The Anxious Run Leader

This August Bank Holiday I attended the very first (and hopefully annual) Well Vet Weekend, in Cambridge, a joint venture from VetsNet and VetLed. This was a weekend designed to promote and encourage well-being in the veterinary profession, through a mixture of talks, work-shops and activities. The offer to be involved was one of the first opportunities to come out of starting this blog. It was also one of the most daunting, as when I first spoke to Ru, from Vet Led, I had yet to share its existence with any of my friends or family, let alone my colleagues in the veterinary community. However, the whole reason for starting this blog was to try and share how powerful exercise can be and encourage others to find the confidence to give it a go. Running has played an incredibly important role for me managing the difficulties of my first few years in practice, particularly when other parts of my life have taken a knock. So, at a time when stress, depression and anxiety is affecting so many in the veterinary industry, the chance to share my love of running with colleagues was too unique an opportunity to turn down. Even if I was petrified.

My main role in the event was to lead the first run of the weekend, the ‘Wakey Wakey’ run at an eye-watering 7am; (as my Dad says: “have they seen you in the morning before?!”). As I am a passionate advocator of just how marvellous running is, you might imagine that I am a rather good runner. Well I’m not, and this is actually one of the things I love about it. The typical personality type of a vet is a high-achieving perfectionist that classically find failure particularly difficult to cope with; this is reported to be one of the reasons some struggle in clinical practice as you can never succeed in every case. This is certainly true for me, and so running has been a wonderful release as I am exceedingly average and will never, ever be a competitive runner. For the first time I’ve found a love of something I don’t excel at, and I truly celebrate my own achievements as my own and do not compare myself to others.

That is until the negative inner voice kicks in:

You’re meant to be leading the run, what if you are the slowest person there and can’t keep up? What if they all have to wait for you, they’ll all think you’re a total fraud.

My fears included, amongst many, nobody turning up at all; only a few people turning up who are all veterinary Mo Farah’s and I have no way of disguising my inferiority as I end up miles behind in some awful kind of respiratory distress; loads of people turning up and I get them all completely lost; being incapable of speaking to anyone either way because I’m so out of breath.

Cue a panicked phone call to Liz, founder of support network Vets Net, trying to explain how unbelievably slow I am! She helped me rationalise my anxiety, as the whole point of the weekend is inclusivity and support, not showing off on Strava. Nonetheless, I was still pretty concerned about the possibility of being the weakest link when my idea of a ‘run leader’ is a toned, speedy professional shooting up and down between the group at total ease with all paces and not remotely out of breath – and probably with perfect hair too! Thankfully Liz is a bit of a speedy-pants so we agreed to play it by ear in terms of what positions we took up in the pack, which gave me a lot more confidence.

So, hydration pack stuffed with Jelly Babies, water, maps and a first aid kit (I figured this covered just about all eventualities), come 6:50am Saturday morning I was all set. A perfect number of 11 runners turned up, albeit a little bleary eyed and we set off for a 5 mile trail loop from the college, taking us past the Cambridge Veterinary School Hospital for a photo opportunity. We had a mix of abilities, with some pretty quick runners to a few more around my level. But the lovely thing about running is that it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, you’re still doing something that’s great for your body: easy pace is just as beneficial as PB, and you don’t want to do either all the time. We all kept pretty much as a group which was lovely, with those running at ease dropping back to chat to the other members, offering support and friendly chat. It’s perfect running with people who are better than you – they have enough oxygen available to keep you entertained!

I stayed mostly with the rear group, leading from the back – otherwise known as running as fast as I possibly could whilst still able to maintain a conversation and not look too like I’m about to pass out! I generally find running with others quite a bit harder than running alone as talking makes me feel very out of breath, which in turn makes me panic a little that I’m struggling. When I run alone I find, unlikely many people, that I often push myself harder because I tell myself I can slow down anytime if I need to; whereas in a group I get very anxious that I’ll have no option but to keep going at that pace. But I found the miles absolutely flew by compared to my solo recce the day before. It was so lovely being surrounded by like-minded colleagues (known of which I knew previously) gathered together first thing in the morning to do something positive. The feeling was quite similar to a parkrun, except it was even more special because we were all from the same profession.

In other scenarios when vets get together (and I’m sure its much the same whatever your job) I feel that there is generally an air of competitiveness, be it how brainy and talented we think we are, or simply who wins the most disgusting story, most difficult client, or largest pyometra (womb filled with pus for the non-medics – yes, we are a revolting bunch). But coming together in an activity so completely different to our comfort-zone, it brought out a totally different side to our personalities. We all opened up about how anxious we had been about being the slowest, the worst, the least fit, despite even the back-runners being made up of several marathoners and a triathlete! And once we’d found how comfortable we were letting our guard down and sharing our insecurities, it was suddenly easy to talk about how tough it can be in practice, both clinically and emotionally. How draining it is being a new-graduate with so many new challenges, to how much pressure you can feel as an experienced vet when everyone is looking to you to know all the answers. Huffing and puffing away with this wonderful bunch of colleagues I felt completely at ease with exactly who I was – both as a runner and a vet.

So I needn’t have worried about being the slowest run leader of all time (just as I shouldn’t worry about being the worst vet of all time). Yes, it is certainly preferable to able to run at a variety of paces, lead from the front (this is advantageous in directing people towards invisible pathways!) and speak and run at the same time. But I don’t think it mattered one bit. Our run wasn’t about hitting a target pace or distance, other than getting back in time for the massive cooked breakfast. It was about learning to open-up with colleagues, accept yourself for who you are, and support one another. I have always found running to be a source of immense kindness and encouragement: and running together as vets was a truly special experience.

You may not be the quickest or most talented runner either, but don’t think that means you can’t bring together a group of people to go out and do something really great. Running and talking is a very unique way of opening up, whether it is with a close friend, a work team-building exercise, or a group of complete strangers. Maybe it is the fact that you don’t have to make direct eye-contact, or that you don’t have the mental space to feel anxious about what someone else might think, but there’s something magic about the way sharing movement can bring you close to people. If you can run, you can inspire others to run with you, and you never know where it might take you.

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11 thoughts on “The Anxious Run Leader

  1. Aww! This was a lovely post 🙂 thank you for being so honest and inspiring as you always are. I prefer running solo too becsuse I can’t talk when I run. And then I feel bad because the other person may want to and I’m literally fighting for my life trying to breathe. But I’m glad you had a good experience. I loved that last paragraph especially! 🙂

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    1. Thank you Rafia- I worked myself up about it and then loved every second! Massively helped my having Liz running at the front, but I found I was able to talk to almost everyone even if they were faster than me. And I’m sure nobody cared one hoot!! xx

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  2. Wonderful post. As someone who lost a partner who was in a similarly stressful profession (dentistry) to suicide some years ago I know just how important exercise is to mental health.
    I also totally understand your nerves at being the voice/legs for the benefits of running. I spoke at a mental health conference a couple of years ago and was terrified. It is so good to do these things and make a difference to others lives.

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    1. Not regularly, but I’m keen to suggest some ‘Vet Runs’ in the future.. again, concern about my pace holds me back 🙈 Which is silly after writing all this isn’t it.. but maybe a team building fun run at work would be the place to start.

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  3. Great read- i have been following your posts since i realised i had been at the same fell run as you at Black Rocks- nice flags btw (my first too- where i thought i might either pass put or wet myself – not sure which would have been worse!) I love reading about your running adventures, youre basically just saying what we all think! I have only ever ‘organised’ one medium sized group long run for marathon training (to a route i had never actually done a recce on – apart from on you tube)- honestly the stress!- obviously it was absolutely fine!

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    1. Oh amazing!! Having come last I can write with a lot of confidence that you must have been way in front. I really enjoyed it though, have you any more planned? I haven’t fitted any in this month with marathon training. God I know, something you don’t think twice about doing on your own and suddenly you’re swarmed by all these anxieties that pop up from nowhere 🙈 Makes me appreciate all the organised running sessions I’ve been to before so much more!

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