfriends as motivation to get fit, they knew I had started running and so asked me if I wanted to enter too.  I thought well, I have got to run a race one day, haven’t I?!  So, about a month before the race, I entered online.  However, I was a little worried about the distance.  Up until then I had only run about eight or nine miles in one go.  So that weekend I ran 13 miles, just so I knew I could do it, it took me just over two hours.  I was amazed and so happy, I could not wait for my first race.

Race day came, and I was so excited but nervous too, I had no idea what it would be like and was surprised to see so many people at the start line, so many runners!  It was a great course with one very long steep hill at the beginning followed by a lovely long downhill and the rest was flat.  I got a terrible stitch at about mile ten which was not good, but I kept going.  I could see my brother in the distance and thought I would never catch him, but I did.  We ran for a mile or so side by side and I thought it would be so lovely to cross the finish line together, but then I got a second wind and said to him let’s go for a sprint finish!  He said he was not sprinting anywhere and I should just go – so I did!  I don’t know where it came from, but I suddenly had a burst of energy!  I ran the last half mile on such a high, I remember being hardly able to feel my legs and that it was almost like I could not stop.  The last 100 metres were suddenly so hard, but I just went as fast as I could and crossed the line.  I finished in 1 hour, 54 minutes and 52 seconds.  I could not believe what I had just achieved.  In about a year, I had gone from hardly being able to run-walk around my village to running a sub two-hour half marathon.

Since then, I don’t know how many half marathons and 10k races I have run as a Doddler, but I have loved them all.  Some have been running in a group with club friends for fun, others have been on my own for a personal goal, in some I have supported others who are achieving their goal, and in some races I have been supported by friends who have been there just to help me achieve my goal.  I have run road races, trail races, marked and marshalled races, self-navigation races and some I have run with my dog.  Sometimes my partner comes to support me and sometimes not, but he always asks how it went and encourages me to run because he knows that I am happier when I run.

Running has been a major part in me becoming a better me.  Running has made me quit smoking, cut down on drinking, get fit, eat well, learn about nutrition and have goals, it has made me new friends, given me confidence and made me feel part of something good.  I feel so very lucky to have found something I gain so much pleasure from and I feel very proud to call myself a runner.  It took me to my early thirties to find my hobby and passion, I am sure that for some people it comes earlier and for some later, but I honestly hope that everyone finds their passion one day as it can be truly lifechanging.

About the author: Anna Williams is the production manager at Primrose's Kitchen

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