Wednesday 18 July 2018

Sarah’s marathon efforts

Sarah Gardiner writes candidly about her battle with depression and anxiety and how SOSAD and three marathons brought out the best in her unquenchable spirit...

Sarah Gardiner with Carmel & Veronika from SOSAD
Sarah Gardiner with Carmel & Veronika from SOSAD

In early 2016, the penny dropped on something that had been with me for most of my life; I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

I had endured a particularly difficult time in the run up to this diagnosis, manifesting physically as a series of chest/throat/sinus infections. Although these were real illnesses, I almost revelled in the opportunity to have a legitimate reason to take to my bed for weeks at a time.

Over time, I came to realise that I wanted to hide away because something was off with my mental health.

So when, on one of my many visits to the local GP, my doctor told me depression and anxiety were the underlying factors affecting my overall health, I was relieved to finally call the thing by a name.

This diagnosis allowed me to map out a course of action to tackle this imbalance which had by then infiltrated my family life, my professional life, and even many daily interactions such as going to the shop. I would analyse everything endlessly as a form of self-torture.

I now know this is common to sufferers of anxiety but back then I would constantly second-guess myself - had I said the wrong thing or what did people really think of me.

Determined, but unsure where to turn for help, I decided to contact SOSAD to ask if they could recommend someone that I could talk to. They immediately invited me to come in to them, and although I had concerns about taking up their valuable time with my issues, they quickly put me at my ease and made me feel like I was just as deserving as anyone of their help.

Over several months with the help of my SOSAD counsellor I made great progress identifying the triggers which cause my depression and anxiety to flare up, and dealing with some unresolved issues from my past.

What I also learned in SOSAD was that they are providing a completely free service which relies on donations to keep the doors open, providing their lifesaving services.

I wanted to do something to give back so I arranged a fundraising gathering of friends in the run up to Christmas in 2016. At this, the inevitable questions about why I was supporting SOSAD gave me the opportunity to talk openly to my friends and family about my own mental health struggles.

This was cathartic for me, but also acted as a catalyst for several people to disclose their own mental health issues to me.

I realised that openness and honesty on my part opened the door for other people to respond in kind. Piecing together these two things and SOSAD's need for funding I decided to set myself a fundraising challenge for 2017. The only question was, what would I do that would really take me out of my comfort zone, and also encourage others to sponsor me?

In Dunleer, where I live, marathon running is not considered unusual. Thanks to Team Carrie, which had been established by David and Aileen Carrie in 2010 to help people achieve their dream of running a marathon, practically the whole village has run a marathon or several! I had also joined Team Carrie in 2013 and gone on to run 3 Dublin Marathons.

It was natural to think about running for my challenge. But with so many marathon runners in the area, running one marathon would not cut it! I needed to think bigger, and then I thought, what about 3 marathons, in 1 month!

I didn't know if it was crazy or impossible for a casual jogger like me to complete a challenge of this magnitude, so I enlisted the help of David Carrie. As a man with a fondness for numerical significance, David immediately liked the idea that I had run 3 marathons in the past, now I would run 3 in 1 month. He assured me that if I approached it in the right way, I could do it. That was it, I had found my challenge! I signed up for Cologne, Amsterdam and Dublin Marathons on the 1st, 15thand 29th October.

As the owner of a marketing company, I am very aware of the power of social media to engage with an audience.

I decided to set up a public Facebook page to allow anyone who was interested to follow my journey. On this page, as well as sweaty-faced training updates, I started to post very honest accounts of my own struggles with mental health. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Some of my video posts were viewed thousands of times, often by people I did not know. For me, this was progress. I was sharing some of my most intimate thoughts with an audience, and in so doing, I was tackling my anxiety head-on.

I was greatly encouraged by the fantastic support I got in return. So many people approached me directly to share how my videos had resonated with them, and others disclosed their own mental health struggles to me and asked for advice on how to begin dealing with them.

In the thousands of views, and tens of thousands of comments, I did not get one single negative response. I was so encouraged by this positivity that I was sure I had chosen the right path. All I had to do now was run the 3 marathons!

I signed up for Cologne, Amsterdam and Dublin Marathons on the 1st, 15th& 29th October. I had never before run a marathon other than Dublin so the whole experience of going away to run was new and somewhat anxiety-inducing.

