Running a Half Marathon – The Dyspraxic Way

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In October, I decided that I was going to run a half marathon for cancer research. This was an ambitious challenge for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I was pretty unfit. Although I started university with good intentions, joining the netball team (I will never get the hang of the drills) and attending Rock climbing sessions, my incredibly busy life always got in the way. Added to this were the inevitable dyspraxic obstacles, like forgetting my equipment, double booking myself for match times, and being too behind on work to make the time. In sixth form this was less of an issue, as I had to walk at least half a mile (up a very steep hill) everyday to get to school. In secondary school I had compulsary PE, which, although I faintly dreaded some parts of it, did mean that I maintained a basic level of fitness. As it stood in my third year of university, I found myself unable to run a quarter of a mile without stopping, let alone 52.4 times that! I suppose that is one of the reasons I signed up, to scare myself into exercising, but it ended up having a bigger effect on me than just my fitness levels.

Another challenge I faced was my muscle tone. Although this is partially due to my lack of exercise over the past year or so, I’m quite sure its also due to the fact that I have developed a slightly ‘special’ way of moving my body due to my co-ordination difficulties. My knees tend to point inwards when I run, and aside from this are dodgy at the best of times because I have patella that tend to dislocate (don’t google image that). I lost all the muscles in my right leg after being in a cast for around a month last year, after my knee broke when I dislocated it slipping on ice. This meant that even as my fitness improved, muscle pain stopped me from achieving my best.

This is all sounding a bit negative, so I’ll weave in some positives here: I knew that running would be great for my mental health as I transitioned to living without antidepressants. I far prefer individual exercise to group exercise, and running is so easy to do (all you need as a beginner are trainers and somewhere to run) that I found it a good form of exercise to fit into my routine.

As someone who struggles without instant gratification however, running proved an exceptional challenge. I live for ‘easy wins’ – feeling a sense of achievement without really having to try that hard. Running did not provide this. Each training session was gruelling, and I often complained that I wasnt getting any better, when really my fitness improved quite drastically. Somewhere towards the end of my training, I noticed that everyday things (especially for perenially late dyspraxics) like running for a train or to an appointment were a lot easier, and that this must have been because of my training. I had always previously consigned myself to the fact that running wasn’t something I would ever be able to do, but mile by mile, shallow breath by shallow breath, I proved myself wrong.

Motivation was another thing I had always thought I didn’t really have, yet when I look back, the fact that I trained at least twice a week for a good three months (admittedly, training in December just didn’t happen) is super impressive for me. Despite feeling I wasnt improving, there’s something – perhaps slightly smug I’ll admit – really rewarding about getting back from a run, no matter how far you went.

As it stands though, I only managed to work my way up to running 6 miles on a run before the event, and I did underestimate how much training would be neccessary. When the day came, I was terrified, but excited. The first 3 miles were ok – many people passed me, but I was happy at my relaxed jogging pace, knowing it would set me up to be able to run for as long as possible. Mile 5 was the worst. I was evidently struggling a little, and people tried to encourage me by telling me ‘my nans would be really proud’ (on the back of my shirt I’d written that I was running in celebration of them – one who fought cancer amazingly for over 5 years, the other who is fighting it now -although this was a lovely sentiment, it sent me into emotional breakdown, and I suddenly found myself unable to breathe. I stopped, and practiced deep breathing, with the help of a few other runners who helped me by squeezing my hand and giving me kind words – including the 2hr 30 minutes pacing man, which I’ll admit was a little depressing as he sped into the distance. Luckily, it couldnt really get worse after that, and in fact I ended up getting into the rythm of it and beginning to enjoy myself in the strangest way. I was in so much pain, but I simultaneously felt so invincible and awesome. All the lovely spectators were amazing, cheering us all on, and there was an amazing community feel amongst all the runners (I think this is especially strong in the back section of the runners, because you know everyone is in just as much pain as you). This faded, and I got myself through the rest by singing inspiring songs to myself in my head as a distraction, and trying to name all 9 RuPaul’s Drag Race winners.

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The last 2 miles were ran on pure determination, and seeing my friends at the end gave me the determination to somehow sprint to the finish line, which really did feel amazing. I finished the race in 2 hours, 58 minutes and raised £370 for Cancer Research! (You can still donate here if you fancy it https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ellie-williams18 ) The most frustrating thing was that I was never really out of breath, and it was my muscles that meant I couldn’t run the whole thing. Hopefully with a bit of physio and weight training, I can change this, and I’m hoping to finish my next one in 2 hours 30 minutes if possible!

