Just before you’re about to face a Herculean task like say, running the London marathon, it’s always nice to read some truly inspiring, positive piece about how you’re going to find yourself along a spiritual journey whilst single-handedly solving the world's many problems with the money you’ve raised. Or at the very least, how a sweaty Chris Evans (ginger, not Hollywood) waved at you as he ran past.
What you probably don’t want to hear about, is how someone’s throat closed up in panic at mile 23 when they attempted to run again, having long since given in to walking and sobbing. But what I know now, is that this was my depression telling me I couldn’t do it, and if running the marathon has taught me anything, it's that depression is a liar.
I wasn't keen to run a marathon. I got my place really late in the day, taking one of the charity places that open up in January when runners start getting injured and dropping out. My sister worked for The National Autistic Society at the time and convinced me to join her in running for them.
Depression had made me a social recluse and I needed something to force me out of the house at weekends; I used to love running and had even ran some half marathons in the past, “so maybe training for a marathon would help”, said my sister. And because my illness had at this stage rendered me incapable of thought, and a lot like a zombie, I followed where she led.
Standing in the starting pen, however, I have never been surer of anything in my life than the fact that I simply did not want to be there. It reminded me of how I had felt two months earlier, when I was sitting opposite my doctor, filling out the tick-box form that informs them – and you – that yes, you are too-sad-to-function, and can't get up in the morning, and that it’s probably time to start taking some medication.
I was getting myself to work and back every day because I had no choice but by night – and I mean every night – I was stealing my flatmate's cereal for dinner and leaving my dirty bowl in the sink before hiding in my bedroom and pretending I didn’t exist. Which is why standing in a crowd of excited people waiting to run 26 miles suddenly felt a bit ridiculous. I couldn’t even navigate the supermarket without having a crisis so why on earth was I at a charity run?
As we were waiting to cross the start line, a young man wearing the same charity vest as us was talking loudly, dolling out cuddles and generally getting into people’s personal space. He was a big, burly guy with a rugby player's build and it was clear that some of the runners were uncomfortable around him. He was one of the runners with Autism running for the NAS that day and he was coping with the crowd and the build up far better than I was. Watching him talking to people and even receiving one of those hugs he was giving out spurred me on; if he could be so optimistic about this event, then so could I.
I crossed the start with a wave of determination: one foot in front of the other, as I had done with one pill after another, one day at a time.
I crossed the start with a wave of determination: one foot in front of the other, as I had done with one pill after another, one day at a time. It wasn’t until mile 14, over halfway, that my head decided to take the reins and call a halt on proceedings. My legs were fine and my body felt good, but my mind was saying: 'You can’t do this, who do you think you are?'
“Go on Hansplat!” came the shouts from either side of the road as I ran into the tunnel by Canary Wharf with tears streaming down my cheeks. “You can do it!” No one had been cheering my name until this point and I assumed it was because they couldn’t read the nickname I had written on my shirt but perhaps no one had felt like I needed spurring on until the tears came. I thought about how I really could have used this cheerleading squad to get me to work every day, or to ensure I completed the task of making a bowl of pasta for dinner.
I had long since convinced my sister to run ahead of me when my throat closed up in panic. It was just three miles from the end and somehow crossing the finish line felt more impossible than it had at mile one. But help was everywhere I looked, from the cheers at the side of me, to the runners who held up a hand in high five, or walked with me for a short while, to the man from the start of the race, who upon seeing me walking, took my hand and started running with me.
As I crossed the finish line, I stumbled into a man in the same charity vest with a shell-shocked look on his face. We clung together, I told him I had depression, wanted to be an actress and had just started taking anti-depressants. He told me he had Asperger’s, was 22, about to move in with his girlfriend and wanted to be a stand up comedian. We had our photo taken together, collected our medals and our bags and parted ways.
At some point in the following weeks, my sister told me that one of the NAS runners had died in a motorcycle accident. It wasn’t until months later, however, when I was preparing to run the Great North run that we realised it was this man I met at the end of the race who had died. The charity was doing a big support drive because his sister had decided to take his place in the race and, while looking for a photo of him at the marathon, my sister found a photo of he and I together. It felt strange to be overcome with tears for a man I had known for twenty minutes, but it felt so indescribably unfair; he hadn’t so much as crossed the finish line as the finish line had crossed him.
We don’t really know where the end is or how we are going to get there.
And that’s the point. We don’t really know where the end is or how we are going to get there or what troubles we will meet on the way – which is as true on a race day when the end seems too far to imagine as it is in life when all you can manage for dinner is a bowl of stolen cereal. If running has taught me anything about depression, or life in general, it’s that all we need to do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that help is there if we ask for it.
When the finish line finally comes, it will be the times you didn’t “just do it” that you will regret. So whether it's running a marathon, or getting yourself out of bed and into the world, go and smash it, even if smashing it means limping over the finish line while sobbing into a stranger's armpit.