Running through a Pandemic: my running journey as an NHS consultant

by Andrea Lowman

Running has always been a part of my life, back to school days, when I discovered that I was one of the few who actually enjoyed cross country – even wearing bottle green knicker shorts and a red aertex top! If you grew up in Pembrokeshire, like me, you may even be able to identify which school I went to.

I also loved the 800m, 1500m and 3000m at sports day, less so the 100m relay – sprinting has never been my thing.

In addition to running, I always played hockey at school and when I went to university to study medicine, carried on with this, playing for the mixed medics hockey team for the 6 years I was in Sheffield. Playing with boys was a revelation – they were less likely to hit you with the stick than the girls and it was a great source of boyfriends, but that’s definitely a subject for a different blog! I did run as part of hockey training but it took a back seat during my student years and when I was a junior doctor – a 1 in 4 on call rota, and 60–80-hour weeks put paid to most exercise!

When I moved to Cardiff in 1996, I joined a gym, so only ran short distances on a treadmill. I continued my medical training, still working long hours. In 1999, I met Rob and we moved to Edinburgh in 2000 for 2 years, where I was a research doctor in the National Creutzfeld -Jakob Disease unit there. Some of you will remember the BSE crisis in cows and the new variant of CJD which is the human equivalent of BSE. I spent two years travelling all over the UK to see suspected cases. It was exciting and depressing in equal parts, and it was during this time I rediscovered running. Rob and I started to run together and I did my first ever organised race, the Edinburgh 10km in 2001 in 59 minutes. I was so pleased with myself but Rob had just pipped me by a minute!

We returned to Cardiff in 2002, got married in 2003, had Iwan in 2004, Dylan in 2007, I finished my training in 2006 and got my Consultant post and we moved to a new house, so running took a back seat and I didn’t really get started again until 2016.

I had a couple of aborted attempts to get going due to knee pain preventing me from running more than 2km and will admit to a degree of jealousy when Anna-Jane Thomas embarked on her running journey much more successfully and ran the Snowdonia Mountain marathon!

Unfortunately, it was some very sad news from other close friends that finally got me back to running regularly. Their daughter was diagnosed with a bone marrow condition and needed a transplant. It was difficult to find a match for Hollie, so her parents joined forces with the Bone marrow charity Anthony Nolan and started their own campaign, ‘Help Hollie’, with a memorable ‘wear your knickers on your head’ theme. They also launched ‘Hollie’s 100’, a group of 100 of us who all ran the 2016 Cardiff Half Marathon in aid of Anthony Nolan and to increase awareness for Hollie. I was determined to run it, so I trained hard. I had lost my baby weight by then and my knee seemed better, so I booked the Cardiff 10km in September as a tester before the Half in October.

Training went well and I completed the 10km in a PB of 57 minutes but unfortunately my knee started to hurt at 7km and just didn’t settle down.

The day of Cardiff Half dawned and I just decided to go for it and get round, no matter how long it took. It turned out to be a rather eventful day. I ran with Anna-Jane and another friend. My knee started to hurt at 4km and continued to get worse with every km that passed. I ignored it as best I could. We got to Roath Lake; the end was almost in sight when AJ had an altercation with one of the speed bumps. She fell, and we all stopped. She sat up, with her face covered in blood but made the two of us carry on. Reluctantly we did, leaving AJ with her husband who was spectating and some St John’s ambulance men.

We got going again, but after a few minutes my friend felt unwell and we stopped again, spending the next few minutes with her hyperventilating, clutching the railings before we managed to continue running. Amazingly we finished in 2hrs 24minutes and AJ continued her run, finishing only a few minutes after us.

The following day, I could barely walk, and both my knees were swollen. I went to work, had to go up and down the stars sideways like a crab, and get the nurses to fetch my clinic patients from the waiting room whilst I did my best to just move around my clinic room on my wheelie desk chair and not have to stand up! Never again, I thought.

However, I had been on course to run amuch nearer to 2hrs in my training and after a few weeks I got back to running and signed up for the Cardiff Half again, competing the 2017 race in 1 hr 57.

I carried on running, just for me and always by myself after that as I had noticed so many positives – it helped me keep my weight in check and has so many benefits for my mental health and wellbeing. Working in the NHS is hard! Running definitely stopped my alcohol intake from creeping up too.

