FEBRUARY 2022: Alison Kuy has faced some major life challenges over the years, and has found that running has really helped her to proactively manage her mental health.
She first joined RunBrighton, for our winter 2019/20 season, and is currently training with us, each Sunday, having set herself the goal of completing the Brighton Half Marathon, later this month.
She is also a longstanding member of Brighton & Hove Women’s Running Club, and volunteers as a regular pacer, supporting the 30-minute-plus finishers at Hove Prom parkrun.
RunBrighton, as official training partner of the Brighton Half, organises their pace team, and I was chuffed when Alison recently agreed to be one of the team for this year’s Half, 27th February. She’ll be pacing 3hrs, alongside club mate and fellow parkrun pacer, Laura Hodgkiss.
Alison, thanks for agreeing to be on this year’s pace team for the Half. What made you say yes?
I’d lost my running mojo during the various lockdowns of the pandemic and, whilst I was looking forward to running the Half Marathon, without a target time goal I was struggling with a lack of focus. It was motivating to be offered a pacer role, as it has meant I have had to discipline myself to a specific pace in training.
How did you originally get into running?
Initially, I took up running for physical health, as I had wanted to avoid osteoporosis in later life. From the beginning, I enjoyed the social aspects of running, but it’s fair to say that I did not enjoy the actual running very much. I hated getting out of breath, as it triggered really unpleasant feelings in my body, and if I attempted a sprint finish my mind would present me with frightening flashbacks to previous events in my life.
Are you ok to talk about some of the events that caused this reaction?
My boyfriend, Phil, was killed in an accident; I supported Janet, my best friend of 35 years, through a euthanasia situation when she died at 46; and I had to watch my home burn and live in temporary accommodation for a year after my flat was partially destroyed in a fire.
To lose my home, and the two most important people in my life, shook my world, and it made me stop to think about what I really wanted out of life.
I worked as a business consultant, but what I most enjoyed was coaching the people in my team. I also loved travelling, so I decided that I would like to become a teacher, and volunteer to work with children overseas. I resigned from my corporate job and trained as a teacher in English as a foreign language. My first teaching assignment was at an orphanage in Sri Lanka. It was such a wonderful experience, and the kids were amazing. But unfortunately, it was Christmas 2004, and I got caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami. I travelled home a week after the tsunami on a mercy flight organised by the U.N. It was a harrowing experience and I found it difficult to cope when I got back to the UK.
Sadly, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, for a period of time, I had to give up paid work altogether, adding an additional layer of worry on top of the trauma.
So, if running triggered your PTSD symptoms, what motivated you to continue to run?
I discovered parkrun! At the time, Clare Ryan, the race director at Hove Prom, was trying to encourage non-runners into parkrun. She was looking for walk/jog pace volunteers to help support people around the course and, as it was a very gentle, steady pace, that suited me perfectly, so I volunteered.
I loved pacing. I got to meet so many interesting people, and chatting to them helped keep my mind occupied and away from traumatic memories. I began to notice that if the people I was pacing wanted to try a sprint finish, I would sprint with them. I would still get the horrible feelings when I got out of breath, but running alongside somebody else somehow made it feel safer.
After a few months of walk/jog pacing, I’d built up the confidence to join a running club. I was worried about not fitting in with my weird ‘running goal’ of not wanting to run fast, but the coaches at Brighton & Hove Women’s Running Club were really understanding.
I’ve seen you push yourself hard on a RunBrighton training run, Alison, such that you’d get a bit out of breath. Would you say you’ve overcome your PTSD?
Not completely, but I’ve come a long way in being able to proactively manage it. I’ve always been motivated by learning, so I read every book about mind management that I could get my hands on. It took several years, but I took courses in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and in life coaching, so that I could build myself a recovery plan. I learnt about PTSD, how the fight-or-flight response is triggered, the physiology behind a panic attack, and what happens to my body when my mind dissociates. Armed with all this information, I concluded that I could use running as exposure therapy, to train my mind to better tolerate PTSD.
