For those who have followed my story this year know that it has been an amazing 6 months. From being selected for the Indigenous Marathon Project to completing my first marathon within 5 months of training. It has been an exhilarating 6 months meeting amazing people, running in the most beautiful places in the world and learning about myself along the way.
At the end of September I had earned my spot on the New York Marathon squad, I was filled with excitement and was on top of the world! I returned from the Alice Springs trial having accomplished something that I had worked so hard for. I was under no illusion that people dream of a ticket to the New York marathon and I was exuberant that my dedication and sacrifices had paid off. But as the saying goes: ‘what goes up, must come down’ and I fell back down to earth with a sickening thud. My depression had caught up with me, again.
The NY marathon team was announced on Sunday night and Monday I was back at home in Katherine. After decades of fighting depression I know my signs and warning lights and I thought I had a handle on it (my depression) but, I had underestimated the situation and things got bad at lightning speed. On Monday I was focused and excited, by Thursday I was free falling into the abandoned well that I am too familiar with.
I refer to my depression as an abandoned well because that’s how I feel when I’m there. I can just glimpse the sunshine and the branches tilting in the wind outside- but I cannot feel the warmth of the sun or the breeze on my skin. I can also hear the conversations of people on the outside world- but to me I feel disconnected like I’m not included- just a third party listening in. My façade for the outside world was what they expected and what would be ideal for someone in my position. I feigned excitement and trepidation about travelling to the biggest city in the world but in truth I felt nothing, I was just numb to the core. I knew I was being robbed of one of the happiest times in my life, a feeling that I knew I would never be able to feel or replicate again- and knowing I was being robbed sunk me deeper and deeper into that hole.
The challenge after making the NY team was straight forward:
1. Recover from the 30km
2. Don’t get injured
3. Keep training for four weeks and then taper for one week.
‘Piece of cake’ I thought before my mind was polluted with self-hate. I had once loved running because of the mental clarity it gave me and I thought a good dose of endorphins would be the kick I needed. Ha!!! Underestimated the enemy again Allirra. If I thought I could win this war with some feel-good happy endorphins I was badly mistaken. I would set out for my easy 10kms and make it to 2km before exploding into tears.
That mental clarity I once craved was now a microscope for my brain to pick on me and state all my flaws. It was like running with a childhood friend who knew every mistake you made your entire life and then broadcasted it on a microphone. Every single step I made all I could hear was my bully taunting me and putting me down. I know it sounds crazy and it is exactly that- I was going crazy. Convinced that I was unworthy I hid my medals in drawers because I was certain that event organisers would discover I had fluked the event and would come to retrieve my medals. I even had the idea to bury them in the lawn but thought that the freshly turned soil would give the game away.
Yes things were bad. I shut myself away in my abandoned well and started a terrible fascination with people who were hurting like me. Instagram had all kinds of hashtags for how I was feeling. I’m not proud to say it- but I wasn’t alone anymore. I slipped farther and farther away from my loving family who tried in vain to get me back.
My husband (beautifully gifted with everything he tries his hand at) begged with me to join him in painting, building or creating something… I barked at him from the bottom of my well “Why the F would I want to make something when I effing hate everything. Give me something to break and I will join you”. The kids wanted me to jump on the trampoline with them but I just laid down in the room and cried, the sad looks in their eyes mirrored how I felt inside. My running was sporadic at best, recovery became non-existent, my OCD was out of control and I had become a terrible mum. I started doubling my antidepressant medication with the hope that things would get better because they surely couldn’t get any worse could they? Wrong yet again Allirra.
Life was bleak and I hated myself. I felt like a fraud and every time someone asked about my running (which of course was everyday) I felt myself sink deeper and deeper, so deep that I no longer wanted to live. Knowing I was no longer safe I stopped driving because it was likely that I would try and wrap my car around a tree or drive it under a road train. I wished that breathing wasn’t an automatic function because I simply just didn’t want to live anymore. Gutsy and suicidal I asked my husband to buy me a gun. Of course the first thing he said was “what about the kids?” but I was convinced by my polluted mind by then that they would be better off without me. His second reply was a very firm “no”.
When I asked him I was desperate, but now I was just angry. I wanted a sure fire way to make it happen, I didn’t want to have a half-baked attempt at it and spend the rest of my days handicapped in a home. Oh yeah I was cross at him and I started to resent him for not meeting my request. I was angry at him but I hated myself much more- I started cutting myself. Not in a way to try and suicide- but because I wanted to make myself as ugly as I felt. My husband caught me cutting myself in the kitchen once and his facial expression broke my heart even more. I did not know how I was going to make it out alive this time. I was trying so hard to get better but I wasn’t going anywhere.
The pressure on me to get better and prepared mentally for the marathon was buckling me. I struggled to run 3km without crying, how was I going to make it 42km? Every runner knows that the first 30km is physical and the last 12km is all mental strength. My brain was imbalanced and delusional. When oh when were things going to get better? At the depth of my depression my façade of a confident soon-to-be marathoner was very intact. Those close enough would have noticed the change, but for all those on the outside it was ‘Smile and wave’. I was so caught up in my paranoia and everyone being out to get me that it was hard baring myself and the struggles I was facing.
