The Healing Power of a Marathon: Jenny's story

By Jenny Richardson,
updated on Aug 1, 2019

The Healing Power of a Marathon: Jenny's story

Heartbreak sent Jenny spiralling into negative thoughts and doubts, but the mindfulness of putting one foot in front of the other helped her to rediscover her rhythm

Tick tock. The clock counts up the seconds as I count down the miles. It’s September 2018, I am 58, and I’m running the Loch Ness Marathon.

Sweat runs into my eyes. I blink away the tears, the fears, the years. Today, this is what I am: sinews, muscles, a furnace burning fuel. My breath and feet keep rhythm with my pumping heart. This heart that was breaking.

Running is my way into mindfulness. I need an extended stretch of steady pacing to find a rhythm, to let my thoughts ebb and flow, while feeling a part of my surroundings.

Five years ago I progressed from being an occasional jogger to a regular runner, and I was finally able to come off the antidepressants that had helped to keep my equilibrium for 13 years.

The recent downturn came about after I ended a year-long relationship. My mind told me this was the correct decision, but I was unprepared for my gut response. I felt lonely, hollowed out, and full of doubt about the future.

After several painful months, the only solution I could come up with was to train for and run a marathon – my third – which would, out of necessity, put me fully in the moment, and thereby halt the obsessive spiral of doubts.

Jenny on a day out with her two sons

Jenny on a day out with her sons

The race starts on high, exposed moorland, and heads largely down for the first six miles to reach the lochside. At once, I feel the childlike thrill of running downhill, and have to hold myself back from taking off too fast. I look at my fellow runners, intent and focused. There is a quiet solidarity in our pounding feet.

At this point, Douglas firs tower to the left, and scrub and heather to the right, allowing views over the moors and the mountains.

At the village of Foyers we get some welcome encouragement from spectators, and then are out on the open road again. Loch Ness comes into glorious view ahead.

The tagline for this marathon only slightly exaggerates: “If you’re going to put yourself through hell, you might as well do it in heaven.” It really is heavenly. It is also of this earth, bringing us into intimate contact with one beautiful part of this planet and, for me, helping to put life into a more balanced perspective.

My break-up had thrown me off kilter. But this was a short-term reaction and could not be compared to my situation in 2000, when I found myself bringing up my two boys alone in England, while their dad lived in America.

An acrimonious divorce, constant anxiety about money and work, and my fear of failing my children sent me into a downward spiral of depression, sleepless nights, and panic attacks. I tried counselling, but talking didn’t change the facts, and the passive listening made me angry rather than relieved.

I'll keep running, pacing forward, finding my rhythm

My kindly GP, who had tried to avoid putting me on pills, eventually prescribed SSRI antidepressants when he realised how bad things had become. These saved me. They quelled the despair and the over-thinking, enabling me to get on with life, and my most important job: being a parent.

In true Scottish form, the weather turns in an instant, and sunshine gives way to icy rain.

Every inch of my body is awake, feeling pain it is true, but my physical senses are alive. The clock is ticking on, and so am I. But now I ground myself, literally. I think down to the soles of my feet, burning on the tarmac, pacing onwards, one foot then the other. These legs, mighty with their bones, pulleys, veins and strings, pushing me on.

I look at the runners around me. They are amazing. We are amazing. Ordinary mortals pushing ourselves to do more than we need to, much more than is comfortable and easy. We are not heroes; we are devourers of life, using the talents given to us by nature, the universe, God, however you see it.

This world is so complex and unpredictable, illness so random that, while I can, I must live fully with my whole intact heart. I am grateful for all I have – my wonderful sons, family, friends, and freedom.

Somewhere between miles 23 and 24, in another freezing downpour, my joints are seizing up, and setting at acute angles like a wooden puppet. I pull over to unlock myself. I stretch my arms and they click. I bend painfully forward and cannot touch my toes. My knees crack.

Jenny finishing the marathon and cheering

Jenny set a new personal best!

“I feel your pain,” says a passing runner.

That is comfort. We do all share a common understanding. But I am sure we all have our own particular pain.

In spite of the effort, the overall effect of running is to make me feel wonderfully well. It is as though by getting my heart pumping, the blood surging round my cells, my whole body is being cleansed and replenished, my mind made clear and my emotions balanced.

Add to that the camaraderie of running, I see why this is a prescription that works.

The antidepressants got me through, and allowed me to feel joy in my children. As they left the nest, I braved coming off the tablets (something I had tried and failed to do on previous occasions). I had already started running regularly, and its positive effects meant a seamless change to my now being a pill-free zone.

I reach the 25-mile marker, and suddenly I start wheezing. I am gasping, momentarily struggling to breathe. I look to the sky, white clouds racing, to the river gleaming and patient. Whatever is going on, I am not dying. I run on, stiffly.

These last and hardest minutes become a race against myself. I am dangerously close to my previous time. I hear the the crowds cheer as I push on, tired and in agony. I have achieved my aim, to think of nothing else but this moment.

And I win, too, in my private race. I have beaten my time from three years ago by four minutes, finishing in 3 hours 50.

The cheers are for everyone. The tears are from me. I stagger and sob, not from heartbreak, but from pure exhaustion. I must look as wrecked as I feel, because the woman handing out T-shirts makes all the other runners wait while she gives me a huge hug.

I’m thankful for this supportive community, and the good health that’s enabled this late-blooming marathon career. I needed this 26.2 therapeutic miles to build my heart back up, to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts, and to embrace life again. I’m not sure I’ll do any more marathons, but I’ll keep on running, pacing forward, finding my rhythm.

Rachel Coffey | BA MA NLP Mstr, says:

Life often feels like a marathon, and Jenny saw this from a whole new perspective. She used that sense of achievement to heal her life, and realised how being in the moment could help her through the pain and doubt. Jenny chose her marathon well! Yes it would be tough – but beautifully so. While we all have far to go at times, maybe the secret is in choosing a route that will allow us space to breathe on the way.

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