Rebecca Lees

Running Up That Hill?

Mike Walden

Nope, we don’t mean the slow, ascending painful type, more the uphill battles life can sometimes throw at us.

Writer, blogger and runner Rebecca Lees has faced a few battles in her time and explains how her joy of running has helped her navigate life’s challenges through loss, grief and menopause.

A solo marathon

For my 47th birthday last year, I ran a solo ultra marathon. My birthday’s in the darkest and, in this case, the coldest week of the year, as with four days to go, it snowed. I’m not a fast runner and I knew it would take all eight hours of available daylight, so I set off under a low sunrise and finished just as the sun was dipping out of sight once more.

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As I reached the trig at the highest point of a fastidiously-planned route, the wind whipped itself to -7C and froze my hydration pipe. Every step was absolutely magical.

Last year was one of loss, near-loss and menopause symptoms that rolled in from nowhere and kicked me in the face. I needed to gently let the year fade out under that glorious salmon sunset in the only way I know how; by putting on my trail shoes and heading to the hills. Running is my constant cornerstone and I will never take for granted that my body allows me to do it, seeking out the quiet places where I can breathe in nature and heal.

The benefits of running

We all know the physical benefits of running. It improves your heart and lung health, strengthens your joints and lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. It’s also effective at increasing bone density, which is essential for us menopausal and perimenopausal women at a higher risk of osteoporosis.

Running outdoors is also exceptionally good for mental health and resilience. Its quiet rhythm has consistently helped me pace my way through grief and anxiety, and this is proving especially true as I navigate the symptoms of menopause, which, for me, are far more of the mind than physical. Sure, I’ve had the odd hot flush and many a night sweat, but nothing prepared me for the swirling black thoughts and gripping fear that descended last year. Running is no magic pill for any of the above, but it’s a darn close second, and I’d recommend it to any woman working her way through her 40s and 50s.

Running gives you routine

Good planning is key to ensuring running success. Don’t wait until you ‘have time’ - you won’t - but plan three runs into your week in advance and work the chores and Love Island around them. Running can give you a really helpful structure when things seem a little out of control. Don’t put pressure on speed or distance, but focus instead on your session lasting a set time. Slowing down or walking for intervals is absolutely fine, just keep moving.

You’ll make friends (lots of them)

I think of myself as a fairly solitary runner, happiest alone on a hilly trail, but I was surprised recently to realise just how many of my friends now are runners. It’s literally impossible to not make friends at parkrun, which is free and welcoming, whilst there are all manner of running clubs, from road to trail and with plenty just for women. A good club will welcome runners of all abilities and will a) keep you safe and b) make sure you enjoy yourself. There should be a backmarker going at the pace of the slowest and runners should never get left behind, so if you don’t feel fast enough or good enough, remember it’s the club that’s getting it wrong, not you.

It’s safer than you think

We all read the headlines and there’s no question that many women simply don’t feel safe running alone, but there are many steps you can take to keep safe. Stick to well-lit streets or find out if there’s a running track in your area open to the public, which will be floodlit on darker evenings. Running with a buddy not only increases a sense of safety, but is also good for motivation (you’re less likely to bail!). Always wear reflective running kit and, if you must listen to a playlist, just pop in one headphone, not both.

Your body is very clever

Women are good at endurance sports such as running, so the theory goes, because our bodies are designed to keep going when the going gets tough (thank you, 36-hour labour). Your body will also tell you when it’s time to be kind to yourself. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to my body, treat it as my very best friend and not ignore the niggles and aches that tell me to ease up. Some women runners report experiencing more injuries during menopause, so it’s especially important to warm up and cool down, whilst yoga or foam-rolling in between runs can also help.

Your race, your pace

Comparison really is the thief of joy, which is why I choose carefully who I follow on social media. The inspiring runners usually aren’t the most athletic or beautiful; they’re the middle-aged mammas making time, and the guys charting their slow and steady weight loss. Every time you feel like an imposter, remind yourself that you’re always faster and stronger than the person who chose to stay on the sofa eating all the crisps. Running really is the most life-affirming activity when done with the right mindset, so focus on your own achievements and enjoy them.

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