Things had hit rock bottom and my calendar was full of counselling, psychology and doctor’s appointments. The clock was ticking and I needed to get better, not just for the race but so that I would survive myself. Ten days out from the race there was a flash of gold in my abandoned well. Blink and you’d miss it- but a thought popped into my head ‘I wonder what foods and/or smoothies could assist with mental health?’ I googled it and discovered I was already eating them and felt defeated again, but, in hindsight it was a progression from self-hate to strategizing. The very next day I actually went 24 hours without wanting to die. The relief of not hating myself so much was indescribable. I wasn’t out of the hole yet- but I could see I was going to get out of there alive.
Just days before the marathon I was scraping myself out of that abandoned well with the help of my family, specialist, friends and team mates. There was no elevator out, it was slow and humiliating process dragging myself out. I was a mess when I saw my team in Sydney. My anxiety was through the roof, loud cars roaring past on the street terrified me. I was ‘odd’ and my OCD made some of our team building exercises torturous. I was still crying when I ran and would burst into tears during our taper runs together. Still feeling numb, if anyone asked if I was nervous I told them that I was “conserving my excitement and energy for the race”. Even days before departing Australia, my twisted brain pondered if my Sydney hotel balcony was high enough to jump off.
It was extremely hard leaving my support networks in Katherine and Australia but my big sister travelled with me to watch the race in NY. At the depths of my depression it was an excruciating burden; my sister had paid thousands to come and watch me and it put even more pressure on me to get better but as the depression was lifting, it was a relief knowing she would be there to help. I was still on the mend before the race. Taking my medication religiously to avoid any slip ups, I meditated with an app on my phone when I could and did homework my psychologist had set me. I was getting stronger and after a month of feeling nothing except sorrow, pain and despair I finally felt a new emotion: impatience. I wanted to run a marathon.
The morning of the race finally came and like most marathoners of course I got no sleep the night before. Staten Island (starting point) was freezing and the group huddled together for warmth in the hours before we lined up in the corrals. Laying in a huddle in our space blankets looking like potatoes wrapped in tin foil, I realised I finally didn’t recoil when people touched me. Only days before I couldn’t stand it. This discovery added to my relaxation before the race. I couldn’t undo time, I couldn’t go back and run all those missed training sessions. Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda had no space in my mind that morning- I just had to do what I had come all this way to do, and do the very best that I could.
Before I set out I had an ‘absolutely fantastic time’ in my mind, and then an ‘I’d be pretty happy with time’. Those were a sub 4, and 4 hours 15mins respectively. As soon as the team set off across the Staten Island Bridge the ferocious wind was pushing me sideways. I knew this wind would soon become a head wind on the course and that a sub4 was out of the question. It was so cold it took me 3km until my feet thawed and I could feel my toes, and for the first time in my life I got windburn. Kurt Fearnley described the 2014 NY marathon one of the hardest in his career, and I agree with him wholeheartedly! The man has crawled Kokoda- he knows what he’s talking about. It was an atrocious day but it didn’t break me.
During the race I didn’t hit a wall, but I hit hurdles every few kms after the 30km mark. I knew there were family and friends tracking my blip on the course and they got me through those hurdles. At times when things were tough and body parts cramping my brain told me “YOU wanted this Allirra. No one else made you do this, it’s all YOU. It’s here and the time is now. So take it”. This was a harsh tone to take with myself but I was back in control of my brain, not the other way around. Finally, I was the one playing mind games to get through the race. At 18 miles (29kms) I started to count the end of the race backwards but tricked my brain into believing they were kms not miles. So with 6 miles to go- I pretended it was 6km. Along the way I thought of my friends and family and also my silent friends on Instagram, the ones hurting inside. I thought of posting my medal picture with hashtags like #suicidal #selfhate #hatemyselfsobad and a note saying that I had conquered a marathon whilst depressed and for them to just imagine what they could achieve.
November 2nd I became the first Kungurrakan and Gurrindji person to run a marathon and I’m seriously thinking about having that on my tombstone. I finished the marathon as the first female from my squad at 4hours and 21minutes. I am glad it wasn’t an easy track because it’s going to allow me a good stab at beating my PB next marathon. I have started training again and I am still taking medication. I am managing my depression with the help of professionals, medication, relaxation techniques and just generally trying to be kinder to myself. People ask what I came in my age category but to me it’s not relevant. I finished and not even depression could stop me.
It has been really hard writing this recount because for the first time I have reflected on how bad things actually got. Writing this has made me feel sad again but it has also challenged me to stop the ‘Smile and wave’ façade. I hope that my honesty has not been too upsetting for anyone, and for those battling depression I hope that you will read this account and know that you too will be victorious in your war. It is unbelievably hard but there are people out there who know how you feel. They are wearing their brave faces too.
I will get my chance again at feeling the excitement and trepidation in the lead up to a marathon. Of course it’s not going to replace what I lost for my very first marathon- but I will feel that feeling one day soon. I will keep running and training and hopefully people will listen to my stories and share them with their friends. I hope that my story will help people dream of what can be accomplished even when times are hard. Don’t ever give up because:
The harder the struggle, the greater the reward.