When Caithy Walker found running, she used it to manage the agonising symptoms of both a debilitating spinal condition – and clinical depression. It became the natural healer that has transformed her life.
Given that our cover star Caithy Walker, 34, a part-time teacher from Manchester, was told in 2012 she would never be able to do high-impact sport again, you’d think she’d have the perfect excuse to hang up her running shoes and call it a day, right?
But determined not to give up, even in the face of huge adversity, Caithy decided doctors, teaching herself to run again through her darkest days. In fact, she credits running as the thing that saved her life.
As a teenager, Caithy was always active. Passionate about athletics (although she admits “I hated long distance because I had asthma, so it was all 100m or 200m”), she even competed in hurdles and high jump at County level. However (like for many of us), while at university, her fitness routine dropped off a little: “I dipped in and out of it, but it wasn’t part of my everyday routine at that point.”
In 2012, Caithy resolved to get t once more. “I didn’t feel great, so I joined a local gym and had sessions with a personal trainer,” she remembers. “But a lot of the range of exercises I wanted to do, especially around the spine and sit-ups, I wasn’t able to. I had been in quite bad pain for about eight months and I just thought, it’ll go. But it was gnawing at me. My PT told me to go to my doctor, so I went to the GP and straight away she thought it might be arthritis in the sacroiliac joint.”
When blood results revealed this wasn’t the case, Caithy endured months of tests, scans and neurosurgeon appointments. She was also offered cortisone injections, to help manage the pain. “I’d read about them and people seemed to have success with them. But, after three days, I knew something wasn’t right. I was in absolute agony.”
A further MRI scan revealed a spinal infection. “I had two months of not being able to walk due to the pain from the spine,” says Caithy. “I had seven or eight weeks of intense physio and rehab, and then the neurosurgeon said I’d never be able to run or do high-impact sport again. I just couldn’t process it.”
Determined not to be beaten, Caithy bought an exercise bike to help build her strength. “I went on it every day for a year, starting off with just minutes at a time and building up to an hour,” she says.
But nothing prepared her for what happened next: Caithy lost her father after a short battle with cancer. “Everything changed massively for me after I lost my dad. He died and the next day I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease [the breakdown of the intervertebral discs of the spine, causing severe pain and weakness].”
On top of everything else, Caithy was also going through a divorce. “The grief set in and everything came to a head. I was living in a bubble of shock for a long time. If I thought about it too much my head would go.”
Despite being warned not to run, Caithy felt she had nothing else to turn to. “In 2014, I started going for walks down by the river, for time out away from everything,” she recalls. “I started walking, then power walking and then, one day, I was like, ‘Right, I’m just going to run and see what happens.’ So I ran for 30 seconds and I was in agony. Then the next day I did it again – I ran for 30 seconds, walked, ran for 30 seconds, for as long as I could tolerate the pain. I just pushed myself. Eventually, after two years of doing that, I entered my first race last April. But it was two years of going out every day and building it up from lamppost to lamppost.”
Despite warnings from her neurosurgeon, Caithy found running actually helped with the pain and so continued to do it, with supervision from her medical team. “Those endorphins are natural painkillers,” she says. “If I don’t run almost every day, I feel in so much more pain.”
And there was one other vital reason for Caithy to continue running. “I needed to do it for my mental health. I was really depressed. I saw a psychiatrist and he said I had bad clinical depression, but that I was high functioning, so no-one would know because I got up to go to work and carried on a normal lifestyle. It wasn’t visible to the outside world.
“He wanted me to take medication, but I didn’t want to. It propelled me to do sport even more, because I knew I could control it through running. Running saved my life because it was the thing that was constant. Even though so many horrible things were happening around me, I got up every day and ran for an hour. It gave me time to think, to find solutions to problems and just to escape.”
In April 2016, Caithy entered her first race – the Cheshire 10K – which just happened to fall on her father’s birthday. “I was like, ‘Right, this is going to be my first one’,” says Caithy. “So I did my first race on Dad’s birthday, in 44mins and 30secs or something. Mum was like, ‘That’s it, I think you need to start running ALL the races!’ She got really excited! And I just gradually built it up from there.”
Caithy has gone from strength to strength, completing 14 races in 14 months – and in impressive times to boot, with a 10K PB of 43mins 44secs and a half-marathon PB of 1hr 37mins. In fact, with her positive attitude and inspiring results, you might be forgiven for assuming she’s conquered her ailments.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. “I still have to take morphine every day,” she reveals. “But I manage the pain predominantly through exercise. I’ve trained my body – it’s not been a quick fix. This has been five years since I was diagnosed – it’s been trial and error. For example, if I run up a long hill, I can’t run for days afterwards. I also try and manage it through diet – things like turmeric and blackcurrants, for the anti-inflammatory properties. But some days the pain is terrible and I just cry through it. Probably three mornings a week, I crawl out of bed in tears to the shower because I’m so stiff.”
Despite having to cope with some major low points in recent years, through sheer grit and determination, Caithy has created her own highs. “Being able to do the first half marathon in Manchester in October, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, life is completely different. Everything I thought could never be possible is happening.’
“And the support I’ve gained from putting myself out there on social media has been overwhelming.” Spurred on by her now-husband, Ed, Caithy has shared her story, becoming an inspirational figure for others. She has also completed her Leadership in Running qualification. “I want to start a running club because, for me, it’s just transferring that passion to other people. I want people to come to love it and realise how powerful running is for the mind. It’s where the mind can switch off and heal.”