Rachel Cullen came to study Law at the University of Hull, where she did the first two years of her degree, before completing her studies in Leeds. As a student Rachel was diagnosed as bipolar, and even though after graduation she had a relationship, a career, a home, and a “normal” and successful life, something wasn’t right. Rachel was stuck in a cycle of depression. Then she started taking running seriously and began participating in marathons and in 2014 she was in the top 20 female finishers at the Yorkshire Marathon.
As well as continuing to run and participating in Marathons, Rachel is also the author of a book, ‘Running For My Life: How I Built a Better Me, One Step at a Time’ which has been featured in the newspapers and across the media, and is currently the top selling book on Amazon about running!
In the words of BBC Breakfast presenter, Louise Minchin:
“I love this book for showing how with sheer determination and dogged tenacity you can overcome great difficulties, and that sport, from whatever point or age that you start, can change your life. She might even persuade me that one day I too could love running.”
In this interview, we talk to Rachel about running, mental health and wellbeing, and “being more than the person you have been told you are”.
If you like what you read, be sure to pick up Rachel’s book and find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about your time at Hull?
I studied at Hull University for two years. The first one was more of a traditional First Year University Student experience – I enjoyed throwing myself into my new degree course, and also the 30p pints down at LA’s nightclub. However, things began to unravel towards the end of my first year, when I began experiencing mental health problems and during my second year, I had a terrible time. I’d lost quite a significant amount of weight, had a breast reduction in secret without telling anybody about the issues I was facing, and subsequently suffered with severe body dysmorphia whilst living in a house with 6 other young, pretty, carefree girls. I became very isolated and it was a particularly difficult time for me.
Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to be diagnosed as bipolar while you were still a student managing your full time studies.
It was actually whilst I was a student at the College of Law in York when I received my first diagnosis of clinical depression, possibly triggered by the series of difficult circumstances I’d experienced during my second year in Hull. But no doubt, I was living with the mental health demons whilst studying for the second year of my law degree. It became virtually impossible for me to remain focused on my study, and even the most basic things such as leaving my bedroom became increasingly difficult. I knew that I was at serious risk of having some kind of nervous breakdown, and so I took the decision to step off my degree course after the second year. I needed to reset my head and to seek help, before continuing with my studies.
If you could speak to your younger self now, what would you tell her to help her navigate through her life and her studies?
I would tell her that no amount of study, and no qualification in the world will mean a thing without your health, happiness, and mental & physical wellbeing.
I would implore her to stop looking externally for validation – be that in unsuitable boyfriends, damaging friendships, or even the pursuit of a life you are told that you should want.
I would tell her to take a break from study: that’s not to say don’t pursue a degree or other qualification, but I would ask what else do you have in your life? What are your hobbies? What do you love? Have you travelled? Have you seen anywhere in the world? Have you even tried to look for yourself anywhere other than in the role you have been given in life? If not, it is your duty to find out. Be more than the person you have been told you are.
You described life after graduation as being ‘a false happiness’. Can you tell us what that means?
Yes. It is someone else’s dream. An invisible someone who doesn’t know our innermost needs, or any of those things which will make our souls fill with joy. The detached house? The posh car? The dream job? The perfect wife/husband? The 2.4 kids? Whose version of utopia are you buying into, and if it isn’t yours, then opt out! And you will know if all of those things are not working for you. In the pit of your stomach, and in the echo of the silence around your sadness, you will know. If those things are right for you, and if you have genuinely met Mr or Miss Perfect and you love your detached bungalow with room for a pony, then good for you! But to do it because you think you should is no reason. No reason at all. Stop the bus and get off.
Can you tell us about the role that running plays in your life?
Yes. Running plays a huge part in my life. It is my place to escape. It is my adventure, my challenge, my fun and the place where I have realised who I really am, and more importantly – who I can be. It is still both painful and terrifying at times, but endlessly fascinating and it allows me to search deep within myself to see just how far I can go beyond my zone of comfort – both physically and mentally – and to a place where I am free from labels. Running has taught me that I need to be out amongst nature. I have to spend time in the outdoors, to feel the wind in my face and the rain lashing against my cheeks. That is where things begin to make sense to me. Away from busyness and commuter traffic; free from supermarket aisles and the bombardment of noise. I simply need that in my daily life, and running has – over many years – taught me that about myself.
Writing a book can be as challenging as running a marathon. What prompted you to pick up your pen and start writing?
Whilst I was sitting in the bath the day before the Virgin London Marathon 2015, I had an overwhelming sense of, ‘How have I got here?’ I thought back to the marathon I had run just months before, where I had achieved a time of 3 hours and 16 minutes and been in the top 20 female finishers, and I wondered how on earth I had arrived at this place from the unlikeliest of backgrounds. And then I knew I had to write it down. That was a long process over the subsequent two years, but I knew I wanted to tell my story…it was like a compulsion; an obsession. And now, I have, and it was worth all the effort!
What are your next goals?
I am now working on the follow-on to Running For My Life. My story doesn’t end at the finish line of the Virgin London Marathon 2011. In many ways, that’s just the beginning! My story hasn’t been one of a consistently upward trajectory, either. I have faced many more challenges since the story in RFML ends, and I want to be able to share those experiences, too.
I now have a literary agent, and we are working on this, together with a fiction idea, and so I will continue to write and develop those ideas over the coming months and possibly years. Writing is what I love to do, just as I do running.
My daughter is 7 years old now, and she has completed 40 junior Parkruns – and is learning to find her joy far earlier in life than I did.
I am also spending time discussing the wider issues raised within my book, and I’d like to think I am playing some small part in helping to give a voice to those who, like me, may have kept such struggles to themselves. I am getting a huge amount of satisfaction in being able to do this, as a result of writing my book and being open and honest about my own experiences.
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