Curled up in a ball, arms squeezing my stomach, stamping my feet on the floor like a toddler in a supermarket, trying not to shout: this was not the most promising start to my long run. Less than a mile in, and I was all set to turn around and go home. This might sound familiar to a lot of people, maybe moreso to women. Let me tell you about how, last week, I had a lightbulb moment about letting go of the outcome.
My Little Friend is something of a paradox. On the one hand, she lets me know I’m healthy, everything is functioning well and I’m not overdoing things. On the other hand, she really enjoys stabbing me repeatedly in the womb for a couple of days every month and making feel as unstable as a fully laden table with three legs. I’m talking, of course, about my period. I call it My Little Friend to put a pleasant spin on it and to remind me to be grateful for it. Also, it’s a bit of an uncouth subject. We don’t talk about it because of what it is and what it has been taken to mean over time. I’m pretty sure most people are past the idea that it is a punishment for womans’ manipulative and weak nature, and I don’t think – at least in the developed world – women are locked away to prevent demonic behaviour erupting because of it. It’s just that, well, it’s a touch grim and embarrassing isn’t it? But, we really need to talk about it and how it affects us in our sport and in our daily lives. There are very few studies on it because it is so hard to do with much efficacy and reliability, which makes it difficult to understand ourselves, let alone to try and explain how much it can impact our physical and emotional equilibrium.
For me, the week or so before is worse. I get foggy brained, clumsy and emotional. I feel weak and heavy, and training is hard. Every little thing feels like a chore and this pervasive sense of uselessness makes me even more likely to bawl over forgetting to take the washing out of the machine. Last month, I even walked in front of a car, terrifying Jayson (who was more shaken than me – I didn’t even register what had happened) and ended in us both investing in ID tags for our watches. It would be funny if it weren’t so disconcerting. So I know that when this time rolls around, I can’t expect as much out of myself in terms of what I can lift in the gym, how fast I can do hill reps or how articulate I can be. There is even evidence that your training will not give you the same physiological gains during this time, so there’s even a question over whether you should attempt specific workouts.
Last week though, I was on day one of my cycle and had a four hour run to do, including a couple of harder efforts. I drove to Sutton Bank, picking up a sandwich on the way to have straight afterwards. I did my warm up lunges in the car park and headed out. After 0.7 miles, I was doubled over in pain, shivering despite the warm sun. Putting my jacket on, I sat on a bench nearby and curled up as my psycho little mate went to town on my insides with her Crocodile Dundee knife. A conversation with myself began:
‘You should just go home, this is ridiculous’.
‘But you need to do a long run. St Cuthbert’s Way is only a month away’.
‘How can you run when you can’t even stand up?!’
‘It’ll fade and you will get moving. Give it a minute’.
‘You bought your sandwich now! And you drove all the way here!’
‘Okay, I’ll just go for a walk. When I can stand up.’
So I resolved to do a four hour walk. I would have to walk at times in the race anyway. I just had to get up and go. The pain eased after a few minutes and I got moving again. My walk turned into a jog and, the further I got, the better I felt. I forgot about the four hours with efforts that was in the plan and just decided to go until I wanted to turn around. I walked when I felt like it and enjoyed having a mooch, even with some tides of pain. I managed 20 miles in well under 4 hours but that didn’t matter. When your body throws something at you, you have to pay attention otherwise it will knock you out. Compromise; let go of the outcome. Of course, you have to work hard to achieve a worthy goal, but you also have to be in the process and be ready to adapt. No amount of doggedly doing what is pencilled in, even when you hate it, or when it’s compromising your health, will make you a better athlete. Learning to listen to your own cues and working with them, not against them, will.
P.S. Ladies, when you are suffering with PMS or menstrual pain, give yourself a break. We all work around it but don’t allow it to make you think badly of yourself. You are not weak or stupid. It is real, it is legitimate, it is rubbish and it’s okay that it affects you. If you need to offload, it is okay to stamp and shout!