How running changed my life

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Runner Karen Russell shares a very honest account of how running changed her life. She tackles the sensitive issue of self-harming following a difficult childhood. It’s an ongoing battle, but one where running has had a positive impact.

Karen’s story

Running changed my life. Words many of us have either read or know from personal experience. I would like to share my experience in the hope I can inspire others.

From the age of 12, I was abused by a close family member. They try to make you feel you are the chosen one, that you are ‘special’. Some buy gifts to make you feel you are. Sadly, I didn’t want to be ‘special’. I started to self-harm not long after the abuse started. I would boil the kettle and then stand in the bath with a towel in my mouth so I didn’t scream as I poured the boiling water over my feet. I would cut myself (always my legs or side of my body, as it’s easier to cover). When you are young, your skin heals well; sadly, not as easily when you get older.

I met my first boyfriend at the age of 16. I absolutely adored him and we married at 19, but it was never going to work. I just couldn’t be the person he needed, so after he had an affair, we parted when I was aged 21. I started the self-harm again, always having an excuse for the marks on me. I then met and consequently married my husband of 22 years. We have two beautiful girls, but still I couldn’t be me – ‘Karen the child had been silenced and had to remain that way’. I went a few years without feeling the need to ‘hurt me’, then suddenly I reached 40, and I realised how fat and awful I looked compared to my friends/siblings.

Forward steps and setbacks

I joined Weight Watchers and finally reached my target weight (although many didn’t feel I was big, I was compared to the rest of my family). So, this started a new control. I ran on the treadmill for 40 mins every day; I weighed myself (scales on a particular tile in the bathroom every day); I controlled my food if I thought I was gaining weight.

A very good friend of mine persuaded me to join the gym. I was terrified and it took me three months to actually pluck up the courage to walk through the doors! I thought they would laugh at me. They didn’t, of course, and my nerves were unjustified! I teamed up with a PT and, a week later, I went to my first spin class (I thought would die at the time!). Life was looking so much better and I felt in control.

Then… the Jimmy Saville thing came out. I began to obsess with the stories. I watched them on programs like This Morning. I wondered how some could lie about such an awful thing! The feelings returned and I began to suffer flashbacks to my childhood. I returned to the self-harm. I made some pretty darn awful cuts on my legs.

Unfortunately, a few weeks previous to this, I had admitted to my husband what I did/who I was, but he didn’t understand. Please don’t think I’m judging anyone that doesn’t. The one and only time he asked me [about how I got the marks] – strangely, the only time I cut my arms – I replied, ‘Me, I do them’. He didn’t get it – and I repeat, I understand – but he replied, ‘You make me feel physically sick’.

He turned away because of me, and I then went and did the worst cuts on my legs that I previously mentioned. I realised I needed help that night – I’ve been told I’m lucky, as they were so deep – but I couldn’t ask anyone as I was so ashamed!

Setting a challenge

My good and trusted friend, along with my PT, suggested a challenge: a 10K! Shock, horror! Me? Run in public? I did it, and then went on to run a few more 10Ks, followed by a 10 miler I was tricked into, and then the half-marathons.

When I run, I feel free. I can think and sort my feelings. While training for my first marathon, I tore my left calf muscle. I had only reached 18 miles at this point. So, I went for treatment and I turned up with my ‘bag-carrying bestie, aka Paddington’ to run my first marathon in 2015, the Liverpool Rock ’n’ Roll. I was so nervous on the start line. My bestie wished me luck and off we went. Yes, this girl was running a marathon.

Mile 3, I felt like I had been shot in the back of my right calf muscle – I tore my calf. I couldn’t face going home with no medal and all the negative feedback, so I ran. I bloody ran 23.5 miles on it (boy, I paid after, but I bloody did it!).

Since that day, I have met the most amazing people. Everyone has a story. But what I would like to say is that there is life after abuse. We can beat this, we can inspire others to run, others to share their stories. We don’t have to be alone when we are tempted to self-harm.

My running family help me so much (they probably don’t even know they do). Running sets us free and we can be ourselves! If I can run, anyone can. I’m nearly 50, asthmatic and I have B12 deficiency. I still punish myself, but I can run!