Andy Hall: the non-runner who did a 50k ultra! Runner interview
In this runner interview with Andy Hall, we explore running and mental health in detail, including suicide. Re-defining limits and many other facets of life are also covered in this raw and honest interview.
Andy is someone I’m proud to call a friend and have been lucky to get to know in the past few years. We got chatting at a local club track training session and found we had many things in common. Really hope you enjoy this interview.
For those who don’t know you, how would you describe yourself, Andy?
Thanks for asking the toughest question first, Jeff.
I hate describing myself, I have a dislike of labels finding them defining and restricting. Maybe that says something about me. At the time of writing, I’m 50 years old, but I don’t feel it. Been married for 25 years with 2 children of 20 and 17. So Husband, Dad, Brother and friend are the only labels I’ll happily accept. Professionally I’m a mentoring specialist supporting people in the business community. I also coach, mentor, speak publicly and host events. For fun I enjoy being challenged; recently that includes running and triathlon.
Okay now for some easier questions then 🙂 How and when did you get into running?
Funny story, subjective, by accident really. Shortly after a low point in my life, I spoke at a men’s mental health event for AndysManClub. The talk went well and I celebrated with friends by drinking a few lagers. A friend asked me to raise awareness for AMC by running the Milltown Half Marathon. Stupidly I agreed without much thought. The following day I was reminded about my agreement. However, I was not a runner, at all. In fact, I hated running. But I had committed so began training for a 13.1 mile run with 1300ft of climbing. That was April 2017, aged 46. I did the Milltown October 2018. However, I just “tried” parkrun and found running very tough, at first.
Then, in January 2018 I had the idea of running in 18 events in ‘18. Including 5k’s (parkrun’s), 10k’s, trail runs, 3 half marathons a sprint triathlon, I completed over 40. This continued through to marathons and every possible event I could participate in raising money and awareness of different charities.
So an accidental drunken challenge changed my lifestyle completely.
18 in ’18. You clearly like linking challenges with numbers! So here you are having recently completed your own 50k ultra at 50! Tell us more about that – the build-up, the day itself, the days following.
Of course, we all know that 2020 has been difficult with the pandemic and restrictions. Well, our family was hit just before the world changed. My father in law, a friend of over 30 years, Uncle and cousin who was younger than me, all passed away to cancer in a short space of time. My son, who I adore, moved to China. So our lives were turned upside down. So, I made another promise to do yet more challenging events. That was February. I decided to do half marathons, 2 marathons, an Olympic triathlon, Half Ironman and an Ultramarathon. Then COVID hit. So everyone’s plans changed. But I had to find a way of keeping my promise to others and myself.
I managed to squeeze in most events partly between lockdowns and self-managed self-supported marathons supporting friends etc.
The Ultra was a 50k run. We had just been confused with different tiers and more restrictions, rule of 6, then 1+1 so I kept my plans quiet. Not wanting to risk the opportunity and the year running out I decided to run the Littleborough 10k five times to keep logistics simple.
Being my first time of this distance I wanted to keep it simple. Start my first 10k at sunrise and restart a further 4 times and finish for sunset.
I posted my challenge on Facebook and within an hour I had my support crew signed up.
The day was perfect. The snow stopped, the sun came out and friends turned up to run with me and cheer me along. 25 people ran with me over the day and many more came to Hollingworth Lake to cheer me along. It was humbling and overwhelming, to say the least. Each 10k took just over an hour and I had to run at my slowest pace to be able to continue without injury or tiring too quickly. I started the last of 10 laps around the lake as the sun went down. It was serene and emotional. Despite being “broken” for the last 10k with aches everywhere I found a surge of energy and the last 1k was my fastest split actually being close to my 5k race pace at under 5minute km’s.
Goodness me what a challenging year Andy, I’m sorry for your losses. It’s fantastic on the Ultra and what a special day that must have been! It was great just joining you for Leg 3 so it must have been amazing to have many people joining to support you for each stage. That final 1k is downhill though lol!
What did you learn from the ultra?
When making plans and commitments, sometimes circumstances change, so we have to adapt. I had planned the Ultra at the start of the year by writing it on my vision board and personal journal. So I was going to make it happen somehow. There are always reasons to not do something, these are excuses. When you want something bad enough you just have to find a way.
It wouldn’t be possible without the support of friends.
I never thought I would enjoy running, let alone run a 10k or half marathon. These were just mental limits that I had previously invented. “Common sense,” says we should be getting weaker, physically, as we age. That is not the case for me. The Ultra was never a destination, just another test of my physical and mental capability.
An ultra was never the goal, rather, being as holistically fit as I possibly can be is the aim and living like an athlete. The Ultra was just a milestone on the journey.
We need to be comfortable in our skin and to listen carefully to our body to be able to exercise for over 6 hours. Even then we should always take advice and support from others. Every day really is a school day.
Some real life lessons in there Andy. What benefits has running given you – and continues to give obviously?!
There are obvious and not so obvious. Yes, my physicality has transformed. I can now do things I never thought possible. Body fat has melted away. I sleep so well and I learned to think differently about lifestyle.
What was unexpected was the head space that running gives me. Runners high is real. I found myself drifting off on long solo runs. Anxiety and depression are physically impossible for me when outside and connected to the environment.
Then there are friends. More about the running community later.
Disconnecting from the world is what connects us outside.
When running, nothing else matters – just that moment.
What other sport do you do and how does this help your running?
