"I needed to tie on my trainers and just run" - Women's Running UK

“I needed to tie on my trainers and just run”

Author: Chris Macdonald

Read Time:   |  October 11, 2016

"I needed to tie on my trainers and just run"

On the day I found out I was pregnant with our second child, my husband was offered a promotion. It wasn’t looking like a bad day in terms of good news, apart from the fact that the new job role was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

After initially laughing in my husband’s face at the ridiculousness of the idea, we spent an evening weighing it all up and decided to go. After all, I was going to be on maternity leave anyway, why not do so in perennial sunshine, in luxury accommodation with a swimming pool and a maid? Cut to a little over four months later and there we were, posing at the foot of the Petronas Towers, in a sheen of sweat and with an overwhelming feeling of ‘What on earth have we done?’

In the years leading up to this moment, I had spent 20 years working in marketing for various food brands, such as Twinings Tea and Cathedral City Cheddar Cheese. We had a daughter, Holly, who was two years old at the time. I had been a runner for around 25 years and absolutely loved it. I found it to be one of the constants in my life that I could always rely on to relieve stress, process my thoughts and generally feel happy.

The idea of running as catharsis started at the beginning of my relationship with the sport. In my late teens, my dad suffered two major heart attacks. The fact that he nearly died notwithstanding, he was devastated by the sudden realisation that he was not invincible – as were the rest of the family. We were all petrified by a sudden awareness of the fragility of life. Without telling anyone, Dad started to go out on long walks with our dog as part of his rehabilitation process. There was no reason to ask questions when his walking attire became a little sportier and he started taking an old-school Walkman with him (it was the late 1980s); from our perspective, he was just getting a bit cool. We were all a bit gob-smacked, however, some months later when he returned telling us he had ran five miles without stopping.

Shortly after that I got hooked. I started to go out with him, though it took some time to get to his standard. Of course I wanted to help and encourage him, but also I was intrigued at a pastime that could take someone from that physical and psychological low point to the spirit of the man running ahead of me now.

This was the reason why I was so keen to get back to running as soon as I could after having my baby and make it a part of my new life in Malaysia. As an expat, there are phases they tell you that you will go through and they matched my experience almost perfectly. Initially it is said you have what they call a ‘honeymoon phase’, where everything is exciting and new. For me, this coincided with the final trimester of my pregnancy and it seemed very much like a honeymoon. My little toddler, Holly, and I had a great time. We would spend our mornings in various mother and toddler groups, making new friends by the dozen; we’d take long lazy lunches in air-conditioned shopping malls and then spend our afternoons in the pool; perfect for my growing bump. It was like an extended holiday. Then I gave birth to Ben and we had a long flurry of visitors. It was heavenly.

"I needed to tie on my trainers and just run"

The next phase, however, is much less glossy; in some places they call this phase grief. This is where the novelty starts to wear off, where all the new becomes normal, your new friendships are too new yet to be meaningful, the local shops just don’t sell what you need and you can experience a terrible loneliness. I never thought it would happen to me but it really did. There I was, a 13-hour flight away from family with a newborn and a toddler. All our guests had gone, my husband was working long hours – it really did knock me for six. I found myself waking at five o’clock every morning even when my new baby was fast asleep. I felt sick to my stomach with anxiety and literally found myself counting the hours until my husband got home from work. Oh how I needed to tie on my trainers and just run.

Around about the time Ben was six weeks old, I had my check up with the doctor and was given the all-clear to start running again. I remember so clearly the moment I hit that treadmill. We lived in a gated condo community with its own gym that overlooked two palm-tree decked swimming pools. There I was, adrenalin pumping through my veins, funky disco in my ears, cranking the speed up and feeling like every fibre of my being was coming back to life.

Unfortunately, a while after that afterglow died down, I realised I was limping slightly and it wasn’t easing off like it used to. After a couple more goes, I realised I had done some damage to my left knee. The doctor said I had likely stretched a ligament, due to them being softer after pregnancy. I was told to rest and certainly not run for six weeks.

