Trail running victories- redefining success

IMG_6795Three years ago I lost my heart to trail running. Since then it has been a journey filled with trials and tribulations but after all the blood, sweat and tears, finishing my first trail race of the year on the podium has filled me with a mixed bag of emotions.

A year in review

Last year certainly came with its challenges. I suffered a massive blow after sustaining a severe ankle sprain that wound up requiring four months rest and has resulted in the weakening of supporting ligaments. The injury completely sidelined me and I was forced to pause everything that I had spent an entire year training for.

On the emotional front, 2018 presented further challenges. I am genetically predispositioned to Bipolar Disorder. By my mid 20s I was displaying the classic symptoms but when I entered a traumatic and emotionally abusive relationship at the start of 2018, it triggered possibly one of my most dramatic hypomanic phases and led to an official diagnosis. The news further sidelined me.

Since then I have been kicking, screaming and clawing my way back. There is a song by Machine Gun Kelly (‘Running’) where he says: “I keep my head up, with my feet on the ground, from the bottom so up is the only place that I’m going, ready to face all that’s in front of me now.”
This resonates so deeply with me. There were so many times when I doubted I would ever get back to running, which has been the torch that has cast light in my darkest times. And if I have to be completely honest, there have been times when I felt like my mental disorder was going to tear me apart and consume me. But sometimes there is no other choice but to drag yourself up off the ground, put on your warrior paint and face your fears.

Revisiting definition of success

We often see and hear stories of success. We see athletes achieving their goals, teams winning their leagues… but not often do we see the struggles they go through to get there. The media has us believing that there are no obstacles. That these people somehow magically sail to the top. I have lost count of the number of times I have felt downright despondent and frustrated thinking that life had it in for me. But the truth is, we are all fighting a battle in our lives. We don’t always see it on social media, on TV, in magazines, but in the background there are always obstacles.

trail runThis last weekend I did not celebrate my podium finish- I celebrated ovecrcoming the curveballs that got thrown my way to knock me down. I celebrated all the times that I wanted to give up but didn’t. When we think of success we conjure up images of winning, of high salaries, perfect relationships, white picket fences… but I don’t think that is the definition of success. I think success is the grit it takes to face life’s obstacles and not let them knock us down. And if all we achieve is making it through the day, then so be it!

In the same song, Machine Gun Kelly says: “I’m walking through the fire ’cause there is no way around, moving in the same direction wherever the wind is blowing.”
Today, instead of revelling in my wins, I choose to revel in the strength it took to get there.

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Keeping my head above water with running

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In her recent song, Avril Lavigne wrote: “my life is what I’m fighting for, can’t part the sea, can’t reach the shore. And my voice becomes the driving force, I won’t let this pull me overboard.” 

She was referencing her battle with Lyme disease but those lines can apply to so many situations and are extremely powerful to me. People who have not experienced the face of Bipolar Disorder may not understand, but that is exactly how it feels- as if you are fighting for your life. 

zoe-papadakis-blogI felt like that not too long ago. I was lying on the bed in my mom’s arms, struggling to breath, crying and trembling and screaming. It felt as if my soul was being ripped out of my body. It felt like nails were being hammered into my brain, my chest. I was in the depths of a mixed episode and the anxiety and extreme depression had taken hold of me. My mom was stroking my hair and I was sobbing, telling her I did not think I was going to make it. That I could not fight it anymore. People do not see that side of me. It is easy to put up a brave face for a few hours but when the depression hits this hard, I retreat. I disappear. Nobody hears from me because I cannot handle them seeing me like this. 

My mom knows every essence of my being and as we lay there, she said the one thing she knew would pull me to shore. “Think about your running Zoe. About everything you are training for. Those races. Your dreams…” My mom knows that running has always been the light in my darkness.  

People ask me why I run. Why I train so hard. Why I want to go do ultras for fun. It is hard to explain to them that it is the one time where I feel safe to be me. To embrace every aspect of myself, which includes the Bipolar side. It is where I feel free. Where I do not feel the shackles of this disorder, or worse, the stigma.  

zoe-papadakis-runnerThere is this feeling of disconnect that some people with Bipolar feel with their surroundings.  I often experience this. But when I am out there running, everything feels so real. I feel happy and alive. It is more than just racing. Or trying to end up on the podium. I run because it is my time. It is how I control this disorder. And it gives me reason to pull myself out of bed in the mornings when I feel crippled with the debilitating depression that comes with the “lows” of Bipolar. 

Gabe Howard from bphope.com explained Bipolar so perfect recently. He explained that “the weather is not kind, just like bipolar disorder is not kind. It jerks you around, it jerks you back and forth, and it doesn’t really care about your plans or what you are doing.” 