I think what this story goes to show is that you can always surprise yourself. No matter what it is, us dyspraxics can achieve pretty cool things when we set our minds to it, and can defy all expectation that our condition may create for us. If any of you are considering a half marathon, I would say absolutely go for it, but maybe appreciate a little more than I did the challenge involved in a Half Marathon. Even if you don’t, and end up *slightly* under trained like I was though, know that your determination and willpower CAN pull you through. This is something after all, that it seems that many dyspraxic people are great at – not giving up.

Overcoming Doubt and Doubters

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Spot the weird dyspraxic hand

As a child, a significant part of your identity is formed from what you are and aren’t good at.

“You’ve always been a brilliant reader”

“Ellie’s accident prone”

“You always did think outside of the box”

These evaluations help us to form an image of ourselves as the world sees us, and in turn helps us to understand ourselves as we are at the current minute. Positive proclamations may become some of our proudest attributes, the negatives our grounding shame. As someone with a minor specific learning difficulty, they become vital to constructing your defence against a world which refuses to recognise your existence, and your particular set of strengths and weaknesses.

When I began to consider the idea that my chaotic existence may indicate a profile of dyspraxia, my brain immediately shot back realities of my childhood that destabilised my self diagnosis: But you’ve always behaved well in class. you were one of the top readers as a child. If you’re dyspraxic, then how could you have reached university without it affecting you. You’ve got it better than so many other people your age, so why does it even matter?

Looking past these quick assumptions, it had lay there all along, between the lines which I’d learned to understand myself: I always behaved in class, but was constantly chastised for my handwriting, rarely answered questions both from shyness and from failing to process the question in time, and developed excellent bullsh*tting skills from last minute homework and excuses. I was one of the top readers, but dreaded reading out loud and skipped sentences, paragraphs and indeed pages of the books I was reading – often without noticing. I reached university, but my organisational challenges contributed to the rapid decline of my mental health. I do have it better than so many other people my age, but these things matter because I deserve help and understanding.

Self-doubt is an easy quality to build when your existence is characterised by small disappointments. A dropped ball at a key moment of a team sport (or indeed, the one time you do successfully dribble the ball, dribbling it the wrong way), forgetting the project you spent hours completing, getting lost, being late, losing your prized possessions. Self-doubt is an easy quality to build when people capitalise on your failures to make themselves look superior. When your ‘friends’ in primary school learn that the best way to humiliate you is to run away, because any attempt to catch them up will doubtless result in embarrassment or injury. It’s an easy quality to build when you are constantly being told that if you tried just that little bit harder, got your head out of the clouds and prepared yourself for the real world, everything would be fine and you would stop being such an inconvenience to people.

This all sounds quite dramatic, and it is important to mention that those telling you to get yourself sorted out are the ones fighting in your corner, the ones who want to see you succeed. Most of what people tell you comes from a place of hope and compassion, even if it is masked in frustration, and it is often the receiver who distorts their words into a reflection upon their self worth. Still, it is clear to see how one can foster a less than excellent sense of self worth, which can impact on their belief in a diagnosis, especially when their expression of a disability is atypical. Unlike other specific learning difficulties, the realities of Dyspraxia are little understood. Although conditions such as autism and dyslexia come with a whole different set of preconceptions and stereotypes – Big Bang Theory, I’m looking at you – the specific issue for dyspraxic people is that so few people have even a basic awareness of what the condition entails. My computer’s spell check doesn’t even acknowledge that ‘Dyspraxic’ is even a word.

My own self-doubt was overcome mainly by my excellent disability mentor, as well as various online groups which I began to access around half a year after my official diagnosis, when I decided to look for others who shared my experiences. Confidence is the best defence. After being given specific advice about how to organise my life through mentoring, I realised the challenges I faced and learnt how to evaluate my successes and failures to overcome these challenges. Through groups, I learned that my experience was real and valid. This culminated in me having the confidence to tell people about my Dyspraxia when the difficulties it caused me became especially prominent, to ask for arrangemets in academia and work, to get the support that I need and deserve.

It should go without saying that if you are Dyspraxic, you can do amazing things. You are brilliant at thinking outside the lines, and you can make adjustments that ensure that you are not held back. The key is having the confidence to ask for what you need. Just because certain parts of your story aren’t in keeping with stereotypical diagnostic features, it doesn’t mean that the wider narrative doesn’t indicate towards your issue. Just because your wider narrative makes life difficult sometimes, that doesn’t mean you can’t be awesome. Just because people may not have heard of Dyspraxia, doesn’t mean its not an important part of you that deserves to be addressed and accounted for.