Rachel Cullen has battled severe depression and low self esteem, but she says marathon running saved her life
It was standing at the start of the London Marathon in 2015 that Rachel Cullen decided she was going to write a book about her life.
“People kept saying to me ‘oh but you are lucky, you’re a born runner.’ They just labelled me, they had no idea of the previous 15 years of hell that I had been through to get to that starting line and the anxiety I still felt every time I stood at the start of a race. So I decided I wanted to put the record straight and tell my story.
“I also couldn’t believe myself how I had got from the low places I have been to where I was,” says the mum of two, who has since run eight marathons and clocked up a personal best time of three hours 16 minutes.
In her book Running for My Life, out today, Rachel, 39, from Halifax, recounts years of suffering from body dysmorphia and bipolar disorder and surviving on a dangerous cocktail of antidepressants, alcohol and chocolate.
As a result of her mental health problems and being labelled ‘fat’ as a child, Rachel became trapped in a world of misery.
“My mother had manic depression at a time when it just wasn’t talked about. Her life revolved around us and that was a huge responsibility for a child to bear.”
Rachel recognises now that there was an hereditary nature to her mental health problems.
“I believe there is an element of nature and nurture when it comes to this type of thing. I have a predisposition to depression, which was made worse by my upbringing.”
As a result a young Rachel would comfort eat, lowering her self-esteem further as her weight ballooned.
She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while at Hull University aged 21, but said she didn’t tell anyone. Bad relationships followed as she looked for approval and tried to create a ‘perfect’ life.
“But it was all a fallacy,” she says. “I was trying to create something that just wasn’t real, I was always looking for validation even though I knew it was wrong.”
Not knowing a way out of the cycle of misery, she decided to put on a pair of trainers. She’d never been able to think of herself as a ‘runner’, and the first time she forced herself out the door, she knew it would hurt.
And, although running saw her weight drop off, she admits that initially her relationship with exercise was dysfunctional.
“I would almost use it as a punishment,” she says. “The weight came off but then I couldn’t stop or else the weight would go back on. It didn’t make me happy. It was like I was running away from myself.”
It wasn’t until 2007 when Rachel was trying for a baby that her life changed.
“We had planned to have a baby but I knew that I would have to come off the medication and that terrified me. I didn’t know if I could cope without it and I was also petrified of becoming a mum, of suddenly being responsible for another human being.”
And so Rachel decided to train for her first ever marathon.
“I felt if I could run a marathon and give myself and my daughter something to be proud of then I could do anything.
“If I couldn’t then I would have just gone back to my doctor for help, there would have been no shame in that.”
But just seven months after Tilly was born Rachel successfully completed the London Marathon and she has never looked back. It is journey that – she believes – saved her.
After that first marathon she joined a running club where she met like-minded people.
“For the first time running gave me real joy, which is hard to explain to non- runners.
“Crossing the finish line in April 2009 was euphoric. It catapulted me into the world of running that I never dreamed I could be a part of. It gave me the confidence to believe in my own choices again and mentally that’s a huge help. It is something that I never thought I would be able to do physically or mentally. It helped me to manage things that otherwise would have overwhelmed me.
“It gave me the freedom and mental relief I needed to get off my medication after 12 years, and I even met my new husband Gav at my local running club. Now I’ve run over 50 half marathons, eight full marathons and done more than 500 races.
“I ran with Tilly in a buggy and she was just four when we did our first Park Run together.”
Rachel is all too aware of maintaining a balance when it comes to her young daughter.
“Tilly loves doing the Park Runs but if there is a day when she really doesn’t want to go then that is fine too. It is about enjoyment. Being outside brings me a lot of joy and often Tilly and I will just go on long walks together and chat.”
Having retrained as a personal trainer after she left law, Rachel now spends half her time working for a voluntary organisation in Halifax.
“I have a real empathy for people who are suffering from low self-esteem because I have been there.
The rest of the time she spends pursuing her other great passions, writing.
“I have always loved to write and, a few years ago, I started a blog. I’ve had an agent for the last year and we are working on a few ideas including a follow up to Running for My Life but also possibly something fictional.”
Rachel says her primary reason for writing Running for My Life was very personal, although she is well aware of the impact it may have on others.
“I am not saying that putting on a pair of trainers will cure depression, it is about my personal journey and if that helps people than that is great.”