Eventually the pain faded away and I was ready to go again, steadily this time. My heart was telling me to crank up the speed, my head was telling me to see the bigger picture – my knee was telling me to be nice! It was in those months I really started to put myself back together. With a nice gentle approach, my running was getting stronger, my new friendships were getting closer, my baby more settled. Things were still hard but there was most certainly light ahead.

The next mistake in my journey happened when I decided to take my running outside, as I had wanted to do for so long. The thing about living in glorious sunshine is that you long to be out in it, but when temperatures are in excess of 32ºC daily, running in the presence of that sunshine can be treacherous. However, out I went, attempting the infamous Mont Kiara loop, favoured by expat runners of the community. At just under 7K, it wasn’t too ambitious; it was well populated and had kerbs (by that I mean kerbs of a Malaysia standard – walking out there is not a well-loved pursuit). Fifty-five minutes later, I re-entered our condo feeling sick and ready to faint. It was back to the drawing board once more.

This time I sought advice of a mummy friend’s husband, a sub-three-hour marathon runner and pacer for a lot of the events out there. He told me to run before the sun, to drink way more than I would consider for the same distance in the UK and to lower my expectations of speed. I did it all and, before long, was rocking that Mont Kiara loop with the best of them.

For the year that followed the birth of my son, running became such an important part of my life. After 20 years of working, I was a stay-at-home mum and, while that was a privilege to be able to do, I confess to finding it tough. The days and nights were relentless hours of nurturing others. It sounds like a cliché but my runs were an hour just for me, an hour that made me feel better, that connected me with others, and brought me back to me. Of course I also said goodbye to a stone of baby weight in the process.

In October 2014, I took part in the Standard Chartered KL Half-Marathon, my first half since before my first child was born in 2010. While I crossed the finish line in 2hr 17ms (my UK PB was 1hr 55mins), it was one of the proudest moments of my running life, representing not only the running of 21K but reaching a milestone on a journey I had found the hardest of my whole life.

The following year, the same race was cancelled less than 24 hours before it was due to start, due to high levels of pollution in the air because of forest fires in Indonesia. This was known as ‘The Haze’ and was something that blighted outdoor running and life in general in South East Asia for weeks, sometimes months of the year. Many a time in training we had to do about turns back to the treadmills because running outside was just like running around a bonfire. This was extremely frustrating and especially so for the race. My friend and I had trained much more formally for this event, aiming to achieve a sub-two hour finish. While we knew the cancellation was the right thing, it didn’t make it easier to swallow.

"I needed to tie on my trainers and just run"

Jackie finishing Angkor Wat Half in 2015

At that point, not wanting the training to go to waste, I made the decision to run the well-loved Angkor Wat Half-Marathon in nearby Cambodia, a two-hour flight away. This event was hugely popular with KL runners, particularly females for some reason. Many make the trip in early December to Siem Reap to run with a backdrop of beautiful temples and scenery. I went out alone but knew so many people who were running. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t crack the sub-two goal, but decided this wasn’t an event for speed, there was simply too much to see. Sitting in a tuk-tuk (something akin to a sofa pulled by a motorcycle) after the run with my trainers loosened and wind blowing through my hair on the way back to the hotel, I shed a little tear for the runner I had become, but mostly for the mum I had put back together because of it.

So now, here I am back in the UK. I’ve run in frosts, fog, sideways rain and every crazy nuance of the British summer. I ran my first UK half-marathon since being back in March and my speed was over 20 minutes quicker without any change to my training. I realised how good running in the heat must have been for me, in terms of dealing with those added physiological demands. I’m 45 on my next birthday and I’m still getting PBs.

On top of all this, my expat running experience has taught me how great running is for engaging with others, becoming part of new communities and a constant in staying sane and content in challenging situations. Since returning in December 2015, I’ve become a member of the local fun run committee and I’m part of a team setting up a local running club. It’s been a great way to quickly find friends and contacts. If we ever travel again, the first thing I will look for will be the running community, because it’s clear to me, wherever you go, you will almost certainly find one and, even if you don’t, there will always be somewhere to run with.

More than all this, though, is how running makes me feel. A day with a run in it is always a better day, and that’s something you can take with you anywhere. So, I say thanks to my old friends – the open road and my trainers. We’ve literally come a long way.

Chris Macdonald

Editor-at-Large, Women's Running

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