“Recovery is not a win or a failure.”
Playwright Emily Holyoake was never really one for cross-country; at school it more ritual humiliation than part of a healthy lifestyle. But when her father fell ill, she signed up for a 10k. And that’s where things started to go wrong.
A humorous and heartfelt piece about how Emily took the steps needed to get back in the race.
Emily Holyoake is a Derby-based playwright, reviewer, and reformed actor. Her work has been performed in off-West End venues and theatres across the UK, including the The Bike Shed Theatre, Derby Theatre, and Nottingham Playhouse. She’s currently working on a one-woman play focusing on trichotillomania, an impulse disorder which causes someone to pull out their own hair. In late 2016, Emily was commissioned by Poetical Machines to write a full length play about Ada Lovelace, funded by the Arts Council and supported by Nottingham Playhouse.It will be touring in Spring 2019.
Her writing is character-driven and woman-centric, usually concerned with how technology affects human relationships, and always written with actors in mind. As a fan of aspirational science-fiction, she loves finding ways to put sci-fi onstage, and her plays often feature robots. Likes include running and Captain Kathryn Janeway of the starship Voyager. Dislikes include mansplaining and books that have a map at the beginning.
If you'd like to sponsor her 2018 Race(s) For Life and help her raise money for Cancer Research, her donation page is here.
Run Back To Yourself
I was not a sporty kid. I was average at P.E.; it was never a total nightmare but I did my fair share of accidentally forgetting my kit. I did better at things like swimming, things without pressure that I could do alone. I dreaded the long runs that got sprung on us once a year or so, with no prep, no training, no teaching of form or pacing. Just do the laps and embarrass yourself while the natural born runners stretch out ahead.
My mum and sister did a couple of Sport Relief miles – just one mile, and you could walk if you really wanted to – but I always said no. Then in summer 2014 my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma. We’d already lost a lot of older relatives to cancer, but my dad had only just turned fifty, and he was young to get mantle cell lymphoma, and it felt unreal and unfair. I needed to challenge myself. So me and my sister Jess signed up for a 10k Race For Life, with both of us assuming that she would hate it but get it done, and that I would hate it and really, really struggle.
Something happened during training. I didn’t quite get all out running fever, but I started to realise that running isn’t something you’re either good at or you’re not. You can learn to run. It’s something which can be taught, or which you can teach to yourself, which changes your body and mind. You can learn patience, and stamina, and you can learn how to lower your centre of gravity to soften the blows to your knees, and how to use your core to stay tall and upright.
Of course, like most novices, I over-trained. First one knee, then the other, a trip to a physiotherapist. Then I started to feel pain in my core, around my chest and underneath my ribs. I ignored it for a bit then went to a GP, who diagnosed me with costochondritis – which literally just means the muscles between your ribs are inflamed, and doesn’t come with any reasoning or cure, and the assumption was that it was because of the running, because of the impact of jolts and heavier breaths. She told me to take ibuprofen for a few weeks and come back if it didn’t get better. I didn’t stop running, because it was less than two months to go and I was up to 8k now, so very nearly there.
I took ibuprofen for a few weeks. The pain fluctuated. Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t sit or stand, and sometimes it seemed gone completely. Then one afternoon I was sat in front of a spreadsheet in my parents’ dining room, with a pain in my left shoulder than wouldn’t go away. The pain got worse until it felt like my shoulder was breaking. I later learned that this was referred pain, from a hole in my stomach, from a misdiagnosed ulcer that had suffered weeks of aggravating ibuprofen and finally perforated.
A lot of people who have abdominal surgery get the same advice that you shouldn’t pick up anything heavier than a kettle, and the same vague promise that you’ll feel normal in six weeks – whether it’s keyhole surgery or a Caesarean or what I had – a laparotomy. My scar cuts from just below my sternum to just above my belly button. It divided me completely. I did not feel normal in six weeks.
The worst of it was the jokes about how far I’d gone to get out of running that 10k.
Jess ran it alone that summer, in torrential rain, with my dad cheering her on while Mum took me for a walk every day – first to the lamppost on the corner, then the next one, then as far as the post box.
After that promised six weeks – six weeks and you’ll feel normal again – I tried to go for a run. Every thud of my feet on the ground made it feel like that wound would burst open and spill out my insides over the pavement. I stumbled home in tears, to an unthinking remark that I hadn’t been out very long. I was used to running for an hour or more, first thing in the morning, stretching out around my city.
It didn’t take six weeks. It does not take six weeks. And I felt so ashamed of myself over that for so long. I try not to feel that now but it’s still hard. Writing and speaking this has been hard; you can probably hear that, sorry. But if you’re still listening, what I most want to say is that some things don’t come with a timeframe. Recovery is not a win or a failure. It’s learning how to pace yourself again. It’s stamina, and sometimes over-doing it and feeling damaged, but keeping in the back of your mind that there is a way to soften your knees, there is a way to feel strong and upright, there is a way to move forwards. You will find it. You will run for hours, or minutes. You will run back to yourself.
The next year, I ran that 10k, with my sister, with my mum and dad and partner watching me.
This year, I want to run two. Two Races For Life. Both for my dad. One with my sister. One for myself.