Why running is my lockdown release - and how it helps with PTSD

Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 10:16 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th May 2020, 10:16 am

by Phil Hewitt

Someone once told me that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is like living with the “world’s worst flat mate” – someone who invades your space, throws everything into disarray and then turns round and tells you you are useless.

The description is spot on – and somehow even more spot on than ever in these shutdown times, when anxiety is never terribly far away; times when it seems there is very little escape from anything.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

However, the escapes are there. We just need know where to look.

Mine has always been – and I hope will always be – running, that simple act of putting one foot in front of the other at speed.

It’s a simple act which manages to be both prosaic and yet magical.

I would never have survived lockdown without running

Running is exhilarating but exhausting; it is draining and yet enriching; it is depleting and yet restorative; sobering and yet intoxicating. It is individual and yet collective; it is sweaty and yet beautiful; it is art and, yes, it is science too.

Running is accessible and yet so often remarkable; a challenge and yet a delight; and perhaps above all it somehow manages to be both freedom and connection.

How can we possibly ever explain it entirely? All I know for certain is that I would never have coped without it – particularly right now.

As soon as lockdown loomed, my PTSD symptoms ramped up. My response was to go for a run. I ran through torrential rain on that early March day; I even ran through swirling snow flurries; and then I ran through deep, skiddy mud on the way back. But I returned home purified, rebalanced, so much better able to cope.

And that’s why I am sure so many people are finding running so important a resource in their mental armoury right now in these awful, terrible days we are living through.

Running can silence your demons

The point is that running can silence the demons. It can quell the questions that won’t go away – in my case, the questions that have besieged me ever since the day, four years ago, that a mugger shoved a knife in me and left me to bleed out on a grotty Cape Town pavement.

What did the knife look like? I didn’t see it. Where had my attacker been all day? Did he stab anyone else that day? How grubby was the knife? How many other people did he stab that day? How many people has he stabbed since?

Does he remember me? Is he even alive still? Surely, you can’t carry on doing what he was doing with impunity.

But above all, I want to know: what would have happened if my rescuer hadn’t stopped and bundled me into his car? What would have happened if I had been left on the pavement just a few minutes more, unable to stand, blood – my blood – pooling around me.

And that’s the trouble with being stabbed – assuming you survive.

The real problem isn’t so much the knife that goes into you. The real problem is the mess of thoughts it leaves behind – thoughts, in my case, far harder to deal with than the physical injuries.

And that’s where running came in – a story I tell in my book Outrunning The Demons, published by Bloomsbury last year and available to buy on Amazon.

It’s a book which was written in blood, sweat and tears. It includes 34 interviews with people from the UK, the US and Australia who have been to hell and have found that the surest, quickest, safest way back is to run.

Running helps us to grieve

These are people who have lost loved-ones to murder, have been caught up in terrorism, have suffered depression, addiction, alcoholism or bereavement, have been viciously attacked, have braved horrid illness, have suffered the horrors of war or been on the wrong end of outrageous misfortune.

But the thing that links them all is that they have found space and time and connection through running. Running has helped them grieve; it has helped them heal; it has given them freedom; it has renewed and nurtured them; it has helped them move on, re-emerge, reclaim their lives and become stronger people.

It's probably a terrible thing to admit, but just over a year after publication, I found myself re-reading my own book the other day. These were the stories I wanted to read in the early months after the stabbing – and they are the stories I want to read now, stories of fantastic people. Wonderful people. Open. Warm. Wise. Generous. Brave.

And they are the stories I carry with me in my head as I continue to run in lockdown Britain.

A club of people who know the joy of being alive

Yes, I never stray far. And yes, I always wear a mask. It is crucial that runners don’t suddenly start to get blamed. We absolutely must keep our distance; and we absolutely must show that we have absolutely no intention of puffing or panting over anyone.

If we behave, we will be allowed to run… and I don’t know how I would cope without.

It is so noticeable that since lockdown began, my absurd, off-the-top-of-scale PTSD jumpiness has rocketed. My poor wife. She offers me a cup of tea and I react like she has launched at me with a machete. The world’s worst house mate is always there.

But if I go for a run, I instantly dial down; if I go for a run, I plunge myself into the most cleansing mind bath imaginable; if I go for a run, I face my demons – and for a while at least, I outrun them…

I am one of a tiny, tiny club of people – those of us who know exactly what it feels like to think, ‘In a couple of minutes I will be dead.' But, if I run, it seems to me that it is a wonderful club to be in. A club of people who truly know the great joy of being alive.

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister site, Chichester Observer