In 'What Works For Me' - a new series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives - we talk to people about their self-care strategies. If you'd like to contribute your story, email us.
When Rachel Farrant tightens her trainers and races through her local park, the sense of freedom lifts her. "I really like the nature - the trees, the horses," she says. "I'm running through the woods and it's all enclosed, and then suddenly I come out into this wide open space and I feel like I'm flying. It's the best."
While a lot of people take the ability to run and the liberty that comes with it for granted, Farrant, 27, is very aware of how lucky she is to be able to do such things. At the age of 18 she suffered a stroke that left her unable to see, walk or feed herself. The university student forgot everything about her life, including who her parents were, and doctors said she probably wouldn't walk or study again.
Fast-forward nine years and Farrant, from Brentwood in Essex, UK, has defied the odds: she's made a full recovery, is back at university and is training to run the London Marathon this year, which will be her second marathon event.
While short-distance park runs are her forte, 26-mile marathons are a powerful reminder to herself of how far she's come. "When you've been unable to go out or just walk around when you want to, to then be able to go running, the sense of freedom is amazing," she says. "You're just absolutely free."
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The 27-year-old is a big believer in the mental health benefits of running. "It's fantastic because you can just do it anytime. You can go out and clear your mind," she says. She's not alone in her feelings, a year-long survey of more than 13,000 people by England Athletics saw 74% experience improvements in their mental health and wellbeing from running.
But it hasn't always been this way. Prior to her stroke, which was caused by treatment for a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs, Farrant was not the sporty type at all. After the ordeal, which took years of hard work and determination to overcome, something changed.
"I had physiotherapy three or four times a week - both on the NHS and privately," she recalls. "I had rehabilitation lessons, so someone from the NHS would cook with me, read with me and we'd do balance exercises. My parents were advised to get a Wii Fit, so I spent a lot of time on that and playing memory games. When I came home from hospital, I was a bit unsteady but I could get around the house with supervision."
Her mum took time off work to teach Farrant how to read and write, hold a pen and spell basic words again; she would also remind her daughter on a daily basis of past memories and people in her life.
Over time, Farrant built up her strength and, in 2015, began running for the first time.
It's safe to say she was thrown in at the deep end. "My boss had signed me up to do the 2015 London Marathon, so I started training a little bit with him," she recalls. "I didn't do half as much training as I probably should've done at the time. Because of that I was in a lot of pain afterwards, so I swore off running for a while. I said to my mum, 'If I ever say I'm doing a marathon again, tell me not to be so stupid.'"
But the following year, when she went to watch the marathon, she felt a twinge of disappointment that it wasn't her donning a charity bib and running past the cheering crowds.
This year, things are different. Farrant is running for the Stroke Association and has done a considerable amount of training to help her on her way. She is a member of local running club Weald Park Warriors and does a 5km park run every weekend ("at first I really struggled with them, but now I can do them fairly easily"). She aims to run for five to six hours a week, although sometimes it's more like two hours.
As soon as she secured a place in the 2018 London Marathon, all thanks to a last-minute dropout, Farrant started following a specific marathon training plan. However, she had to give up in the end as whenever she missed a run she'd "get really down" and felt like she was "falling behind".
"In the end I just scrapped that plan and decided to run as much as I could and hope for the best," she explains. "I knew I wanted to do at least one half-marathon before April 22 from the point of view of just knowing that I could finish it." She's already nailed two half-marathons in preparation, so it seems she's well set for the big day.
To prevent injury, she's adapted a running technique called jeffing, which involves running for a certain distance and then walking for a short amount of time, and repeating. "So you run for a mile and walk for 30 seconds, or run for two miles and walk for a minute," Farrant explains.
With the 2015 marathon, Farrant endured knee pain and hip pain that, in the end, meant she had to stop running and walk for the rest of the way. "It was quite difficult to come to terms with," she said. "So this time I've looked at trying jeffing. I think the way it works is that because you're walking in between sudden bursts of running, it alleviates the pressure on your legs. I've adapted my own version, where I run until something starts to hurt a little bit and then I walk."
Running injuries are a worry for Farrant, but having overcome the impossible she knows there's nothing to be afraid of. She says during her training she went out with her running group and experienced agonising knee pain. After going to see a running specialist, who showed her some techniques for running and exercises to do, she managed to beat the pain and her next run turned into a half-marathon.
"The next time I went for a run it was much easier," she says. "I would say to people who are training, and who haven't done anything like it before, to expect to have a bad run or two, and to not let it get them down or put them off from going again."
As for how she feels about the impending marathon: "Many people believe that it's impossible to survive a stroke and then go on to do the marathon - but I'm here to prove them wrong. After my stroke I had to fight every single day to get to where I am today and when you're faced with something as terrifying as a stroke, nothing else seems impossible to achieve."