Running For Her Life: Rachel Cullen interview
In this incredibly open and honest interview, Rachel shares some insights from her bestselling book “Running For My Life”.
I’m right in the middle of reading this, having heard and read some of Rachel’s story early 2018. I can’t recommend the book enough whether you’re a runner or not and particularly if you know someone or you yourself struggle with aspects of mental health.
I am a runner, a writer, a mother, and the author of “Running For My Life“. I am an ex-commercial litigation solicitor, and I currently work as a Project Manager in the charitable sector for half the week. I run and write* for the other half. *I’m currently writing the follow-up to RFML. I live in Halifax, West Yorkshire with my husband Gav, and our daughters Tilly and Ava. Amongst other things, I have climbed Mount Fuji, abseiled off Table Mountain, jumped out of a plane at 11,000 feet, worked on a Game Reserve in South Africa, qualified as a scuba diver, and ridden an ostrich. Most recently, Gav and I cycled 480km across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean in November 2017 for our honeymoon.
With regard to running, I have completed 8 full marathons in times ranging from 4hr 25 (my first ever marathon in 2011) to 3hr 16 mins. I am currently in training for the Boston Marathon in April. I have completed numerous half marathons and hundreds of other races across all distances (but no ultras… yet!)
Amazing! Can highly recommend you try an Ultra Rachel- incredible experience!
‘Running for my life’ suggests 2 questions:
1. What are you running from?
2. How has running saved your life?
Running has shown me that I am capable of so much more than I ever believed possible. Having suffered from low self-esteem and clinical depression as a teenager / young adult, running has enabled me to manage the bastard chimps rampaging in my head. Running has brought me self-belief, confidence, the most incredible life experiences, a sense of pride, and – quite simply – joy.
What can we do to raise awareness of mental health?
We can be honest about our own struggles, experiences and vulnerabilities, and be prepared to talk about those. I hid my own struggles for many years, and it did nothing to help either myself or others. So, in being prepared to lay those on the line, and discuss openly and honestly exactly what living with mental health problems is like, I hope it may encourage others to do the same. Isolation and loneliness is something that I experienced during the darkest moments of my own journey, and I only wish I had felt able to talk about my problems sooner, and received the help and support I needed earlier.
And to reduce / eradicate stigma?
To be honest about our own experiences, which will highlight just how widespread mental health issues really are. I don’t believe that anyone is not affected by some aspect of a mental health disorder at some point in their life. However it may manifest itself, we are all touched by this in some way. And if you are lucky enough not to experience any aspect of a mental illness yourself – however mild or fleeting – you are bound to know somebody who has: a spouse or partner; a parent; a friend; a colleague. It is all around us every single day. The more we accept this and are empathetic towards ourselves and others, the easier it will be to reduce any stigma attached.
What is the reality of living with bipolar?
I have lived through myriad phases of clinical depression / bipolar disorder and body dysmorphia. One is not necessarily distinct from another – they are not easily compartmentalised or ‘labelled’ in this way. At its worst, it is like living in an isolated, silent prison, feeling utterly lost whilst watching other people ‘living’ around me, and being unable to feel like I can be any part of it. It feels like being an observer at a party and being unable to join in; watching from the sidelines and wondering why you are not able to take part in what’s going on.
During your time at Hull, you suffered with severe body dysmorphia. How does that condition and challenge shaped you today?
I could write a book about that subject alone! My experience in Hull whilst at university was one of the bleakest times for me, and as a young woman who was already grappling to make sense of her place in the world, the crushing weight of by body dysmorphia, or “BDD”, was a heavy blow. I cover the events leading up to that in my book, so I won’t go into them now, but it’s true to say that the condition has plagued me since that time. And it never really goes away. Running is one of the ways in which I can manage those destructive thoughts. I have also sought professional help to learn how to best manage the condition, which has helped massively.
What made you put on those old trainers on and get out the door that day?
Gut instinct. A quote from the book that sums up my mindset as that time is: “I was eighteen years old, and I was as unfit and miserable as I’d ever wish to be.” I simply had to make myself do this, to trudge and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
What was your first thought on finishing your 1st Marathan [VLM 2011]?
In all honesty? “THANK GOD IT’S OVER”!… and then within a matter of hours, ‘“WHEN CAN I DO IT AGAIN?”
You’ve learned the need to be amongst nature thanks to running. What are your favourite places to run?
I’ve been very lucky that running has taken me to some incredible places in the world. One of my favourites has to be Font Romeu, where Gav and I went altitude training for my 37th birthday. We explored the Paula Radcliffe trails, had some incredible runs up and around the out-of-season ski slopes, including a few tempo sessions around Lake Matemale. We even met Mo Farah who was out there training whilst we were there. It is an unforgettable, beautiful place.
What messages to you receive from readers?
Many! I receive emails, DMs on other social media, and I am tagged on posts of my book in all kinds of places from airports and bookshop windows to it being proudly held aloft by remote African tribeswomen! It’s lovely that people feel as though they can make contact with me directly to tell me how reading my story has impacted on them, and how it relates to their own circumstances.
Fantastic! How does this influence you?
I feel very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to share my story with so many people, and I try to do what I can to support others in return.
Do you feel you’ve found your role in life?
Yes. My role in life is to enjoy the journey. It is to be grateful for all that I have, and to do something to make a positive difference in some small way. If running and writing is my passion and my gift, then I will use both to that effect. In addition to this, my role is for my daughter to grow up seeing a mum who has self worth, dreams and ambitions, and who wants to do some good in the world. With all of that covered, then my job here is done!
How do we unfurl our superhero capes?
Just turn up. Keep turning up. Turn up to Parkrun, and to races; keep turning up to training sessions, and keep trying even – and mostly – when it all seems too hard. It is to keep putting one foot in front of the other knowing that in the midst of the struggle – that is where the heroes are born. And we all have it in us.
Rachel, a massive thank you for being so frank. Your life and running story is quite incredible and continues to involve and inspire. Best of luck for the Boston Marathan 🙂
Readers, I can’t recommend Rachel’s book highly enough. I was drawn to her story on reading a brief summary. I’m now 2/3 of the way through and it’s brilliant – a real mix of laughs, mistakes and insecurities to identify with and ultimately reflects how we continue to make our away in this mad world 🙂
You can buy Rachel’s book on Amazon and Waterstones. Enjoy!
All the best