Sport? Are you kidding? I was crap at football and rugby. Putting me and sport in the same sentence is an oxymoron. The only physical activity I have enjoyed is Martial arts. That possibly explains why I can endure, even want to feel, physical pain. I’ve done 2 forms of Karate and Kung Fu. The term Kung Fu can be interpreted as hard work, skill, endeavour or hard training. Which may explain how my strange brain works.
Other than running, my go-to escape, I’ve also started multi-sport events. Namely, Triathlon. I’m now training for my first Ironman. I know, I may be stupid but I want to find my limits.
I’m genuinely excited to see your Ironman journey. It’s not stupid at all. If anything it’s another inspiring example of lifestyle change and redefining limits we can place on ourselves.
You’re a real advocate of mental health and talking about it. Could you briefly describe your own journey in this respect?
I’ll try to keep this brief, for a change. I’ve always tried too hard, maybe overcompensating for the loss of my twin sister who died at birth. The guilt had stayed with me. And as the youngest of a large and complicated family, I felt that I needed to prove to my family, stupidly, that I was not a mistake and not the runt of the family. I became a perfectionist and set crazy expectations of myself. This has led to self-destruction and I almost ended my life. I had more than one breakdown. The worst time of my life was after the first breakdown; I left my job because of severe depression and anxiety. I bought a franchise (3 to be precise) with all of our savings. Against the odds, I worked harder than ever to make the business a success. In the space of a year both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer, both died within 3 months of each other. The franchises were liquidated by the franchisor to clear his debts. Leaving us penniless, with no income and on the verge of homelessness. I was also scammed out of my pension. All whilst taking the highest dose of medication I could legally be prescribed. In one year I had lost my parents, my business and pension worth close to £200k. I had lost faith in myself and wanted to end my life so my wife and children could at least get some life insurance money.
Luckily, I have great family and friends and I accepted help. I had counselling and took medication, I went to a suicide prevention talking group for men, AndysManClub, and started blogging then public speaking about my experiences. Then came the running challenge. I was fortunate to be asked to speak at TEDx Bollington about how to fix our mental illnesses and then also hosted a TEDx in my hometown of Oldham.
The journey is far from over. I’m always learning and sharing for my and others benefit.
My word Andy. Thank you so much for your honestly. It just shows the importance of connection through family and friends. And to anyone who hasn’t seen them yet, I highly recommend your TEDx Bollington talk.
What advice would you give to those wanting to better understand and look after their own mental health?
No-one can or will fix you, other than yourself. It is not easy, like running at first, the first steps are often the hardest. Being alone with one’s own thoughts and accepting that we are humans living in an unnatural environment helps us forgive our limitations.
Identify feelings, lean into them and learn from them. We cannot have happiness without understanding pain and suffering first.
Everything is temporary; all that we have, the emotions we feel will pass, even our lives will end. So be grateful for everything and want for nothing other than the opportunity to grow as a human and to learn from each other for each other.
What strategies did you put into place through lockdown?
I must be honest. Lockdown was a very tough time, for us all, especially for me. It reminded me of the darkest days of being trapped and feeling worthless. I thrive on the energy of others.
I had to invent a new healthy (mental) routine, by trial and error.
Training every day, obviously. But also finding head space, meditation and yoga helped.
Knowing that the situation will pass, as always, and things will improve.
The irony is our family were placed back in isolation the day you asked these questions. So running, cycling and swimming are now out the question.
I know. It just shows how everything is temporary as you said a moment ago. How would you describe the running community?
I used to think that runners were crazy, still do to be fair, and stupid when cars are way quicker than travelling on foot. Why would anyone even do something so painful?
Then I went to parkrun, that changed my outlook and my life. Although, at first, I didn’t feel like I belonged with “runners”.
However, I’ve found the running community to be truly all-inclusive. I have friends now from all backgrounds, skin colours, different ages, genders and interests yet we all support each other. I had no idea that people could be so warm and supportive. The differences are what connects us.
That point about connection again. Where are your favourite places to run?
Anywhere, I can’t say that I’ve disliked any route. Whether it be on the pavements or the hills.
If pushed I’d say the Pennines. I’m especially drawn to water, I think all humans are. Hollingworth Lake is now a special place for me. I love running alongside Canals too. I’ve run from West Yorks, through to Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire running along a canal in a day. The Milltown Half for sentimental and emotional reasons, where it started and it goes past the end of our road too. But the real hidden gem is the Rochdale Half Marathon route; from the town centre through the streets, along the canal, up a hill, around a lake, down a hill, back again through a park before returning to the town centre. I still can’t believe that I would say Rochdale, I’m from Oldham after all.
I can run anywhere with others and may as well be in heaven.
Who are your inspirations and why?
Bruce Lee, for his creativity, deep thinking, fighting and beating everyone including racism and connecting cultures.
Eliud Kipchoghe, Roger Bannister & Chris Nikic for proving that we are limitless.
Rich Roll and David Goggins for changing their lives from depressed and overweight to ultra-endurance athletes.
Chrissy Wellington who got into triathlon late but was unbeatable at Ironman distance.
I’ve also run with real-life inspirations; with cancer, with physical and learning disabilities, people in their seventies and young children. There are inspirations everywhere, we can’t tell what challenges people have. We all have the ability to inspire.
Where can people find out more about you and connect?
Twitter @Handyall sometimes
Andy from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for this interview. It’s an honour to have this chat with you and I sincerely hope readers enjoy your insights and benefit from your openness. For anyone wanting more information I highly recommend the following resources: