Hadeel Hassan has negotiated a lot in the past few years: a PhD, profound depression, cerebral palsy, a dyspraxia diagnosis, the transformative power of running, and selection as a major sports brand’s ambassador. Life is full of surprises…
Let’s start at the end. Partly because sometimes it’s nice to shake things up. But mostly because Hadeel Hassan’s last words during her chat with Women’s Running are the sort of comments that linger long in the mind. Although we’d challenge anyone who dared call Hadeel average (she’s pretty awesome actually, despite her modesty), her words sum up beautifully what running can bring to someone’s life.
“I’m an average runner,” she says. “Sure, I’ve been through some things. But it’s really no different to what other people go through in life, it’s just that I’m being more vocal about it. But never in a million years did I think I could be an Asics Frontrunner. The moral of this story is: if I can, then anyone can.”
See what you think. Being reminded that running can bring so much to one person’s life, can make the heart soar.
Hadeel is a doctor from Leeds who is just coming to the end of a PhD, investigating how to improve the side effects in children of certain treatments for cancer. “I started running about four years ago,” she says. “I was married for seven years and then we split up. During the time of separation I wanted to have something to focus on and wanted to be active too, so I started doing 5K distances, then 10Ks and half marathons and now I’ve also done three marathons.
“I have mild cerebral palsy which a ects one side of my body. Cerebral palsy is a lack of oxygen to the brain at birth. It’s ultimately like having a stroke at birth and you can end up with mild or severe consequences. For me, it affects the right side of my body and, although I had a lot of physio, wore boots and used splints when I was young, my right side will always be weaker.”
“I dabbled with running at university, but whenever I was under a lot of pressure I’d just stop. So this past four years is probably the longest time in my life I’ve managed to maintain it. The longest I’ve had off in that time – because of an injury – has been a week.”
So it’s fair to say she’s been bitten by the bug? “I think the way I’d describe it is that it has completely transformed my life. I started running with the intention of getting a bit more active. But from there I’ve ended up learning so much about myself, I’ve become more confident, made new friends, dealt with – and continue to deal with – depression, and taught myself about nutrition. It’s made me look after myself a bit more too.”
I ask Hadeel what she’s learnt about herself and the answer centres around compassion and learning to give herself a bit of a break – a challenge familiar to loads of us living in a high-pressured, always-on, hyper-judgy world.
“It’s probably not the best thing to say but I think I’m hard on myself. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. And the thing with running is that you have to learn to be more compassionate with yourself. I’m sure lots of women can identify with feelings of guilt about how they look, what they eat, but to be able to enjoy running properly you need to look after yourself. You need to rest, you need to eat well, you need to stretch and you need to go easy on yourself when your mental health is suffering. It has transformed my life so it’s something to cherish.”
We chat about how much we dread getting injured or being told we can’t run anymore. For Hadeel, it’s seeping into her dreams. “I don’t want to get injured – I had a nightmare recently where a doctor told me I could never run and I woke up in a complete sweat!”
Giggling aside, she’s damn serious. “Everyone goes through phases but I know I want to be able to run for the rest of my life. As much as I like to achieve good results, part of me would be willing to forgo all ambitious race goals just to be able to run for longer periods. That’s what’s important to me.”
A daily dose (almost!)
We talk about how Hadeel trains and what she commits to. She signs up for races in gluts, she says. She’ll do a few and then not do any for a while, so when we speak she’s just done the Great North Run, the Ealing Park Half Marathon (it was a GOOD day – more of on that later!) and the Manchester Half Marathon. After that, she’ll have a break until March, when the PhD should be done and dusted.
“In terms of my actual running, I had been loosely following my own little plan – maybe going three to four times a week including one hard session – for a few years. During that time, I was struggling with quite bad depression and that was affecting how much I could run.
“Anyway, in July this year, one of the Asics Frontrunners offered to coach me. He gave me a structured plan which involved running six days a week. Two of those runs are very easy gentle runs around the block, and the other runs push me more over a mix of distances and speeds.
“I realise now I hadn’t really pushed myself before and the coaching has challenged me in ways I didn’t think I could be challenged. Also, it’s made a huge difference to my performance: in the space of 2.5 months, I have shaved six minutes off my half marathon PB.”
The coaching plan has had more benefits than just timings and performance, though.
As part of her depression, and during particularly low times, Hadeel isolated herself socially. Excluding yourself socially is a common part of depression because you can’t nd the mental strength to bear the thought of people, but ironically the loneliness that comes with it can make everything seem even worse.
“Last New Year, I made a resolution to stick to going to a club run every week,” she says. “Even if I didn’t feel like it and wanted to hide away, I promised myself I wouldn’t make excuses but would just go. That, and having a coach, has helped me a lot. I like the human interaction of having a coach and it has also helped motivate me.”
