Depression: a triathlete’s experience

Every year a quarter of us will suffer from a mental health problem, including sports men and women. Our columnist Tim Heming shares his experience

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One-in-four of us will experience a mental health problem this year and despite their energetic lifestyles sports people are not immune. Yet while boxer Frank Bruno, cricketer Marcus Trescothick and double Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Dame Kelly Holmes have all publicly shared their battles with depression, the subject can still be taboo.

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In 2016 our columnist Tim Heming shared his experience in a powerful piece, which has resonated again and again with our readers.

Five years later, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, he provides an update;

“This was a piece I wrote that was originally published in 2016. It resonated with readers and 220 Triathlon have since posted it a few times to help raise awareness and also try to spread a positive message that if you are experiencing poor mental health, it’s ok to reach out, and that it will change. 

“While there isn’t the professional support available that there should be, there is – thankfully – a lot less stigma around experiencing depression or poor mental health now. At the time I wrote this, I had a breakdown, or nervous breakdown. That still feels harder to say than it should, which I think is partly because while it matters a lot less what others think of me, I don’t want it to define how I self-identity. It’s the tricky balance of accepting there is an issue, without beating yourself up that said condition is all you are.

“However, I can look at the evidence – one example of which is detailed in the piece below – and understand that it’s what happened and it’s what happens. Humans are complicated, we’re a mixed bag of emotions, feelings, reactions, contradictions. What makes us flawed is also what makes us interesting and interested.

“There are a few things I’ve learnt in the years since, and please caveat that I’m incredibly wary of issuing any advice. The first is that simple, positive habits help. Don’t look for cures. Just take some fresh air, some exercise, some companionship and ask yourself: ‘Did I feel a little better after that?’ If so, do it again, and yet don’t dwell too much on the ‘why’. The second was that when someone is really struggling, in the fiercest grip of a depressive episode, then just be there for them, and keep being there for them, even if they push you away. That saves lives.”

Tim’s original 2016 piece

Given the multifarious world of triathlon, one would think I’d have plenty to write about. But I’m struggling for anything of note, which, given my role as columnist for Britain’s premier triathlon publication smacks rather of ineptitude.

Upfront I should apologise. And having done so, and for want of filing anything at all, I will provide a candid explanation on the one aspect of life that has not so much held my interest, but engulfed almost every waking moment – and one for which no amount of swimming, biking or running can offer total reprieve.

With hindsight the warning signs were there, but on an unexceptional Sunday in March, I woke at 2.30am immured with negative thoughts served with the subtlety of a blowtorch. At 6.30am, stood on the cold tiling of my kitchen floor, I phoned the Samaritans with trembling tones that left the kind-hearted volunteer powerless to formulate any sense from my flawed incoherence.

Twenty minutes later, clinging to nothing more than routine, I slipped from the house, a sleep-deprived shell wrapped to the hilt to ward off the cold to meet the clutch of local club runners who jog out on a Sunday morning. It is typically the most social run of the week.

If I look, in writing this, to my Garmin, I see we completed 16.2 miles at 6.55min/mile pace. I scarcely uttered a word. The mornings, always the wretched mornings, would deteriorate from here.

Clinical depression is the most pernicious and amorphous of foes. As triathletes we pride ourselves in running away from the opposition, putting time and distance between ourselves and our competitors. Unfortunately, it’s a little more difficult to outrun your own mind. Depression proves such an adversary that even the decision to hand it a label feels an agonising predicament: I’m learning that only with recognition can it be addressed, yet accepting it further fuels the fear of its parasitic advances.

Isn’t all this a little histrionic? It certainly seems so in lighter moments spent with friends or family in the early evenings, when it can be dismissed as the melodramatic laments of a weak-willed persona. Sadly, it’s all too real when awakening in the early hours to torturing ravages of regret played on a loop as cortisol courses the veins.

The scale of introspection it brings also provides a crippling denouement to any creative thought and make attempts to write on other topics nigh on impossible. This tunnel vision is partly why  I have laid myself bare, but I also wanted to draw attention to a silver lining of hope: I am not on my own. It’s estimated up to one in 10 people suffer from mixed anxiety and depression –  not discriminated by gender, colour nor creed – and importantly, the majority come through it, if not physically unscathed, often emotionally enriched with an improved zest for life.

I doubt also that my individual tale is atypical of many readers: male, middle-aged and time poor, with a default setting to shrug away waves of melancholy with pig-headed stoicism, until one day work becomes too much, or a relationship breaks down, or life simply overwhelms. It all seems so horribly cliched, but then cliches are often rooted in the banality of truth.

Doesn’t endurance sport offer respite from the depressed mind; a surge of endorphins to overcome the blues?

In truth it is mixed blessings. Triathletes can have a tendency to race (or in my case, mainly commute) through life in isolation, and solo pursuits – despite the aerobic benefits – do not always exorcise gremlins of the mind. In my experience, too much head space can be as detrimental as too little.

Thankfully, taking responsibility is also a trait synonymous with triathletes, and being brave enough to put a hand up to say ‘I’m drowning, I need help,’ is a lot less traumatic if your head is still above the water. Much is written of the benefits of camaraderie in our sport. I’ve always known its value lay in far more than reduced race splits and bragging rights, but it is really only now that I see its true visceral qualities.  It’s a hard lesson to learn that putting on a brave face when you’re not ok, is not always ok, but be the demands work, family or something else, I’d urge anyone feeling life is derailing to reach out and address their concerns not just on a practical but emotional level – however alien and belittling it initially feels. As with an early morning training session when you’d rather be in bed, everything becomes easier after taking that first step.

As for my own future. For now, it is unclear, but my enforced belief is that sport will aid me through this process. There is no pretense any more that I can literally run from depression – I’ve learnt the futility in that – but exercise will remain a chief weapon in the armoury, along with medication and therapy, music, meditation and massage, sunlight and travel, friends and family, reading, writing and open discussion.

The one other thing that the endurance world has taught me is that when you stand in the foothills of the mountains, no matter how daunting the path ahead, nor how ponderous the strides you take, simply put one foot in front of the other and eventually, and triumphantly, you will reach the summit.

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For more information and advice on depression or any other mental health issues please visit www.mind.org.uk