Can you explain more about using running as exposure therapy?
I started to run faster at BHWRC’s training night, so that I would deliberately trigger a panic attack. I had been attending the club, long enough for the environment to feel safe enough for me to endure an attack in front of other people. I was running in a familiar location, with a familiar group of runners, and I felt well supported because the coaches knew what I was doing, and they constantly checked in with me to make sure that I was coping ok. It was really unpleasant, and I cried quite a lot, but over a number of weeks, as my mind finally started to get the message that I wasn’t in danger at that moment in time, and that these were memories from my past, the intensity and length of the attacks began to slowly reduce.
I then decided to test my improved, trigger tolerance in a more public environment, by moving up from the walk/jog pacer at parkrun, to pacing 30-minute-plus runners to a specific time.
There had been a big gap at parkrun, in that faster runners were supported by pacers up to 30 minutes, and the tail end was supported by the walk/jog pacer, but the field in between rarely had any pacer support. Clare arranged for RunBrighton ambassador Amanda Hall to join a small group of us at parkrun, and teach us how to pace to a time. I then set myself a challenge of pacing from 40 minutes to 31 minutes, dropping down a minute, each week.
My challenge was reported in the weekly Hove Prom parkrun report, to publicise pacing for the 30-minute-plus field. It was gratifying to see runners who had been stuck at a specific time, smashing their PBs over the 10 weeks of the challenge. And I was so busy concentrating on my pace, and encouraging whoever had joined me, that I almost forgot about the panic attacks that I would inevitably get at the end of each run.
Alison, I’m sure a lot of people will have been inspired by what you’ve achieved with your running, and how you’ve gone on to support others starting out on their running journey. What would you say has been your best or most rewarding running experience to date?
Without a doubt, it would be when I organised a pacer team for a club takeover of Hove Prom parkrun. The charity Mind runs a ‘Time to Talk Day’ campaign, every February, and the ‘mental health champions’ at BHWRC organise an annual event. By February 2019, we had a handful of experienced pacers for 30-minute-plus runners on the prom, but wanted to be more inclusive. We wanted to field a much bigger team of pacers, plus a walk/jog pacer and a walking pacer. I recruited a team of 20 runners from the club, and held training sessions at parkrun for the two weeks preceding the takeover, to show the rookie pacers how to pace others. We were able to field a pacer for every 5k finish time, from 24 to 40 minutes, at one-minute intervals. BHWRC have a very distinctive, jade, club vest, and it made my heart sing to see the prom flooded with pacers for such a range of capabilities. I heard so many stories on the day, from people realising that they don’t have to be fast, or even a runner, to take part at parkrun, and how supported and motivated they felt by having a pacer alongside them, whatever their goal was on the day. I was one of the pacers on that team and, for the first time since I took up running, I didn’t have a panic attack when I ran my sprint finish!
What advice would you give to anyone who is about to take on their first half marathon, and perhaps planning to join your sub-3hr pace group?
Run your own race, and don’t compare yourselves to the front runners. The pace for sub-3hrs can feel painfully slow for the first few miles, but let those around you shoot off; you’ll later be overtaking many of those who bolted at the beginning.
Be encouraged by the support from the crowds, but if they shout at you to run when you might be walking, don’t allow yourself to get distracted by those voices. They mean well, but if walking is part of your race plan – and it will definitely be part of our 3hr pacing plan – walk purposefully and don’t feel pressured into running again until you are ready.
Enjoy the day, have fun, and savour the moment when you cross over that finish line and become a half marathoner!
Alison, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for sharing some deeply personal stuff, and it’s great to know that running has helped you manage your PTSD. I’m delighted you’re going to be part of our pace team, later this month. I hope you have lots of fun, and I’m sure you’ll help lots of runners achieve their race goals.
By Mike Bannister