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.

Justifiably Clumsy: Late Diagnosis and Self Esteem

Clumsy, forgetful, useless… or Dyspraxic?

As a kid, it was sometimes joked that I should have an A&E Loyalty card. By the age of 11, I had totalled up around 4 broken bones, and had semi-permanent scraped knees. I only managed to learn left and right semi-properly, around the age of 10, because I had a scab on my right hand for about 2 months. I was, for all intents and purposes, ‘clumsy’ – as well as ‘shy’ and ‘fussy’.

As a quiet, and somewhat geeky, child, I did not have many of the key diagnostic features that may indicate a learning difficulty. I was never disruptive in class, I was in top sets, and I could read and write well. That said, while my sister could pore over books for hours, I found it far easier to read Harry Potter when listening to the tapes simultaneously, and was far more interested in Barbies than more practical tasks such as reading, writing or sport. Although I had a high vocabulary and reading age, my ability to actually read  books or chapters on my own was limited, and I increasingly noticed how hard I found it to read properly, and how long it took me.

There were more signs: my constantly-remarked-upon poor handwriting, inability to colour inside the lines and my frustration at maths which often resorted me to tears. The inability for permission slips to ever find their way home, let alone back to school; The host of forgotten homework and lost worksheets, and my inevitable lateness to pretty much everything. Most significant and distressing was my inability to read other people’s behaviour, and my tendency to repeat myself and to stumble my words. The general difficulty of social situations made me feel different and alone.

It wasn’t all bad. I was creative, and loved to make up weird and wacky stories. My clumsiness and disorganisation slowly became a part of my persona, my parents would jokily tell us not to ‘Ellie’ (hit on another car) the car door, and to do something clumsy or awkward was known affectionately in my group of friends in Sixth form as ‘doing a Williams’. That said, as a high achieving adult, the simultaneous inability to complete simple tasks such as turning up to meetings and remembering a name 5 seconds after it was said was disheartening and frustrating. I know that I am so lucky that my dyspraxia isn’t really severe, and that I’ve been supported and not held back by disability – but it has still caused me a lot of distress, most notably because for 20 years I thought I was just a bit useless.

My Dyspraxia only really became an issue in University, when life began to get busy and challenging. Amidst a backdrop of poor mental health and struggles making friends, my constant losing things, getting lost, missing appointments, and generally living a very chaotic life all fed into my internal monologue that insisted that I was clumsy, careless and useless. I am lucky that it was only at this point, in a highly pressurised university setting, that my difficulties reached breaking point, and I began to look for answers.

It sounds cheesy, but my diagnosis was really life changing. Not only was it a massive comfort that I was not, in fact, a crap human being, but also it gave me the kick up the arse I needed to start making changes in my life. Whenever I lost things or missed something, I didn’t resort back to old patterns of self-pity and hatred, but instead acknowledged that this is a legitimate difficulty that I face and that I can put strategies in place to overcome it. It is one of the worst things about Dyspraxia that it so often comes across as simple incompetence, yet once I learned why I struggled in the ways I did, I was not afraid to tell this to people giving me a hard time, and to demand the reasonable adjustments that would put me on a level playing field with other students.

This came with a constant sense of self doubt, and internalised shame. I sometimes felt that I really was a ‘special snowflake’, who had found this diagnosis to absolve me of responsibility, and that I didn’t struggle ‘enough’ to be ‘really’ dyspraxic. When speaking to an old friend about it, he told me that ‘you are without a doubt one of the most dyspraxic people I’ve ever met’ – it is amazing how much comfort that this gave me.

Characteristically, I have slightly lost the plot of where this post was headed. I suppose what I really want to stress is the importance of diagnosis, and the urgency of raised awareness. Dyspraxia is far less well-known than its close cousin dyslexia, despite the fact that around 1 in 10 people are said to experience it. The fact that it took me 20 years of feeling useless to be diagnosed, and that I was only able to get that diagnosis because my University paid for the test, is shocking – and I still experience discrimination in workplace and academic settings because of it, such as when my supervisors are ‘too busy’ to send me chapter recommendations. I can’t help but wonder whether they would take requests from students with other learning difficulties more seriously.

I hope this blog will be a useful compilation of coping mechanisms, validation and thoughts for all people who struggle with specific learning difficulties, or just want to find out a bit more about them. I love to write and I love helping people, and I want to create a space for Dyspraxic adults to find out how they can help themselves, and get help from others.

Clumsily yours,

Ellie x