He added that “weather is unpredictable; bipolar disorder is unpredictable. The weather exists on a spectrum from sunny days to rainy days, exactly the same as bipolar does.” 

We are becoming more aware of this disorder but I still feel it is largely misunderstood. And that is nobody’s fault. It is difficult to understand something you do not have firsthand experience with. When I tell someone that I am feeling extremely depressed, or that I am becoming hypomanic, they only have a point of reference based upon their own emotional spectrum. However, with Bipolar, that spectrum of emotion is far wider and the person living with the disorder experiences things far more intensely.  

When you are in the grip of a depressed, or low, state in Bipolar you do not just feel sad. It is almost impossible to get out of bed. Someone once explained it so well. They said, imagine the most intense grief you have felt in your life…well that is what a low state can feel like for someone with Bipolar. It is crucial at these times to have a reason to get out of bed. To have a purpose. For me it is running. Which is exactly what my mom knew when she pulled me out of the darkest place.  

I run to keep me saneI am lucky to have a family who understand this disorder, and are there to help me. But there are so many others out there living with Bipolar who do not have that support. Which is why I keep saying it is so important for all of us to learn more about Bipolar. For us to accept it as a disability within our society, and to not shy away from the topic or make those who do have it feel shamed or awkward about it. Kindness and understanding could save a life. 

Living and running with bipolar

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A few months ago, when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I vowed to speak openly and honestly about my experience. It is a topic that is so misunderstood, and one afflicted with stigma. It is not something that is easy for me to talk openly about but at the same time it is not something I want to keep quiet about. Until now I have used social media to predominantly share my running experience and while on the surface it has been all smiles, victories and overcoming obstacles, behind the scenes it has been a very different story.

2018-the year of hell

Last year, a traumatic relationship sent me into a manic state, which ultimately led to my initial diagnoses. Bipolar is a disorder measured on a broad spectrum and is characterised by states of mania (bipolar 1) or hypomania (bipolar 2), along with states of depression and periods of normality.

 

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Running was my sanity but now I was injured

I became a completely different person in that phase. It did not help that I was injured and unable to run, which is something that has been vital in keeping me on an even keel. It all culminated with me in the psychiatrist’s room, hearing the news I had suspected all along-I had bipolar 2.

 

Ever since I can remember, I have been different. Zoe the “weird” one. The “difficult” one. The “hyperactive” one. The “depressed” one. The “uncontrollable” one. The “problem” child. The one people did not know how to handle. I was subsequently alienated. When I was diagnosed, so many emotions coursed through my body. Shock, pain, denial, anger, hurt, but mostly relief because if I knew what was “wrong” with me, I could treat it and people would finally understand. Yeah right.

Knocked back down

It has not been that easy. For starters, there are so many aspects to bipolar. There is so much to learn and when it comes to treatment things get even more complicated. I spent those months predominantly in denial, avoiding the overwhelming task of learning about this illness, creating a proper treatment plan and taking active steps to tackle it.
Then I was dealt with a massive blow. The company I was working for closed down. In order to keep my apartment, to pay my bills and feed myself I had to find a new job immediately. The problem was, being November, most companies were closing down, not hiring. I had to sell all my belongings to cover my basic living expenses but my bank balance was dwindling, and fast.

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I felt so alone

I remember sitting in my empty apartment gripped with overwhelming fear and anxiety, not knowing what would happen to me or what to do. And feeling so alone. My mind escaped to dark places and it took every ounce of strength for me to fight it. I can honestly say that was the hardest thing I have ever had to go through.

I had just settled down from a manic state and now this blow triggered a mixed state, which features traits of mania and depression and is a difficult one to cope with. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was losing grip on reality. I felt disconnected with my surroundings and looking back, all I can really remember from that time is the worst anxiety I have ever felt. It did not help that I was on my own with little to no support base.

My family was living in Cape Town and I had lost many of my friends. The thing with bipolar is that, when you are in a “low” phase, you retreat from everyone and everything. It is hard to maintain friendships because very few understand why you are “up”“ at times and ”down“ at others. This rollercoaster ride can be exhausting for outsiders, which is understandable, but if it is draining you, imagine how tough it must be for the person going through it.

It did not help that the few people around me could not understand what I was going through and it only exasperated those mixed emotions I was feeling. The week leading up to Christmas I found myself lying on the floor, fighting the millionth panic attack and losing all sense of myself, when I knew it was time to let go of the life I had built in Durban and move to Cape Town.

A new life

I needed to be with my family. I needed a new start. Another shot at life. It was hard to move but within days I began to feel lighter and happier than I have in ages. What struck me is the support base Cape Town offers to people living with bipolar disorder. There are support groups and people willing to share information and experiences and I am eternally grateful to have met them.

