Not long after I first started coaching other ultra runners I quickly realised that managing the mind was one of the major challenges in helping people to train consistently and to make good progress towards their goals.
Let’s not get confused here with the “performance” or “racing” mind, that’s a separate topic in many ways. I’m talking about the day to day challenges of getting out the door, to train, to work, to manage family life and everything else that we’re faced with week after week.
For many, running becomes the escape, the reflection time and space that’s needed to smooth the peaks and troughs that we all cycle through. But what happens when training doesn’t go so well? Or the pressure to perform only adds to self-doubt or unease about how life is panning out.
These things are real, and dig deeper than the inspirational Instagram posts, there are darker layers behind it. And worryingly, many feel that they’re alone in their thinking and no one else can help.
The main reason for attempting the Out & Back Pyllon Endeavour challenge was to start having these conversations. We hope that it might encourage people to be open and honest about how they feel and understand that it’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok, not to be ok. In fact, it’s normal and if you can share those thoughts and feelings, then it can be a good opportunity for growth - for the individual and for those they speak to.
Clearly, this is just my opinion, I’m no expert. I’m not trying to be. But I can pass on some of my experience through some of the amazing people I’ve worked with.
James MacKeddie kindly agreed to answer a few questions about some of the challenges he has faced over the years. Unusually, James has been relatively open about the role sport has played in times of depression and challenge, and he is in a good place to talk about it, as a ‘normal’ passionate guy who just loves running and the outdoors.
Q. James, can you give us some background about what you do from a work and sport life?
Well, when you put it on paper, it looks more than it feels. My main role is as a Brand Manager for the largest cycling distributor in the UK, managing the day to day running of several brands in the UK market, ranging and be their UK contact.
I’m also a freelance photographer and writer, working with several outdoor and running brands in the UK, in the way of reviews, news and features, as well as shooting races/events for brands such as inov-8 and Salomon – (www.jamesmackeddie.com)
I’m a volunteer social media administrator for Protect Our Winters UK, Sustainability Ambassador for Kendal Mountain Festival, Fringe Officer for Sheffield Adventure Film Festival.
Sporting wise, I predominantly run (coached by THE man, Paul Giblin), and ride trails (love a black trail) when I have some downtime. I’m getting more competitive, though you won’t be seeing me at the sharp end of a major race anytime soon. I came 6th at Maverick Races Original Somerset Long Course, 159th Sky Running World Championships (Salomon Ring of Steall Skyrace) and 10th The OMM Medium Score Course this year. Clearly, I pick my races based on length of title.
For trail running, I’m an ambassador for USWE, Lifesystems and Lifeventure.
Q. You’ve had some mental health challenges in the past, right?
I have. Some larger than others, some that are with me all the time. I’ve had major social anxiety, periods of depression, PTSD and some darker moments where I contemplated suicide regularly.
Q. And it’s not like a physical injury - fine one day, and not the next - more subtle than that?
I didn’t have a clue I had them. That’s the simple truth of the matter. It was only when the NSPCC offered me help when I was in my early 20’s that I became aware. My first counselling session started with these words from me “Do I need it? How do I know if I need it?”
The best way of describing it is, normal. It’s all you know or learnt to know. Certain habits become your standard mannerisms, coping mechanisms become set in stone, so much that those on the outside struggle to pick up on these subtle gradual changes. One day you are ready to conquer the world, the next, your world revolves around 4 walls, closed curtains and detachment from the outside. Given it’s not a physical injury, it’s hard to see it within yourself, even harder to accept.
Q. How have you changed things in your life to ensure you’re better equipped to deal with these challenges?
A long while back, my life ran very differently. I’d food shop at midnight, when the supermarket was empty, headphones in as I couldn’t face the stress of people or noise. Avoided looking anyone directly in the eye due to fear of the repercussions. I didn’t socialise.
I’ve learnt through time and years of counselling to recondition my senses and rewire my brain (to an extent) to accept these situations are non-threatening. You’ll be glad to hear I don’t shop in the early hours and do have something of a social life now.
I train first or last thing given the choice, when the streets and trails are quieter, where I can’t be judged and my mind can disconnect from the outside. It may also be why I enjoy long distance driving and cycling, unconscious decisions being made while having some quality me time.
Most of all, I know my limitations, know where I can challenge myself and know what to avoid. As with many of life’s challenges, the thought of it is worse than the outcome.
Q. And the consistent training - has that helped or does it bring more pressure?
Mmmmm, consistent training ;) Well, as you will know, I’m not your best athlete for achieving consistent training, but when I do, I feel 6ft tall (I’m 5ft 7”…). Not being consistent does add pressure, as I try to cram in training like badly timed exam preparation by the end of the week. I want all those boxes to flash up green. Clocking what I need does take a weight off my shoulders, but that was the reason for getting a coach. I struggled to stick to any plan on my own, and being accountable for someone else, not wanting to let them down aids with motivation.
Consistency gives my life a level of meaning and balance, moreover, achievement. Regardless of what happened at work on that given day or a side hustle, it means I have positively made a difference to my fitness, well being and hopefully put a smile on Paul’s face.
Q. What do you think about the word “depression”?
Depression is an interesting word. It has come to encapsulate so much and with that, I feel it has lost some of its meaning to a degree. Everyone is now depressed, and they could well be. However, the point I am trying to make is it has become used for feelings that may not be as severe, and therefore means some who are, may have their condition trivialised…
Can you tell I’m trying to tread carefully?
Q. What’s next for James?
Good question. One I am struggling with.
I have races I want to do, media opportunities opening up, brands getting on board and then I want to ride bikes, explore…. I should probably go to work at some point too.
Moving forward, I want to get fitter, stronger, become a more rounded athlete and keep my mind open to new opportunities. I’m keen to give back to the community – this year I marshalled, helped with a Bob Graham Recce, supported someone on a personal project and paced. I get as much from this as racing, so the future looks positive and varied.
………and a 2nd Pyllon Experience!
Q. Finally - one piece of advice you’d like to share that may have helped you many years ago?
Talk and Community.
These are two things that help.
Talking to anyone, unburdening yourself of all your concerns does wonders and the trail running and wider community are all going through similar experiences, either personally or through friends. You don’t need to approach a professional, find someone you feel safe and can confide in. These two acts result in something incredibly strong.
The realisation you are not alone.
Q. Oh……and will you be tracking the team on the 16th?
I will be at Kendal Mountain Festival with my media hat on, but I will be keeping any eye online at proceedings. If not I’d have made the 450 mile trip north to support you all!
Our 192-mile Pyllon Endeavour starts 16 November at 4pm
Get involved, by tracking us online, supporting us on the day, and / or by making a donation to SAMH. We’ve already reached our initial fund raising target, but we never expected so much support this early, so please help us reach over 150%!