It Happened To Me: Heavy Periods Didn’t Stop Me Running An Ultra Marathon
“I first started running when I was about eight years old. My Dad used to run half marathons and on a Sunday he’d go for his long run in the morning and get me to join him afterwards for a slow, cool down run, which would be a couple of miles. I then moved to a school that was really into athletics so I started regularly running middle distances competitively. I had a natural talent for running.
“As I got a bit older though, I started having anxiety attacks and I stopped racing. I didn’t have any confidence in myself and it got to the point where I just couldn’t do it – my throat would close up even at the thought of competing. I took the easy way out and just quit. My mum and dad even took me out of mainstream school because my anxiety got that bad.
“I did continue to run on my own though just as a hobby, and throughout my teens would jog around the block as a way to clear my head. Running has always been a kind of therapy for me.
“I had my two children young – at 21 and 23 – and although I didn’t run after having my eldest, Charlotte, after Alexa I picked it up again.
The running bug
“Neither of my girls were very good sleepers when they were tiny, they wouldn’t settle in the day, so I bought a double running buggy and would go out with it and run for ages. I loved it. I didn’t have a Garmin back then or track my times, I’d just run and run. One day a friend asked me where I’d run and when I showed her my route she said, ‘Debs, you’re regularly running about 11 miles pushing a baby and a toddler, why don’t you sign up for some proper races?’ So I did.
“I signed up for my first half marathon and quickly fell in love with running longer distances. I still had a bit of anxiety about racing but nowhere near what I used to experience. My husband helped me deal with it over the years and I think getting a bit older and having kids helped too.
“Once you start running you get hooked so I got several half marathons under my belt and then joined my local running club. There I met Valeria who represented Argentina for ultra marathons, and she inspired me so much, I just thought, “wow, this chick is amazing.” It was her that talked me into doing my first marathon, and I did three of them in total before I went for the big distance of the ultra marathon, which is 53 miles.
“I hadn’t seriously considered doing an ultra marathon until my dad got diagnosed with progressive, supranuclear palsy, which is a really rare brain disease. It’s un-curable and it’s been awful. While there’s nothing that can be done for him medically, there is an amazing charity that supports my dad and my mum too as they’re dealing with it. I thought it would be amazing to do something beyond a regular marathon that could raise both money and awareness for the charity.
“I had done my first marathon without a training plan and it was a disaster. So after that, Val trained me for my next two marathons and then did my plan for the ultra marathon and mentored me through it.
“She’s such a good coach and I’m a real geek so followed my plan to an absolute tee. Because of this, in the ultra I ended up coming 7th in my age category, which was brilliant.
“The training was a massive commitment – for my marathons it wasn’t too bad, you’d do long runs on a Sunday and fit the other shorter runs in during the week without much difficulty. But with the ultra marathon, the training can be four-hour runs back to back, day after day. Luckily my daughters are at school and my husband is awesome so at weekend he’d encourage me to go out while he spent time with the girls. It helps too that my job as a commercial model is flexible and I don’t work a set 9-5. On heavy training weeks I’d just tell my agent that I wouldn’t be available to keep my time free. It wasn’t unusual though for me to be getting up at 5am to fit in all the training runs. When the alarm went off I would think ‘oh god, not again,’ but once I got up and running it was fine.
“I also had to be strict about staying on the healthy wagon. If I drank too much or ate crap, I’d really feel dreadful and just not have the energy to run. During an ultra race, you have to continue to take enough calories in otherwise your body just stops. You’ve got to be really aware of how much food and water you’re having. You have to be really careful during the run up that you eat the right foods, especially because my digestion system is up and down. By mile 33 I hit a wall, but I took on load of calories, had coca cola and little shots of energy. If you put in your training though and eat the right food, physically it’s all generally ok. I’d say the most challenging thing was staying strong mentally.
“In the ultra, there was a point at mile 20 when I was on a really steep hill, which was just impossible to run. I was half way up and just thought, “I’m not even half way, I’ve got another 33 miles to go.” I really questioned whether I could finish it. I had to focus on my girls as I wanted to be a good role model to them and show them that if you set your mind to something you can achieve anything. I kept thinking of my dad too who was waiting at the end. What he was going through was far harder than me just running. Mental strength is so much harder to harness than physical strength. But again, that’s something that’s got easier with age.
“My confidence has grown by putting myself in situations that initially might feel uncomfortable. Entering races were a problem when I was growing up, I had massive anxiety about being in crowds. So for me to be able to be in a marathon start pen was a big deal. Putting myself thought that and proving to myself that I could do it has really helped build my mental confidence and know that I can overcome my fears. I didn’t consider quitting at any point. I gave up on too many things when I was younger – unless I broke my leg or something nothing was going to stop me. Although my periods tried!
“I’ve suffered with really heavy bleeding since I started my periods. They were debilitating. Heavy, crampy and just horrible. On the first days of my period I struggle to get out of bed.
“When I ran my first marathon, I wasn’t even due on, but at mile eight my period came. I completely flooded everywhere while I was running, it was awful. Thank goodness for this incredible anonymous woman who was at the sidelines. She saw the disaster that had happened. She gave me sanitary pads, wipes and painkillers so I could clean myself up in public loo and carry on.
“I continued running but I didn’t feel right, my fingernails were going blue and I started to get pin and needles in the top of my head – then at mile 21 I actually blacked out. When I came round a woman from St John’s Ambulance said, “I really think you need to stop now.” But I was so close to the finish line I didn’t want to, I thought I have five miles – I’ve got this! I had some Lucozade, a mars and finished. I didn’t want to give up.
“When I did my next marathon, my period came the day before so I was at least prepared for it, but I still felt week and crappy. Afterwards I had my iron levels checked and it turns out I was anemic from my heavy periods. Then they sent me for scans and found fibroids and cysts on my ovaries too which explains the ridiculous pain I was in. The doctors are going to monitor me now to make sure they don’t get any bigger or worse.
“What’s really made a difference though is I now use a menstrual cup rather than tampons. They’ve revolutionized my periods. On very heavy days, I still need to wear a pad too but no matter what absorbancy tampons are, I’d just flood through them but the cup can hold way such more. So many people are grossed out by them but I think they’re amazing. Even for my job – I’m not a lingerie model, or swimwear model – but I do often play a mum in an advert where I may have to be in a pool in a swimsuit. If I have a job like that and I’ve got my period it can be touch and go what happens. With the mooncup as long as I can go to the loo every hour and sort myself out there’s no accidents.
Never give up
“Sticking to a really strict Paleo diet, not having dairy and not drinking alcohol has also made a big difference to my periods. I’d also started taking turmeric supplements because they are anti-flammatory, so good for running but also helps with period pain. I’ve tried the implant and the pill but the hormones brings on my anxiety so I have to try and control my periods naturally the best I can. I find that running does help my cycle, when I’m not doing as much exercise my periods are definitely worse.
“Finally after years of anxiety I’ve got confidence so I’m not going to let being a woman or having these period issues stop me running, because it’s really what I want to do.
“When I crossed the finish line of my ultra marathon I was so emotional. It was really overwhelming seeing my family there supporting me. It didn’t sink into until afterwards though what I’d done. I was looking through my Garmin and thought “I ran for over nine hours straight!” After the years I’d spent doubting myself and having negative thoughts, being able to overcome that was such a good feeling.”
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