When Ellie Brown, 27, ran the London Marathon to help the children she works with, she realised she was also helping herself escape from a lifetime of anxiety
As Ellie Brown heard Big Ben chiming and crowds calling her name, she was overwhelmed with an unfamiliar emotion: pride. With the Houses of Parliament in sight, she knew she was going to achieve something she’d once thought impossible and finish the Virgin Money London Marathon. “People were calling, ‘Ellie, you’re near the end!’ and I was saying, ‘Don’t worry, these are happy tears!’” she says. “I was looking back to when I’d had a nervous breakdown when I was younger, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do this!’ I’ve never been proud of myself before. I was terrified before the marathon, but I knew that if I did it, I would feel amazing. It really does help you psychologically.”
When Ellie began her journey towards that iconic marathon finish, she hoped it would help with her long-term anxiety and self-image problems – as well as helping her to get fit – but she also had a strong motivation for helping others. She works as a carer at a Leonard Cheshire Disability home in Exeter, with children with special needs, and started training for the marathon after seeing a call-out at work for runners to raise money for the charity. The money Ellie would raise would go straight towards building a new sensory room for the children she works with, some of whom aren’t able to communicate verbally and can become frustrated as a result. “The sensory room is a relaxed, tranquil environment,” she explains. “If they’re anxious, they go in and it calms their anxiety down. Sometimes, they’re missing those senses and they can go in for sensory input, with lights, bubble machines and different things to help them.”
Knowing how much the funds raised could help the children, Ellie still realised she had a long journey ahead when she signed up last September. “It wasn’t just the training I had to build up,” she says. “It was also the confidence. I had a fear of crowds and a fear of running past people.”
Ellie had been suffering with anxiety from a young age. “I had CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], I had counseling, I did all these self-help tapes,” she says. “I haven’t needed therapy for four years now, but I still had that worry, ‘Oh god, I look fat, I look awful,’ or constantly worrying that I’m going to be in trouble at work. Friends would tell me it was irrational but it’s like a fight or flight response – this adrenaline was in my body and not getting released.”
At first, running seemed an unlikely source of relief. “The first three runs I did were really bloody hard,” says Ellie. “When I first signed up for the marathon, I started spinning classes and swimming to build up my endurance, but after a while someone told me I needed to get out and run.
“I started running and thought, ‘How am I going to do a marathon?!’ I did about half a mile and thought I was having an asthma attack. I remember running past a fish and chip shop and thinking I might as well stop and get fish and chips!”
But Ellie skipped the chips and persevered, coming to terms with the discomfort and getting properly fitted with cushioned trainers and a good sports bra, and built up her running gradually. “I was going to follow a training plan, but I don’t like to feel restricted,” she says. “So I YouTubed the stretches, what to do to warm up and cool down, and I just built it up. I did a mile, then a mile-and-a-half, then two. One day I just decided ‘I’m going to run my first eight miles’. I was so excited to tell people that I’d run eight miles!”
But Ellie was even more excited about the prospect of being able to show that she could run a marathon – and on 24 April, that’s exactly what she did. “It was hard, but an absolutely amazing experience. When I had to say goodbye to my friends and walk through [to the start] on my own, I welled up because I thought, ‘I’m actually doing this, what was so far away is now today’ – it was overwhelming.
“It was so lovely at first, because you have all the children giving you high fives and going, ‘Ellie, Ellie, Ellie!’ But my absolute favourite moment was Tower Bridge. Beautiful. I slowed down for that and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing this. I’m actually putting myself out there and stepping outside my comfort zone. I hate running in front of people and here I am in an awful unflattering running vest and people are shouting my name’ – that was beautiful.”
Ellie conquered dizzy spells, tiredness and dehydration to make it to the finish. There’s no doubt it’s transformed her mental and physical health. During her training, Ellie had also given up smoking, and took four months off drinking. She’s now a committed runner, with two half-marathons in the pipeline and a long-term dream to run the Paris Marathon. “I didn’t run for nearly three weeks after the marathon, but I missed it,” she says. “I had dinner with a friend and said, ‘I feel so unattractive’ and she said, ‘You know why – it’s because you haven’t been running.’ I said, ‘Oh my god – yeah!’”
Of course, there is also the incredible feeling of having been able to raise thousands of pounds for the sensory room. “It’s amazing. It wasn’t just about the self-achievement. I’m actually going to see this sensory room being built and see the young people hopefully relaxing in there and liking it.”
Ellie’s clearly passionate about what she does, and says that she couldn’t have done the marathon without her Leonard Cheshire colleagues. “The staff have been so supportive and two even came with me to the marathon. Management have helped with my anxiety and helped me fundraise – we all care about the children and young adults we support, and we all want a nice sensory room for them.”
For Ellie, appearing on the cover of Women’s Running is testament to how far she’s come as a person since taking up the sport. “Running the marathon taught me not to listen to the media and how we ‘should’ look,” she says, “and it’s taught me that if I can achieve a marathon, I can achieve more for myself. I’ve always been a bit of a pushover. When you have anxiety, you always doubt yourself, and you apologise all the time. Now I’ve learnt to stand up for myself. It’s like – ‘No, I’ve done a marathon, don’t speak to me like that!’ It’s taught me to appreciate who I am.”
You can still donate to Ellie’s marathon fundraising at JustGiving.