Skip to main content

#TeamCardiffAlumni StoriesCardiff ConnectFor Alumni, By AlumniNews

Running for your life – what running can do for your mental health – For Alumni, By Alumni

20 November 2023

George Watkins (BA 2018) is a seasoned Cardiff Half Marathon runner and former Mental Health Officer at Cardiff University. In 2018, 2019 and 2022, he ran for #TeamCardiff, fundraising for vital Cardiff University neuroscience and mental health research. Here, George shares his journey with running and his own mental health.  

Running a marathon is a terrible idea. This realisation came at around 15 miles in on the outskirts of Manchester, as I dragged one increasingly sore leg in front of the other on a nondescript Sunday morning. But as I passed a Costa Coffee and Tesco in the middle of Altrincham, I found myself shedding a few tears. 

From racing dressed as Santa as a kid to competing on a track, I used to struggle to explain why I’m drawn to running. I just knew that any excuse to put on shoes and leave the house was good enough for me. It was only when I began to struggle with my mental health that I realised how much it meant to me. 

One winter evening as a teenager, I was sat at home and experienced what I realised later was my first panic attack. I ran out of the house and started jogging around the field where we walked our dog. My mum came with me – we jogged together until the adrenaline subsided and I felt tired enough to stop. 

Anxiety was a challenge that dominated much of my adolescence and much of my life. I would make decisions about where to walk, what to do and how to behave based on the boundaries I found myself increasingly shuttered into. It was all perception of what I could and could not do, but it was intoxicatingly powerful. Even when I came to Cardiff University to study in 2015, I found myself sitting at the front of lectures to be near the door, resisting social events and feeling homesick. 

Bored one evening after lectures had ended, I went out for a run for the first time in a while. I had forgotten the rush of blood warming my cheeks, the feel of the cold Cardiff wind on my face. On a whim in 2016, I signed up for the Cardiff Half Marathon, and despite being terrified I managed to finish it, which I was over the moon with.

Mental health is often portrayed in popular culture as a battle. As something we need to resist. As a monkey we need to throw from our backs. It is much easier to discuss your mental health nowadays than ever before, but for many of us it can feel like something to be ashamed of, something that can make us feel like we’ve failed. We overlook that all of us are capable of experiencing poor mental health during a difficult time in our lives. This can be triggered by anything from a major life change to a couple of bad nights of sleep. 

It is better to see your mental health as a thing to be practised and exercised, like a muscle. Progress is certainly not always linear. In my second year at Cardiff University, I took a break from running again due to a difficult period with depression, where I felt suicidal. I managed to get the help I needed from the University’s wellbeing support teams. I felt better equipped to practise my personal wellbeing and do the things that I knew would help me get back on track. I ended the year running to be our Student Union’s first Mental Health Officer. Winning felt like a personal milestone, but students having their voices heard felt even more significant. 

This last year has been the happiest of my running life. My personal bests are coming back gradually, as I feel stronger and stronger. Sadly, I lost the childhood dog I used to train with last year, so it felt like the right time to take the leap and sign up for the Manchester Marathon. For the race, I drew a small tattoo of two dog ears on my wrist to keep me motivated. It certainly helped when I was overtaken in the rain, as we plodded back towards the City Centre, by a guy who juggled for the entire race.  

The major issue with running is that however much you hate it, you tend to always find yourself coming back. Marathons may be a personal preference. 

You can follow George on X here. 

Next year’s Cardiff Half Marathon will take place on Sunday 6 October, and you can nowapply for one of #TeamCardiff’s limited charity places. Alternatively, choose another running event to run for #TeamCardiff or design your own active challenge with ‘Choose your Challenge’.

#TeamCardiff fundraising supports Cardiff University’s neuroscience and mental health, and cancer research. By supporting the next generation of researchers, you can help accelerate life-changing discoveries to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for people living with a wide range of conditions.