Christmas 2015 was a huge turning point in my life when I woke up in the A&E department of my local hospital. My worst nightmare had come true. I was going to spend the festive season alone and unable to celebrate this special time of year with my family and friends. I was bed-bound because I was too weak – physically and mentally.
It had never occurred to me that my passion for running could lead to me nearly losing my life. However, there I was, lying numb and distraught in a ward full of seriously ill patients.
I was terrified as dozens of nurses and doctors attended to me, continuously injecting me with essential minerals and setting up a blood transfusion to strengthen me. I didn’t have the energy to sit up, let alone walk to the toilet. I was forced to use a commode – which was mortifying for me. I thought I was a healthy, vivacious 26-year-old but, during my time in hospital, I felt like a fragile 90-year-old. All my dignity had evaporated at once as I became dependent on those around me and it was all my fault; I had let my running training get out of control. So how and why did I end up there?
I have always been fit and sporty. Growing up I did gymnastics, netball, swimming, horse-riding; anything my parents agreed for me to participate in. I adore being active, especially outdoors, so starting running was great. It’s a fantastic form of exercise for the whole body, it’s very cheap (you only need a pair of trainers and gym clothes), you can do it whenever and wherever you like, it’s very social if you join a club and you can gain medals for simply taking part in events. Running rules! I have been running seriously for nearly 10 years. I began entering 10K races with a former boyfriend when we began dating in 2008. I loved the excitement of preparing for races and I challenged myself by entering half-marathons in 2009 and took the big step of a marathon in 2012. I attained a charity place in the London Marathon, pledging to race £2,000 for Help the Hospices charity, in memory of my father who had passed away from cancer in 2006. He inspired me to run because he did the London Marathon in 1989 – the year I was born – so it was particularly special for me. I trained tirelessly for five months before the big day and had perfect weather conditions when morning dawned. I finished in 3hrs 35mins and was over the moon. I continued to run in the following years after my success, buoyed by the feeling of the “runner’s high”, but focused on half-marathons.
As I became more obsessed with my training regime, I began to prioritise running over other aspects of my life, which included work, family and friends. Each week, I averaged 50 miles of running, even though that was not necessary. I found it difficult to stop. I never ran to lose weight because I had always been confident with my body, it was for the adrenalin and sense of achievement at the end of a long run. My diet evolved and became ultra-healthy – everything had to be nutritious, like wholemeal pasta and bread rather than white, plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. No more cakes or alcohol, which made me feel sluggish and adversely effected my training. Subsequently, and unintentionally, my weight decreased but I didn’t take enough notice despite my family expressing their concerns. I knew something was wrong when my periods stopped but I convinced myself they would return. I refused to take rest days, afraid that I would lose my fitness and aim of getting faster race times. Running had become an addiction and it was only a matter of time until my body collapsed.
In early December 2015, I returned home wet and shivery from what I considered a short 10-mile run round my woods. I clambered into the hot shower, trying to warm up and stop shaking; I felt dizzy and exhausted. I can’t remember what happened next but my mum told me she found me two hours later, cold as ice on the bathroom floor, unconscious, when she came home to go shopping with me. She thought I had died. My life was saved by the rapid response from the paramedics who revived me in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I was confused, panicking and in a lot of pain. I almost had hypothermia and my blood sugar levels were below zero. It was a miracle I was alive. The professional medical team came to the decision that it was not safe for me to return home until I had regained enough weight.
I was in hysterics and felt imprisoned. I was forced to have an energy food tube inserted down my nose and throat so that extra liquid calories could be pumped into me constantly. It was humiliating and demeaning. I did not recognise myself when I looked in the mirror because I was so gaunt. I couldn’t go anywhere unaccompanied. I had a registered mental health nurse to monitor me 24/7. They even had to come with me in the bathroom when I went for a shower. I felt trapped, the privilege of privacy had been taken away from me. I wasn’t allowed outside for nearly a month, which was agony for me. I missed being able to access fresh air and realised how I’d taken freedom for granted.
I was furious with myself for allowing this to happen. Nonetheless, I was permitted a few hours of leave from hospital on Christmas Day. My mum collected me and I had to use a wheelchair to get to the car to conserve my energy. I felt ridiculous but it was much better than not going home at all. The few precious hours at home with my twin sister and mum were spent opening presents, laughing and watching some silly Christmas TV together. It didn’t feel like Christmas to me; I couldn’t enjoy a proper Christmas dinner with all the trimmings because I was on a strict “refeeding” programme. Yet the short time with my family gave me the strength and determination to get well and get out of hospital for good. I committed myself to following the dietary plan set by the dietician and the doctors and was able to leave before my 27th birthday in January 2016. That was one of the best days of my life. I was able to freely walk to the car without a nurse or wheelchair.
Since then, I have gained my health back mentally and physically, due to the care and guidance from a number of sports and mental health specialists. Running and exercise no longer feature as the priority in my life. Nearly losing my life has made me appreciate how precious it is and that it’s family and friends who are the most important aspects in it. I would not be here today were it not for my mum finding me in the bathroom floor that day and giving me immeasurable love and support throughout this ordeal.
I’m concentrating on rebuilding my life and using my experiences to help others and educate them about the dangers of over-running. Life is there to be enjoyed, so please don’t be a slave to yourself and punish your body by pushing it too far. Running nearly ruined my life but I now have the chance to live a better more fulfilling life. I’ll always be a runner – it’s a part of my identity – but it does not rule me anymore.