Cologne was the first and it was almost like a home marathon, my cousin lives in Cologne and along with my husband Will and 5 year old son Liam, we stayed at her house and enjoy all the comforts of home.

Race day was bright and dry, with sunshine and the warm weather promised. I was filled with nervous energy and welcomed the starter's pistol.

The training was done, the wait was over, now it was time to go out and do it. Everything went great in Cologne. My family support were popped up all over the course and Liam's smiling face helped to keep me motivated when the going got tough, which it inevitably does in a marathon! He even ran across the finish line with me, a memory I will always treasure. He even got his own medal! So, with not 1 but 2 marathon medals between us, we headed back home to prepare for the next marathon, Amsterdam.

Now I was in uncharted territory. After previous Dublin Marathons I could put my feet up for weeks, or even months.

Not so this time. I had to run again that week to keep my legs from thinking their work was done! I felt good after Cologne, and if anything I did too much in that first week.

It caught up with me in the second week and I really had to rest as much as possible. I posted some videos to my Facebook page and fed off the support which flowed back to me. No turning back number 2 was looming.

Amsterdam was very tough. It was a very hot day for mid-October with temperatures around 23 degrees and I really felt the heat.

I also felt the effects of the previous marathon, the travel, and all the little things which can become big things when you are running a marathon.

Thankfully my husband was able to cycle alongside me for a long stretch of the route by the Amstel River. This was a distraction from my thoughts and a source of encouragement at a time when I really needed it.

The last 10km in particular were very difficult, a wardrobe malfunction nearly did me in but the thought of the video update I would do that evening, the donations and moral support I had received kept me putting one foot in front of the other until eventually I managed to cross the line and pick up my medal.

It was a massive mental battle and I'm glad to say I didn't give up. Something I hadn't expected to be worry about was Hurricane Ophelia! Ireland had gone into virtual lock-down whilst I was trudging around Amsterdam and our flight home had been cancelled. After a very tough marathon, all I wanted was home.

We managed to get re-booked on another flight and through the skill of the pilot and we managed to land in Dublin the next day before the airport suspended operations. I was so glad to get into my own bed that night! With one marathon to go, I was into the business end of the challenge.

This was it; the final hurdle was in sight.

I was back with Team Carrie, whose training program had been geared towards this day since May. They were ready, I was ready. Donations were flooding in for SOSAD, people were viewing and sharing my story, I was receiving countless messages of support. Nothing was going to stop me from completing this challenge.

I went with the Team Carrie bus early in the morning. 110 brave souls heading to tackle the Dublin Marathon. "It's all in your head" is one of David's mottos when it comes to marathon running. He's right, of course. If you let the negative thoughts get on top of you, it can really impact on your performance and enjoyment. I had learned this the hard way in Amsterdam so I went into Dublin with my head screwed on and my wits about me. I would enjoy this. I deserved to enjoy this last part of my epic challenge.

I had an awesome day in Dublin on 29th October.

Sometimes I ran with my Team Carrie team mates, sometimes with strangers I met, sometimes on my own. Always I ran with a smile though. I had this and I knew I would do it. But I couldn't let myself celebrate until I reached the finish line, however once I saw it, I could let myself savour the moment.

My family were on the home straight with my 2 medals from Cologne and Amsterdam and I collected those on my way past. Then several of my Team Carrie friends who were at the finish area came out to run the a few metres with me before letting me have my moment of glory.

Clutching my 2 medals, looking to the sky with tears in my eyes I realised that I'd done it - 3 marathons, 3 countries, 1 month!

At the final tally, the fundraising total came in at an amazing €6,185!

The support, both moral and in sponsorship, has been incredible. I never cease to be amazed by the generosity of Irish people when presented with an opportunity to support a good cause and SOSAD is a great cause.

They are working tirelessly to help people struggling with mental health issues and are genuinely saving lives. It has been my pleasure to give something back to them after all that they have done for me.

This challenge brought me out of my comfort zone both physically and mentally and ultimately I found it so rewarding.

If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to someone, you are never alone. If you don't think you can talk to people in your life, talk to SOSAD.

Drogheda Independent