running out of grief

“And running, well I couldn’t run. I was told that often enough by many people over my life so it had to be true, didn’t it?”

It’s a well-known fact that any form of exercise improves your physical and mental health, but, regardless of this I had been a reluctant participant. I was always far too uncoordinated to take part in exercise classes. I tried the gym a few times, and would enjoy it for a few months and then my enthusiasm would wear off. Swimming was an enjoyable past time for me, but, only if the pool was virtually empty as I hated weaving in and out of people’s way and getting kicked in the head by an over-zealous, would-be Olympian overtaking me. 

And running? Well I couldn’t run. I was told that often enough by many people over my life so it had to be true, didn’t it? 

At school I was a reasonably good runner, but, I wasn’t consistent – especially as I got older and more self-conscious. On one mortifying cross country day, I remember seeing the boys were watching our class and was pleased with myself that they were noticing how good I was. I thought they were impressed by the fact that I was one of the leaders in the race, but, as I ran passed one of them shouted, ‘Be careful you don’t give yourself a black eye’ – referring of course to my boobs who were a bit larger than the average fourteen year old’s (I had not yet been acquainted with a good sports bra). The subsequent laughing and pointing, made me slow down to a crawl and I disappeared into the crowd of girls lagging behind, much to the annoyance of my P.E teacher.

Throughout my twenties and thirties I became used to being told that I wasn’t particularly good at…well, anything really. My partner at that time would often remind me of my lack of ability in many things; driving, cooking, cleaning, ironing – I was terrible at all of them. And, exercise – what a joke. I didn’t have the correct mental attitude (I lacked stamina or enthusiasm). And my body was not set up for exercise either, it was weak due to a recurring back problem. It was far better if I didn’t bother at all. So I didn’t. Until something very unexpected happened, which was big enough to stop me caring about what other people thought.

By the time I arrived at my forties, the only exercise I had ever regularly done was walk my dogs. Custard was the third dog I had owned and he was a beautiful, golden haired lurcher who was full of mischief and fun. I loved him so much, and never got tired of cuddling him. My partner and I were asked to foster him and the moment I saw him my heart melted – there was no way our relationship was going to be a temporary one. 

When I got divorced, Custard would keep me company on the nights that my son was staying with his father. He helped me tremendously through this transition period as I never felt alone, and if the house was deafeningly quiet without my son being in it, he would distract me with his toys or we would go on walks together.

Custard was eight years old when I sold my ex-marital home and moved to a smaller one – just big enough for me, my son and Custard. The garden was chosen especially for him, so he still had room to run and the fences were high enough that he couldn’t leap over them with his long lurcher legs. But, just three months after moving he alerted me that something was very wrong. Despite showing no signs of illness, one day I put down his dinner and he wouldn’t eat it. He looked up at me with sad, brown eyes and walked away from his food. A dog that had known hunger (like he had) would never walk away from food. I took him to the vets straight away. The vet admitted him to hospital as he was deteriorating rapidly. Tests showed something sinister was happening in his liver. Within 48 hours after his admission he was referred to The Animal Health Trust in Newmarket (a specialist in  unusual cases). But, sadly, they were unable to help him either. He had an incurable, aggressive and very rare form of cancer which had started in his liver, but within a few days had spread to his kidneys, stomach and blood. It had only taken a matter of weeks to materialise and by the time he had shown signs of illness it was too late. Custard died two days later and everyone that knew him was heartbroken.

In the following days, I was stunned and completely lost. The little habits I did without thinking was making it worse. Going downstairs in the morning and instinctively opening the back door. Making my first cup of tea and reaching for his dog bowl to fill while the kettle boiled. Finishing my yoghurt and holding out the pot for him to lick out were all painful reminders he wasn’t there. But,  the walks together (and my only form of exercise) were also gone. 

On the third day without him, I woke up at my normal time (which always factored in walking time) and was distraught at the spare time I had. I grabbed my trainers and went for a walk. Without a plan I began our morning ‘route’. With tears running down my face I couldn’t get the walk over quick enough, so I started to run. I didn’t care how odd I must have looked in my mismatched clothes and was disinterested in how well I was running. Sobbing loudly as I awkwardly galloped along the road my only aim was getting home as quickly as I could. My chest felt like a furnace, I was sweating and gasping for air. My son ran down the stairs to greet me with a look of horror in his face.

‘Mummy, what’s happened? Are you ok?’

‘Yes,’ I replied after a short delay to catch some oxygen. ‘I went for a run.’ 

He shook his head in disbelief as he went back upstairs to bed, no doubt assuming he had woken up in a parallel universe.

The following day, I did the same again, and the next and the next. Each day I asked myself why I was putting myself through this torture retracing my old dog walking route without my beloved pet. I had no answer as to what I was doing, but, in a strange way each time I got home I felt that I was honouring him somehow.

As the days turned to weeks, my running had become the new reason I got up early in the morning and I was surprised to find myself running further, quicker and pushing myself to reach new goals each time. I had good days and bad days, sometimes I would be half way through a run and burst into tears. Sometimes the grief was so bad I couldn’t face going at all. And other times I was so angry at the injustice of not being able to save him that I would run so fast and so far I would end up miles from home. But, deep down I knew it was helping me, it was a much needed distraction to the huge hole that was in my life at that time.

Christmas came and I was given lots of lovely presents for my new hobby; clothes, trainers, water bottles and other helpful accessories. Plus my boyfriend announced he had entered me into a race. Cancer Research were hosting a 10 km Race for Life which was taking place in June, giving me six months to prepare and something positive to focus on. Not to mention massively pushing me out of my comfort zone and running with other people!

The following months I ran as much as I could (probably a little too much if I’m honest). I ran to every place I had ever walked with Custard. As I trained, I could feel myself getting fitter and healthier – but also I could feel myself healing to. I still missed my beloved pet and it hurt like mad that he had been taken so quickly from me. But, I could also see the sense in filling the void I had in my life with something new and completely different. 

On a blisteringly hot day in June I arrived at South Weald park, Brentwood with butterflies in my stomach. It was the day of the charity run and hundreds of people were there. Many were in big groups and matching fancy dress outfits with their faces painted. There was a 5km event too, and whole families were taking part from young toddlers to Great-Grandmas. Clearly, having never been involved before and spent all my time training alone, I had missed the point that this was also a ‘fun’ run and chuckled at myself for taking my training to the extreme!

I was running alone, but, I had my supporters cheering me on as my mum, boyfriend and son came to cheer me on. I had virtual supporters too, work colleagues, friends and family had sponsored me and I was over the moon that the night before the race I had reached my £1000 target (and in fact raised £1150 in total).

At the start, as all participants took a moment to think about the effects of cancer, I felt a bit of a fraud that I had arrived here by mourning the loss of a pet. Others were mourning the loss of friends, partners, parents or children. But, no matter what our circumstances, we were all connected by grief in one form or another and all remembering our loved ones. 

Grief was the reason I had started this journey, and with each step I ran I moved a little further away from it. Eight months later, being cheered as I crossed the finish line, I acknowledged that the pain had got easier. And as I was handed flowers from my family and a medal from the organisers, I could feel that happiness had nudged grief out of the way and found its way back into my life.

I was running alone, but, I had my supporters cheering me on