I have also started running again, after four months off from injury, and it has been instrumental in lifting me up from the overwhelming depression and anxiety that has plagued me. I am so excited to be looking at the race calendar again, even if my exasperated coach keeps telling me to be patient and see how training goes, and it feels good to be back on the trails.

Break the stigma

It has not been an easy road. And I know it is not going to be an easy journey, which is partly why I want to use this space to speak up about what it is like living, and running, with bipolar. My whole life I have felt misunderstood and alone. How many others out there feel the same way? I have noticed that people around me have not wanted to talk about bipolar. They have not wanted to understand it. That is disheartening to know because over 4 million other South Africans suffer from this disorder.  If your understanding could save a life, would it not be worth taking the time to talk about this? We need to initiate dialogue, not deny that this condition exists. Let us break the stigma and create a healthy environment in which people living with bipolar can stop feeling ashamed.

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I’m injured- so what!

Truth time. It’s hard to feel like an athlete when you can no longer train the way you used to. This is the longest I’ve been out of running and at times it can be tough. For a brief moment I thought I was recovered and could get back into it but by day two we decided to rather give it more time.

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Assisted pistol squats- getting there

So it’s week 7 of no running and the journey of self discovery continues. At times I feel the self pity snapping at my feet but that is possibly the greatest lesson. To seek opportunity in all situations. To stay positive.

This break has allowed me time to nurture the meaningful relationships in my life, which is something I am grateful for. It’s also allowed me to go back to basics, to build my base strength and to explore my original exictement for calisthenics. Granted, I’m nowhere near doing anything dramatically cool, but it’s fun to play around with it and see the strength gains.

Sport has a way of offering exceptional life lessons and acceptance is arguably the most valuable one.

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How setbacks come with life lessons

Zoe_Papadakis Trail runner 2When you are so accustomed to waking up and going for a run, it can be disheartening having to wake up and instead do rehab, stretching and mobility.

Running is more than a sport, it is my greatest passion. It is the love of my life. Not being able to run in itself has been a source of frustration but I’ve also had a few personal setbacks in recent weeks, which have added to the stress and insecurity.

But I came across the beautiful quote that roughly equated to how it is important to be strong to face life’s challenges but to remain soft to its beauty.

I am fortunate enough to have a lot of beauty come into my life but, when you are elbow deep in trying to figure out your next plan of action, it can be so hard to just stop and appreciate the smaler things.

I can’t help but feel that there is a much greater lessons in all this, and part of that is how to be strong, how to pick ourselves up from the ground and be a warrior but, at the same time to not let it harden us against the wonderful and beautiful experiences life has to offer.

Adding a splash of color to mundane rehab activities with my vivolicious tech shorts also helps 

Overcoming adversity… and injury

“Turn your setbacks into comebacks” – Anonymous

I’ve been struggling with my peroneal tendon since I sprained my ankle months ago but a few weeks ago my body decided it could not take anymore strain and I was forced to take a break from running, and pull out of races I had been training for all year for.

The funny thing is, I was not as concerned about having to readjust my plan as I was about how not training was going to impact me mentally and emotionally.

Running has always been my outlet and has played an important role in how I manage living with Bipolar 2. But this setback has actually taught me so many positive lessons and I have learnt so much about myself.

Injury has always been one of my biggest fears and now that it has happened, I have realised my own resilience to adversity. We truly come to know our strengths when we encounter obstacles, not when everything is going smoothly. I guess that is why they call it growing pains?

Zoe_Papadakis_trailrunnerSo anyway, I have to spend my time in the pool and on the wattbike, but that is okay because I know I will come out of this a stronger person.

So here is to embracing challenges and here’s to the injured athletes.

This one’s for the days you don’t feel like doing your rehab exercises.

This one’s for the days you’d rather be doing anything but the stationary bike.

This one’s for the days you keep measuring yourself against your peak performance.

This one’s for the days when your mental battles are even tougher than your physical battles.

This one’s for the days you’ve stumbled and you wonder if you’ll get back up

Life lessons through running

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Running track has a way of teaching me life lessons.

A band, Blue October have the most beautiful song that probably resonates with most of us to some degree:
“Today I don’t have to fall apart. I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to let the damage consume me, my shadow see through me.
Fear in itself, will reel you in and spit you out over and over again. Believe in yourself, and you will walk. 
Fear in itself, will use you up and break you down like you were never enough. I used to fall, now I get back up.”

I think we all face fear and self doubt and turn to other people to seek validation. Whether it’s in running or life. I’m guilty of that. Sometimes I guage my worth on performance.

But we don’t always realise that we are good enough. We are strong enough. We are brave enough to overcome fear and self doubt. Even if it’s just for today. Even if it means just getting through the day and getting back up again tomorrow.

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