“I had become somebody through all of this: I had become a runner”. Meet Russell, whose mental health was transformed through running.

In 2018, Russell Hunter was unable to leave the house without using headphones to shut off from the world around him. However, having suffered with poor mental health for most of his life, it was in this same year that Russell started a journey to recovery, in which running played a major role.

We spoke to the Manchester Half participant about his experiences with mental health and aim this year to finally embrace the atmosphere and joy of the day in his favourite city: Manchester. Read our candid and moving conversation with Russell below.

Introduce yourself and tell us a few things that help define you.

I am a proud Yorkshireman, cat dad to three boys and fiancé to a strong and passionate woman. By day I am a postman, and in the evenings, I train and coach kickboxing. At the weekends, when I can, I am a motorsport and grassroots football photographer. And of course, in between all of this, I am a runner.

Why have you decided to run the Manchester Half Marathon this year? Also, have you run half marathons before?

I’ve done two half marathons before by the coast, and they were a heck of an experience! However, I chose Manchester this year for several reasons. It’s my favourite city in the UK (sorry Leeds) with its beautiful mix of old and new architecture and as the home of the Britpop music I grew up listening to. But even more than this, I love the pride that people have about being from Manchester. The street art shows this, and this form of self-expression has become a bold and celebrated characteristic of the city rather than an eyesore.

Tell us more about your own mental health experience. Has running affected your mental health? 

It all started at a young age when I was bullied at school. I never felt I could speak up to anyone, so I just buried it with the mindset that it would all go away if I focused on other things. This would become my coping mechanism all the way through my teens (while dealing with my parents having a messy separation) and into adulthood through a rocky marriage which ended in divorce. I buried everything, spoke to no one about my issues and tried to show as little emotion as possible. This appeared to work well, until in 2018, at 37 years old, when one little comment during an incident at work seemingly triggered my brain into shutting down to avoid any more harm being done (what I now recognise as a fight or flight response). I lost about 6 weeks of my life in the aftermath of this event. Even now, I’m still not sure what happened in those six weeks.

Absolutely broken as a person, I had no choice but to go on long term sick. Thankfully, I have an utter rock of a partner, who looked after me and kept me afloat when I felt like I was sinking…which was constantly. I began therapy, which was very intense and draining, and I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Secondary PTSD. Not sure what to do whilst off work, I saw that a local organised 10k run was happening in a few months’ time. I thought that if I could complete this challenge, I would be ‘fixed’ (silly now I know).

I started my training by taking part in parkrun. After my first one, I was a complete mess! But I kept going, and gradually I began running twice midweek and parkrun on a weekend. This turned into three times a week, then a parkrun on Saturdays,

As for the 10k run – did I complete it? Yes. Did it “fix” me? Not quite! But I had begun to feel good; I’d lost weight and had even stopped wearing headphones so I could greet people whilst out of the house and start connecting with the world. I had set personal goals, beat them, then set new ones and beat them again. I had no idea that putting on some trainers and heading out of the door would have this kind of effect on me. But more importantly, I had become somebody though all of this: I had become a runner.

I still suffer with mental health issues and I will for the rest of my life. But unlike my younger self, I have very different, and better, coping mechanisms. Old(er) me, will kit up and head out, connect with the world around me and return home feeling refreshed.

In your view, how can we all improve our mental health?

I think that it all starts with building an awareness of how you are feeling. Many people bury their emotions like I did, only for an explosion to happen later down the line. Equally as important is talking. Be honest with the people you trust and try to build up a good network of people in your life – even just a handful of supportive people will do. Joining forums or private mental health Facebook groups can also be a great way to meet people with similar experiences. Shout out to Dealing With Depression – this is an amazing online community!

Remember that there may also be local help in your area.  For me, I attended ‘Andy’s Mans Club’ for a time, and then I joined a local ‘Men’s Shed’ where I’d spend mornings taking apart mountains bikes, cleaning them up, oiling chains, putting new brakes on and then reassembling the bike. I also began jam making and crafting at another mental health workshop and attended organised walks.

Finally, avoid comparing. It’s easy to do this and makes you clam up. Although someone else’s mental issues might sound ‘worse’ than yours, it’s all relative and nobody can invalidate your feelings.

What are you most looking forward to about the Manchester Half Marathon 2023?

I really can’t wait for the atmosphere! I’ve heard that the crowds along the way are incredible and really help keep you going, but that last 1 or 2k, when people start to gather by the finish line and cheer, that will be something else. So, to do that in Manchester, a city that celebrates hard work and determination, that will be amazing.

What is your message to people going through a similar experience?

Understand that if you have mental health issues, it does not make you a burden; it does not make you weak and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re alone.  Don’t apologise for being ill; it’s not of your making and there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Believe in yourself and take each hour of each day as it comes, because you are worth each day.

Thank you, Russell, for sharing your story; we hope you have a blast at the event! For those reading, make sure to say hello to Russell if you see him on event day!