I did not enter events and just ran for me, 3 times a week, 5-10km at most.

Then in 2019, I joined a female running group and met some fantastic ladies. For the first time I was enjoying running with others as well as on my own.

In October 2019, I was one of the founding members of SRC and have continued to run alone, with friends and SRC since.

Everything was going well, and spurred on by other members of SRC, I decided to enter some races. In 2020, I had lined up Buff 10km trail race, Cardiff Bay 10km, Swansea Half, Cardiff Half, Castle to Castle and Cardiff trail half. I ran the Buff 10km with lots of other SRC ladies and loved it.

By the end of January 2020, it was clear that COVID-19 was going to be Public Health crisis like nothing I had experienced and the NHS was frantically planning. I carried on running.

In March, we had our first National lockdown. SRC had to stop, and we couldn’t run with friends anymore but I carried on running on my own. I went to work, ran, looked after my family and did very little else.

Redeployment loomed….and finally happened for me on Easter Sunday. Working on a COVID ward, definitely out of my comfort zone, was really frightening. I carried on running more than ever. My weekly distances increased from regularly running 25km to now 50km, as I couldn’t meet friends, see family, go to my Barre or Pilates classes so the running took over.

When I run, I can think and process everything that has happened, at work and at home. I shut the rest of the world out to a degree and sort my head out. COVID made life and work so much harder, the processing time went up and my need to run did too.

I have run through the rain, snow and summer heat. My running wardrobe has significantly increased in size and I have gone through 4 pairs of trainers. I have discovered Tikiboo, Lucy Locket Loves and Sweaty Betty. I have run every path and street that I can from my door, exploring places on my doorstep I have not been to before. 

I have managed to hang onto my mental health, by a thread at times, but without running, I don’t think I would have. I am also lucky to have some great friends and an absolutely amazing Multidisciplinary team at work, and we have supported each other through redeployment, working in PPE, outbreaks of COVID in patients and staff, and countless new rules, regulations and ways of doing things, which at the beginning changed daily. I am now proficient at phone and video consultation as well as seeing people face to face, so maybe something good for the NHS long-term will have come out of this pandemic.

SRC virtual runs and challenges really helped keep me going. In brief respite periods when we could run with friends, I explored bits of Cardiff I had never been to, inspired by Run around the ‘Diff and the Bingo boards and was also encouraged to look after my wellbeing. The virtual runs encouraged me to get out every Wednesday and Sunday and I have hardly missed any of them, especially since I returned to my usual job.

I have run to the Bay and Caerphilly Castle with AJ, clocking up my longest ever run at 25km. I ran the Virtual Race to the Stones, clocking up 100km in a week. I resisted the urge to run the VOGUM but have signed up for the Virtual London Marathon. My 2020 races have been rescheduled so many times, I have now totally lost track but luckily someone in SRC usually knows, posts something and changes the date of the event!!

Coleen and I, as SRC Welfare Officers, had a change in role we had not anticipated, which at times felt a bit like the COVID police, but we have done our best to keep everyone in the group informed regarding the restrictions on running with others, and we are both less scared of videoing ourselves. I have also never taken so many selfies, nearly always sweaty with no make-up, grey roots and terrible hair! 

As we are approaching the restarting of our SRC ‘in person’ runs, I am looking forward to being able to run as a group and support the amazing women that make SRC what it is, albeit in a different way for a while.

Vaccination has given me hope that there will be a way of living with covid and I continue to run. I have been so lucky not to have been injured, to have had secure employment, to be able to work away from home in a great team, have kids old enough to home school themselves, good friends and SRC to get me through what has been definitely the worst year of my career (I qualified as a doctor in 1995 so have been doing this a while) and likely the worst year of my life.

I am so grateful for a healthy body and the ability to run and am hopeful that 2022 will be better. Might even sign up for that ultra-marathon after all – I am 50 this year so might be a way to celebrate – we will see…….

And my school was Tasker Milward in Haverfordwest, for those of you that may have guessed.

3 thoughts on “Running through a Pandemic: my running journey as an NHS consultant

  1. Hi Andrea I really enjoyed reading this – thank you so much for sharing your experiences and insights. Although I have never liked running, I to have found the benefits of space in order to process invaluable. Although I have always walked, running, however slow, sets your mind on a different path., which I have found invaluable.

    Like

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