Coping when a family member becomes seriously ill, and then navigating the devastating world of bereavement and depression is harrowing, as Karen Lewing, 44, an architect from Worcester, sadly knows. When her mother, who already had many existing health conditions, developed dementia, it was a difficult time for the whole family. Karen bore the strain – alongside her siblings – of trying to support both her mother and father through their hardest times.
“My mum wasn’t well for a lot of her life, because she had arthritis, cirrhosis and type 1 diabetes,” remembers Karen. “So she had a lot of things wrong with her, but it never stopped her. She just had such drive and energy. She was always doing things for people; she was a really energetic woman, despite the fact she was in pain. So the dementia was really tough on us as a family.”
When her mother passed away in September 2014, Karen was left in a state of shock. This, coupled with stress in her professional life, left her barely functioning, and she was diagnosed with depression. “It had been a terrible few years and I didn’t realise how ill I had become,” she recalls. “I had been so close to my mum and had seen some horrific things, and I began not to care about myself at all. When she died, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t go back to work for six or seven months. I knew I wasn’t me. I’m quite a bubbly person, but I had absolutely no drive to do anything. Anything at all. I’d get up and sort my children out for school, but that was it.”
In the end, a determination to get strong again for her children, Amélie, now 18, and Elliot, now 15, made her realise something had to change:
“I knew I wanted to be me again. I knew I wanted to be a proper mum for my children. I just knew I had to do something. But I didn’t know what.”
Karen was unsure where to turn, but luckily fate (or rather, Facebook) stepped in to lend a hand. “I saw this Facebook advert for a local gym,” she remembers.
“And it wasn’t just about losing weight and getting fit. It asked, ‘Do you want to feel good about yourself?’”
The advert marked a turning point for Karen, who, determined to turn things around, contacted gym owner Anthony Taylor and arranged to visit the gym the following day. “And basically, I didn’t stop going!” she laughs.
With her gym workouts reigniting her con dence and positivity, Karen decided it was time to try something new: running.
“I didn’t know anything about running,” Karen admits. “I was a complete novice. My first run was 10K, and I only did it because I’d been to the gym for a bit. I didn’t have a clue how long 10K even was!” Despite finding the race tough (“I came over the finish line and I was dying!”), it sparked in Karen a determination to keep pushing herself. “I don’t know what it was, but something happened in that race,” she says. “I remember thinking, I quite like this…I really like it.”
Spurred on by her newfound determination, and inspired by a couple from her gym who were training for the Virgin Money London Marathon, Karen started running regularly and applied for a charity place, through Mind, for London in 2016.
Her application was successful, although – as is often the way – things didn’t quite go to plan. “I couldn’t run for the whole of January and February, due to a groin strain, and it took loads of physio. My longest run was about 14 miles. I hadn’t been able to follow the proper programme at all.”
Despite the lack of training, Karen achieved a sub-four hour time, finishing in 3hrs 51mins 57secs. “I absolutely loved it!” says Karen. Though it was a bittersweet experience. “I was trying to get Good For Age and I missed out by one minute!”
Karen currently runs 30 to 40 miles a week, mixing up her training with strength work, rowing and yoga. Does she feel that exercise – and running in particular – is still instrumental in staving off depression? “Oh definitely. It helps with daily stress. I really feel it on those days when I haven’t run or exercised. And some days that’s fine, because it’s a rest day. But other days it’s really hard. It’s about balance.”
As for her race times, Karen is going from strength to strength, regularly winning prizes and placing in events. It’s helping her gain confidence – both in and out of the running world. “When I first went back to work [after her mother passed away], my confidence had gone. It took me quite a long time to build that back up. But then I did a 10K before Christmas and won my age category. And I was so surprised! I went from being not a great runner to someone winning my age category. I just want to do better for myself. There’s real satisfaction in feeling like you’ve tried hard, isn’t there?”
Karen is certainly trying hard, managing her depression and achieving race results she didn’t before think possible. Where would she be today if it wasn’t for running? “Gosh, do you know, I honestly don’t know what I would have done. I’m trying to think if anything else would have worked and I don’t think it would have. I had to get motivation.
“The encouragement of other people at my gym – and the guy who owns it, Anthony – helped massively. Anthony’s always believed in me. One of the things he said to me was, ‘Karen, you have to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’, and that was a big thing for me, because I knew I was uncomfortable and then I accepted it was OK to feel like that. I was deliberately not engaging with things because I was feeling uncomfortable. But now, running has given me confidence and focus. When I run, all I think about is my breathing and my body. It’s absolute meditation. And then, after the first few miles, I hit that sweet spot. My breathing is relaxed and I get into a rhythm. I don’t need to concentrate. I just run.”
And that Good For Age marathon time she missed out on by a minute, back in 2016? She’s just smashed it, achieving a new marathon PB of 3hrs 21mins 05secs – knocking a whopping 30 minutes off her previous time – at the Chester Marathon this October. “The last few miles were so tough and I had to really dig in. But I’m so pleased – this is something I’ve dreamed about,” she enthuses. “I now have a Good For Age time, one that better reflects my other results. I think with more long- distance training, I may be able to do better. We’ll have to see!”