My local running group

In my last blog post I spoke of the role that libraries have played in my mental health journey. I identified visiting my local library as one of the key aspects of my life that I was missing during the pandemic. I’m happy to say that the library has reopened this week, albeit under modified conditions. Yes!

Whilst the importance of libraries may not have resonated with many people I am confident that today’s topic will prove somewhat more relatable.

Early morning exercise

Early morning exercise is something that I have only discovered in the last decade or so but, in that time, it has become crucial in my ongoing battle with mental illness.

The benefits of exercise, specifically in terms of managing depression, are well documented. Dopamine production, the externalisation of stress and anxiety, and the link between physical fitness and emotional resilience/equanimity, are just the tip of the iceberg.

As an adjunct, the old adage “early to bed, early to rise” should not be overlooked. Early morning, for me, is the most beautiful part of the day. Time seems to move slower as the darkness gradually turns to light. The birds begin to sing as dawn heralds opportunity, redemption and hope.

For me, early morning exercise is a vital tool in dealing with depression.

For many of us, if we don’t get that dopamine fix first thing each day, the wall that holds back the black tide begins to shift. As depressive episodes increase in frequency and duration we lose motivation to exercise, and a dangerous spiral pattern emerges.

During isolation I, like many of you, have managed to maintain my passion for long distance running. In fact, I have increased my weekly kilometres due to the closure of swimming pools, gymnasiums, yoga centres and other institutions of physical exercise. But, for me, it is not just about getting up early and exercising. There is a third component to my morning exercise habit that is just as important to me:

Camaraderie

I am acutely aware that people who know me may very well wonder at this. No one could ever accuse me of being a people person or a social butterfly. I am a loner. I am socially awkward. I struggle to maintain friendships for any significant period of time. To many it may, in fact, appear that I actively avoid camaraderie.

What most of those people don’t know (with the exception of those who read my first blog and may have spotted a reference in there!) is that I have a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Consequently I have a skewed perspective on conventional social constructs such as friendship, love, and relationships. I am often labelled as anti-social, cynical and inconsistent in my social behaviours.

Therefore, the word camaraderie is carefully chosen.

What many of us in the BPD community crave is a safe halfway house of human contact. A group of like-minded people who are friendly, but not friends. A gathering where the actual coming together is secondary to another goal. A support blanket of people who you can talk to as little or as much as you like, depending on how you feel that day. A collection of people who come from all walks of life and who may only have that one thing in common which brings them together. Just the right level of connection and belonging, without any emotional investment.

This preference for camaraderie over friendship leads to some social behaviours that often confuse people. I’ll happily talk to a stranger on the train, enthusiastically strike up a conversation at the footy, or comfortably enter a voice chat on a discord server. The flip side of the coin is I have a phobia of answering the phone, I do “the phantom” at social gatherings (leave early without saying goodbye!) and almost never arrange to catch up with family and friends. Since the first set of examples usually involve people I will either never see again or have very limited contact with, and the second involves “people who know me”, I am often defined/labelled as anti-social, odd, or just plain rude.

I find my desired type of pseudo-connection largely through three particular interests of mine: Dungeons and Dragons, amateur theatre, and running. Which brings me to the importance of my local running group.

After several months of enforced hiatus, this week has seen a return, of sorts, of my local running group. The recent pandemic-induced pause in normal service is the first cessation in the group’s long history. Up until March 2020 Ballarat’s Tann Clan have run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning (with Saturdays thrown in for 9 months of the year), without fail, for over 40 years. They have met, in numbers ranging from 20 to 80 hardy souls, at Lake Wendouree at 6am in all weather conditions (more on that later!), to spend an hour or so sharing their passion for early morning running.

I say a return “of sorts” because, whilst we have not been physically running together, we have been able to use a well known fitness app to maintain a virtual version of the running group throughout our isolation. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of a number of the groups’ luminaries we have been able to coordinate running routes, keep track of everyone’s progress, and share our individual efforts. It has been fascinating seeing the routes and distances that some people have managed to log over the last three months or so.

Whilst the online banter is OK, nothing beats turning up to the clubhouse and seeing the familiar faces; even for someone like me. When the alarm goes off at 5:20am it’s significantly easier to get out of bed when you know that you are running with a group and not just on your own; especially now that winter has arrived here in the southern hemisphere.

As we trudged along this week, completing our first set of hill repeats for the year, the sense of familiarity and camaraderie was tangible. The usual shared grumblings of “whose idea was this?” and “don’t you love hill repeats?” are always tongue-in-cheek. This week, however, they were accompanied by an extra twinkle in the eye in acknowledgement of how much we have missed this particular routine in our lives.

All running groups would include, I think, their fair share of inspirational members. In our case, we have people in their 60s and 70s who run over 100km a week. We have runners who have overcome injury, disease, near-death experiences, trauma and great loss. Indeed six years ago my wife and I lost triplets shortly after their birth. It was a world shattering event, and a life threatening one for someone with my history of suicidal ideation.

Many people rely on the support of friends and family during such a time. For me, that doesn’t work so well. They may not know it, but it was the support of the Tann Clan that kept me safe during that dark time. The regularity and consistency. The “talk as much or as little as you want” idea. The motivation to get out of bed in the morning. The camaraderie.

Speaking of inspiration: our leader, Richard Tann, just turned 85. He still meets up with us at 6am each Clan day, come hell or high water, and rides his push-bike alongside the group for the duration of the run. I can only imagine that he had no idea, back in the 1970s, the local phenomenon he was initiating when he got together with a few mates for some regular runs. It’s impossible to measure the worth of the Tann Clan to the lives of so many for so long; and I’m sure the same would go for countless similar groups the world over.

Oh, and the weather comment I said I would come back to? We have a thing in Ballarat known as Richard’s Miracle. It never rains between 6am and 7am on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday in Ballarat, no matter what the conditions are like the night before or later that day. On Monday this week it ceased raining at 6 o’clock on the dot; something I have witnessed countless times in my 9 years with the group. Seriously …

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