Hadeel knows she was lucky to get free coaching as a case study subject for a friend’s qualification, but she’s evangelical about the power of social running, and peer mentoring too. “I’m amazed that the most I’ve gained from my running has been from being around other people. Peer mentoring or coaching isn’t just about making you a better runner – it helps you with other challenges life throws at you. I can’t believe how much it’s helped me overcome some of the mental health problems I’ve had.”
As someone terrified of getting injured, she was apprehensive about running six days a week to start with. “One of my great inspirations, though, is Eliud Kipchoge: he trains really hard but on the days he is supposed to go easy, he goes really, really easy. So I do that too: on the days I go slowly, I go really slowly.”
And it’s been very beneficial. “There’s something called active recovery. Basically, in the days after a hard run, doing something gentle might sound counter-intuitive, but it actually improves blood flow into muscles, helps clear lactic acid build-up and aids recovery. I never knew that until I was coached!”
Hadeel’s ability to chop six minutes off her PB at Ealing Park comes from her new training regime, without doubt. During her winter and spring race lay-off, she plans to focus on speed and see what times she can achieve over the 10K distance.
Although she’s amazed and delighted with her recent Ealing Park PB (don’t forget, she was six minutes quicker!), she takes bigger pride in the times when she’s had to dig so deep to even get to the start line, never mind the finish line.
“Doing races while struggling with hideous depression is the hardest thing I’ve done. I did my first marathon in a good time, but then depression hit me quite hard, so the second marathon I did was such a battle as my training for it had been so haphazard.
“I was so disappointed when I crossed the nish line that second time, because in that moment I felt like I hadn’t given my all. People were grouping round me asking why I was crying, because I totally broke down! Looking back, of course, I know that was all I could give during that time, and I’m so proud I did it.”
Hadeel’s year has been a rollercoaster, from being selected as an Asics Frontrunner, to getting a coach, to nearly finishing her PhD, there have been plenty of positives. But it’s also had its tough times, as she had to stand up and face a new diagnosis.
“I had issues growing up, being clumsy and uncoordinated, but I’ve always put every issue I had down to the cerebral palsy. For instance, I hate dancing so much because I can’t dance and I always put that down to cerebral palsy! It was the same with other challenges in my life. Anyway, last year my tutors noticed I had some processing issues in my PhD and suggested I get checked for dyslexia.”
As it turned out, Hadeel found out she had both dyslexia and dyspraxia (a condition which a ects coordination). “I was so shocked at the time,” she tells me. “How did I not know this before? It was kind of obvious, I guess, in retrospect. It made me understand more about why I’d felt the way I did all those years. All those feelings about not being good enough or not being able to do this, that and the other.”
The diagnosis gave Hadeel a lot of thinking to do and unsurprisingly it churned her up. “It kind of made me sad that I didn’t know about it earlier on in my life. Finding out about the dyspraxia was a big contributing factor to me dealing with my mental health problems. I’d always sort of ignored my cerebral palsy and pretended it wasn’t there.
“But the diagnosis made me start thinking there were things I’d never be able to achieve and that I needed to accept my limitations. I always used to say as long as I work hard I can do anything I want, and although I do still believe that, it really knocked my self esteem.”
So, the last year has definitely had its dips and its highs too. Asics Frontrunners is a movement from the sportswear manufacturer to encourage running and Hadeel became one of its ambassadors at the start of 2019. “Every year, they ask for people to apply and I was surprised and privileged to be accepted this year. As Asics Frontrunners, we are called on to share our passion for running, blog on the site, do races, go to events and have regular meet ups.”
“The community is amazing. Honestly, the support I’ve received has been fantastic and it’s been a huge boon to my mental health.”
Hadeel has not only connected with a community of runners, she has also made some very good friends. Friends, sure, for running with, but friends who’ve supported her too.
“When I was going through tough times, I got support from people I would never have expected it from. For instance, when I signed up to do the Great North Run, I was just planning to get the train up there on my own, do it and come home again. But some of the Asics Frontrunners decided to come and support me.”
Hadeel’s discovery of this new, and important, group of friends has been nothing short of life-changing. “I know that’s what friends do,” she says of their arrival en masse at the GNR finish line. “But I found it overwhelming actually and I really appreciated it. They all picked me up at the end and held me aloft, and the memory of that day is something I’ll always cherish.”
And it wasn’t simply because they’d turned up, she explains: “What it comes down to is that they offered to do it – I didn’t ask. And when you’re struggling with your mental health, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to ask.”
Wise words from a runner who is anything but average.