Rachel Cullen’s ‘Running for My Life’ is a moving and completely down-to-earth account of one girl’s journey from overweight, self-conscious and thoroughly ‘un-sporty’ to fierce marathon running super-woman. At its very least, it is a heart-warming story that will challenge women to re-think their relationship with exercise and inspire many to dig out their trainers. But despite the light tone and funny style which make it an easy and enjoyable read, there are some seriously powerful messages running through this book.
The narrative travels back and forth between Rachel’s childhood, and her adult life. We watch helplessly as her mother’s depression and battle with food and body-image seeps into Rachel’s unconsciousness; age 5: “I wonder why I look so different to Jane in my swimming costume? Mine is green and hers is blue. I know she’s older and taller than me, but still my legs look like sausages next to hers and I don’t know why”. As women, most of us recognise her mother’s casual self-hatred – but the juxtaposition of these early childhood experiences, and the crippling anxiety and body dysmorphia of adult Rachel is both powerful and distressing. I do not have my own children but reading this book I found myself promising multiple times that should I ever have a daughter I would never let her see me gripping my thigh fat or depriving myself of nourishment. Rachel’s childhood was not particularly remarkable, it is definitely not a story of abuse or neglect, but it is even more poignant for that fact – as readers we realise it is completely normal to condition girls from an early age that they are not ‘sporty’. That sport is not relevant to them.
And yet we see that this is simply not the case. From utter misery and desperation, adult Rachel – overweight and unfit – pulls out her dusty trainers form the back of a wardrobe and heads out on that first defining run. What I loved about this book is that at no point did it sugar-coat the experience of running. Running is almost always hard. Your chest is heaving, you are sweaty, out of breath, heavy-limbed and often in considerable pain. It is almost always a relief when it is over. Whilst I am a passionate advocator of the empowerment of running, the days when I find it easy are few and far between. I love reading moving stories of how running has changed people’s lives, but I worry that when beginners read these descriptions of runners feeling light, free, strong, like they could carry on forever they will assume this is how you are meant to feel – and if you don’t, you must not be doing it right. Rachel’s honest and at-times hilarious descriptions of running will resonate with runners of all abilities, and despite being completely truthful about the genuine struggle it is be she still manages to leave you feeling like you completely understand how magical it can be as well. You cannot help but feel inspired and empowered.
The biggest impact this book had on me was that for the first time it made me realise and question the boundaries I had placed on myself. I work hard to try and encourage other women to find the confidence to be more active and I consider myself the type of person to challenge the social boundaries we face. I realised this isn’t as true as I’d thought. I’ve long accepted that I am ‘not a good runner’. In fact it is one of the things I like about running; I am quite a competitive person, so picking a sport I’m not good at has been a relief- I genuinely celebrate my own achievements for what they are and am not in a position to be competitive or compare myself to others. I thought that was pretty healthy. I am sure I will never run 5K in less than 25 minutes, and I’m completely ok with that. In the book Rachel reaches roughly the level of running that I am at, in terms of distance and pace. And then I watch as she smashes her way through all the limits I have unknowingly placed on myself – be it a certain time, or the fact I could never do an ultramarathon. Without even commenting on it, this book showed me how many boundaries I have already placed on myself – and gave me the quiet and excited confidence to question those. I’m a fit healthy 26 year old, why on earth couldn’t I run 5km in under 25 minutes if I trained for it? So watch out Rachel, I’m coming for you.
As much as I loved every second of this book, it was a hard read for me on a personal level. Rachel’s ascent into true super-womanhood comes as she tackles the 2011 London Marathon seven months post-partum. Whilst I began running three years ago, it is more recently that I’ve really acknowledged the degree of impact it has had on my mental and physical health, and how integral it is to my own well-being. This new journey started when I suffered a miscarriage just before I was due to run the 2018 London Marathon. The pregnancy had been unexpected, but we were delighted. I completely revised how I would tackle the marathon (by adding about 3 hours to my target time) but the idea of taking on this challenge and adventure with our baby inside me was the most incredible feeling. Like Rachel, I felt that this was the start of me being the role-model I wanted to be as a mother – to prove that your body is strong, and your mind is even stronger. Although it is actually written on the blurb on the back of the cover, I’d not taken in that the story would culminate in that journey towards the London Marathon so it was a bit of a shock. I’d related so heavily to the book up until then, it felt a little like following a path and watching it suddenly verge off somewhere that you aren’t allowed to go. At least not yet.
And so it has taken a little bit of time for me to feel up to writing this review, but I feel that despite it being personally tough to read at times, simply because of my experiences, this book had such a profound effect on me that I couldn’t not share it. Don’t be put off by how powerful it is, or by how important the messages are – they are for you to take away from it, or not – it is not a heavy read I promise. It is also a funny and heart-warming story with something for everyone, and if you think a little more about it you might take a lot more away. To add to the old cliché, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to put your trainers on and run off into the distance. You’ll love it.