At last I can run happy: how running helped me find my happy place with friendship and acceptance

by Sharon Eckley

Exercise has always been my place of escapism. My place that I choose to go to when things overwhelm me or rather the place I need to go to when things just get too much. You see, I spent the whole of my school years being bullied. From the age of 7 until the day I left I was bullied pretty much every day. It was so extensive and so horrific that I truly believe that exercise, including running, actually saved me, eventually.

All throughout school I longed to fit in. I loved the idea of playing sports, but all the sports offered in school are all team sports, which was a big no go area for me. I did try netball once, but I was bullied off the court and gave up trying. 

You see, when you have been bullied as much as I have you resign yourself to the fact that you just aren’t good enough, full stop. You question every single thing about your being and continuously become overwhelmed with trying to answer all these questions of why.

You question your whole entire existence in the hope that you can find that elusive answer to your prayers for happiness and to rid yourself of the sadness that has become a part of your life. But in actual fact it’s not even trying to find happiness at all, it’s just to stop feeling sad! To remove that black cloud that follows you everywhere. 

Although I skated outside of school I needed something else that skating didn’t give me. It was then that I turned to running. Running cross country in school gave me that freedom to escape the bullies throughout the school day for a little while and it really helped to deal with them. That time alone, that break and that escapism during the school day, gave me a bit of a reset to deal with whatever the rest of the day had in store for me and I could have a good cry without anyone knowing. 

It was around the age of around 14 that I discovered solo exercise. A friend invited me to the leisure centre one evening to do a step class. I absolutely loved it and it was something else that gave me that extra bit of respite from the continual feelings of sadness that consumed me and after that one session I was hooked. I had found something else that I not only enjoyed but it was something that, despite being totally rubbish at it, had made me feel amazing and was away from school and anyone that I went to school with. I walked home from the leisure centre on cloud nine and I felt euphoric. 

The trouble was that what started as two classes a week very quickly turned into more. I would walk or cycle to the leisure centre, complete a class or often more than one class in a row, and then I would walk or cycle the 3 miles home. It was my happy place where I could go to forget about everything, and I just wanted to be there all the time. I started to become obsessed. What turned into a healthy hobby turned into a very unhealthy obsession whereby I became addicted to exercise. 

My weight plummeted and my shins became extremely sore to the point that I couldn’t walk and I was forced to stop. 

I left school at the age of 16 after my GCSE’s with no plans whatsoever of going back into an education setting as for me it was completely tarnished and was not an environment that I ever wanted to be in again. Leaving school was the best decision I had ever made. I embarked on an apprenticeship and once I left school and started work things changed dramatically for me. 

I found my confidence and found my way I guess. I eventually met my ex-husband and had my two boys who are now 17 and 14.  It wasn’t the best of marriages; I found myself needing that escapism again and found my way back to exercise. The old feelings of release and freedom and headspace all returned and really helped me deal with the challenges that I was facing again, including postnatal depression, but I once again becoming obsessed. I just couldn’t find a healthy balance whilst things around me were too overwhelming to cope with. 

Fast forward to post divorce in 2011 to a time where I was actually feeling settled and finally happy. I decided to start running. I wanted to exercise but felt that I needed to stay away from a gym setting and decided running may be the right way to go. 

For years I ran cautiously. There we no races, no events, no running buddies, just me and a short run to hopefully enable me to keep control of it. This meant that running was never consistent ,which also made it continuously hard. This also ensured that I didn’t go overboard and become obsessed again. Unfortunately, this meant that I always ran with fear, so I didn’t get all the usual benefits of the headspace that I used to get from running and exercise as I once did, and this continued for a number of years. 

In 2017 I participated in the Race for Life 5k with a couple of friends and absolutely loved everything about it. This then led to me signing up to the Cardiff Half a few months later in a drunken haze, after a friend’s husband signed her up to the Cardiff Half without her knowing. I signed up to ‘keep her company’ as she was worried about holding her hubby back and being on her own.

As a result, 2018 was when I started running again. I had no idea about anything when it came to actually running properly or training for a race and I had never had any idea about how far I had run before, although looking back I’m guessing no more that a mile or two tops so what I was thinking I don’t know.

But nevertheless 2018 came around and I vowed to start running again and complete the Cardiff Half. I started off well, but I was only letting myself run once a week max because I was running with the fear that I wouldn’t be able to control it again. Then in the May I was hospitalised with Mastoiditis. After a couple of weeks in hospital and weeks of recouperation I had to start all over again. 

By the time I got to the Cardiff Half I had only completed up to 10k distance, and had only achieved that once and completely by accident. Nevertheless, I had also completely by chance, discovered a way to run comfortable by running to heart rate. 

So, with my goal of not being picked up by the sweeper and my ‘plan’ to stick to my comfortable heart rate I set off across the start line of the 2018 Cardiff Half. Despite people continuously running past me the whole way I completed the whole race with only one brief walking spell at Roath Park, in a time of 3:03:15. I was over the moon and the elation I felt was so overwhelming that I just had to do it again. 

I immediately signed up for the 2019 Cardiff Half and vowed to keep running. However, it didn’t quite workout that way. I did the odd run here and there but again I was holding myself back and kept putting any real kind of commitment to it on a back burner. That was until April/May time of 2019 when I took the plunge to meet up with a women’s running group. 

I cannot tell you the fear I felt about doing this. Every week I would vow to go and every week I was paralysed by fear. Because of the bullying, the thought of being vulnerable within a group of unknown women was literally the LAST place I ever wanted to put myself. The day I eventually attended, I was panic-stricken and just terrified. 

As it happens, I went to the wrong meeting place and met up with a couple of other runners who had done the same thing, the lovely Nicola and Justyna. We got talking and realising, we were perhaps in the wrong place, we made the decision to run down to the right place together. That was nearly enough for me. It was the fastest I had run I think at that time, and that was pretty much my usual distance of running! But it helped to ease some of the terror. 

As we approached the group, they were in the middle of the warmup and I just quietly slotted in trying to remain out of sight of anyone. 

As we started running, I was pleased to realise that it was quite chilled and at a comfortable pace. Then the lovely Cathryn spent quite a bit of time talking to me and asking me loads of questions. Although it took my mind of what I was doing I did think I was going to push her in the lake at one point if she asked me anymore questions as I just couldn’t speak anymore. Running and talking is an art form! I ended up running faster than normal and talking …. But I felt amazing afterwards and was so thankful to Cathryn for making me feel so welcome and taking my mind off everything with all those questions, that I did go back. 

Fast forward to September 2019 when I joined that amazing group of women and was privileged to be part of the founding members of She Runs: Cardiff and completed my LiRF. I know this sounds dramatic but they and the group at large, have literally changed my life beyond words. 

Through running I have finally found my happy place. I have found friendship and I have found acceptance, something I never thought I would be lucky enough to achieve.

I now also run the She Runs: Cardiff C25K group, something I wanted to do because I understand the fear of wanting to do something but being held back by worry of the unknown. Seeing someone who thinks they can’t and then helping them in a little way to find their confidence to realise that actually they can, is just the best feeling in the world.

At the age of 40 I can finally say that I have found my happy place with running and exercise and that is a huge testament to all the ladies within the group. It has helped me to just about cope with a really tough few months and I am forever grateful that I can now run happy.

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