The shadow is always there, always just one step behind me. As I run down the road I catch the faintest glimpse of it as I check over my shoulder.
As I run through the woods close to my house I see its darkness lengthening, trying to envelop me, wanting to swallow me whole.
For more than 10 years running has always been a constant in my life and something I could turn to for solace in uncertain terms.
A place I can escape to, a world within a world where I can internalise and process my thoughts, feelings and emotional states; a kind of mental filling, a way of ordering my internal and external world.
Ironically though, one reason I run is to escape from my own mind.
At my best, and I have to go back a few years now I would run at my peak speed along the canal towpath and I’d feel invincible as the wind rushed past, lost in that micro moment of absolute freedom. In those moments I didn’t see the shadow, I’d outrun the darkness that stalks me.
Of course the moment I felt that freedom was the moment I’d burst its bubble.
We also call it being in the zone, new science may even say it’s a mindfulness technique. The freedom I speak of is a freedom of the mind; I’m not thinking any particular thing at that moment.
As I run, my body is in perfect harmony with nature and the physical world around me.
Finding that zone and chasing after that ‘mind freedom’ is what compels me to put my running shoes on each day.
I also like the feeling I get from the endorphins as they rearrange the chemistry within my brain making me feel good as I run along the pavement or woodland trail.
But that shadow, it’s never too far away. Some times I spot it on the horizon and other times it’s almost on my tail running flat out after me.
I’ve had to work hard to keep it behind me and not to let it overrun me like it once did.
That was the winter of 2010 and it almost had me.
A few major life events happened to me all at once and I came close to quitting and letting myself go.
I let the darkness in.
I sat with it for many days and day’s become weeks and my beard grow out and I withdrew from life.
I’d never felt so hopeless or so helpless to its power over me. The shadow replaced running as my best friend and it became the new constant in my life.
I recall a run where I realised it wasn’t possible for me to run and sob at the same time. You I couldn’t breathe enough to maintain the run while crying so much.
The shadow was all around me now and I’m sure it was preparing its final sprint finish and a victory lap as I lay down ready for the end.
In those final moments something happened that for a moment woke me from my darkness and I could actually think clearly; in that moment I knew I had one chance to save my life and to go on living.
I don’t know what it was that stopped me that day and made me summon up some unknown courage I didn’t think I had.
I picked myself up from the floor and I ran.
I ran from the darkness for all I was worth and kept running.
I had retreated to a dark area of my mind I didn’t know was there, a place that terrifies me even now; a dark corner of my psyche full of dark thoughts and self loathing.
In the days that followed I went to my Doctors to ask for help and I broke down as I said I wasn’t coping so well with things.
As a man, I was always a little old school and didn’t understand when others said they’d spoken to a counsellor or had started a course of antidepressants.
I was the sort of man that might say “pull yourself together” or other less than helpful comments!
It took hitting rock bottom for me to have a complete change and to find empathy for others.
I now know what I didn’t know back then, that the shadow is a part of me and that it will always be with me.
But I am strong now, and I know I’m also the only person who can rescue me from my darkness.
Talking combined with running and maintaining good health is my way of living with my shadow rather then being controlled by it.
I also use and say affirmations in my head and out loud when I’m running now. I try to play with the endorphins in my head and help to reprogram my mind to think in a better more positive way.
Never give in to that shadow.
It’s important we keep talking about our emotional wellbeing and to continually break down any stigma about this.
My name is Phil and I’m proud to say I once asked for help because I couldn’t cope alone.
It’s ok not to be ok. But it’s not ok to hide it from those around you and to keep it to yourself.
If you feel that your shadow is creeping a little too close and you’re worried about yourself then talk to someone.
BIO: I started running in 2008. I’ve been a member of Trentham Running Club since 2010. An England Athletics Run Leader since 2012 and England Athletics Mental Health Champion. Facilitator for the Stoke-on-Trent Frazzled Café.