Not long ago the international marathon runner found herself caught in a downward spiral leading to a dark place but after asking for help she is now rediscovering her love of the sport

There is a cruel irony in the fact that our search for acceptance can lead us to become completely lost.

Hayley Carruthers enjoyed a breakthrough performance at the Toronto Marathon in 2018, but within six months, following the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon – an event at which she garnered much attention after collapsing and having to crawl over the finish line – her mental health started to deteriorate. 

Over time, her continued pretence that everything was okay masked the reality of a dangerous situation which led to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. 

In April of last year, she eventually admitted that she needed help. The journey has been a long one but, as the 28-year-old tells AW, she can now look to the future with joy and positivity.

Start of the spiral

They say it’s the people who are the happiest that you have to worry about. I’m a bubbly, energetic, happy person, but in 2019 I became deeply, deeply depressed. 

It just started spiralling after the London Marathon that April. I tried so hard to become the fastest athlete that I could be, but I became the person that fell over the line. By the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 I was putting on a pretence that I couldn’t keep up.

I love to run, but I didn’t know how to be an elite athlete and how to balance my life with it. It became obsessive, it was regimented and it was miserable. 

I felt that because I had this talent, I had to use it. I thought: “I’ve got to do this because it’ll make my family proud and, if I don’t, they won’t love me”, or “my friends only like me because I’m good at running”, but it was all in my head. 

Because there was so much pressure I didn’t perform well. It got to the point where I was struggling to get up in the morning. There was self-harm, there were suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to do it anymore, but I didn’t know what else to do. 

Even when I was running massive PBs I was never happy. I thought I’d never be good enough. 

Hayley Carruthers (Mark Shearman)

Paying a heavy price 

I’d done the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2019 and I shouldn’t have run it. The week before I had an angry peroneal tendon and I’d had an injection in my foot to reduce the swelling because my foot was so inflamed. 

I was representing England, so I wanted to race, but I couldn’t get myself off the sofa. I just couldn’t function. The night before the race I was hysterically crying that I didn’t want to do it.

It was five or six degrees centigrade on race day, but I was sweating profusely. After 10km I was throwing up. I dropped out at 30km because I just  wanted it to be over.

I ran a PB in Valencia (2:32:42) in the December, but it was purely because I was so fit. I got to halfway and I was fine, then I just couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. It suddenly overcame me that once it was over, I’d have to do it again and I thought: “If I finish this marathon with the Olympic qualifying time what does that lead to, is it more depression, more anxiety?”. Even when it was going well, I’d panic that it was going too well.  ω

I’d got myself into such a state that my body temperature was 41 degrees and they had to drop me into an ice bath at the finish because I was completely out of it. That night we went out for a few drinks and there were parts of me there because I love to have fun, but inside I felt numb. All I wanted to do was be alone, but when I was alone, I didn’t want to be because I felt like I was a danger to myself. 

When the 2020 London Marathon got postponed, I thought: “What am I going to do now?”. Without races I didn’t know how I could prove my self-worth and deserve anyone’s friendship and love. I didn’t know how to get through it because everything made me angry, everything made me anxious and worried. Nothing brought me joy.

I threw myself into training and ended up very injured. In July 2020 I fractured my foot. I was utterly hysterical every day, but I did my best to hide it. I’d go out in my car and sit in a car park and bawl my eyes out. I’d switch my phone off and say my battery had gone.

I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend or my family or friends because I thought they’d think I was weak and wouldn’t understand. It was like: “I’ve got to keep up this pretence, no matter what it costs,” and it was costing everything.

Hayley Carruthers

A crippling fear

I was suffering with Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). I was very, very lean but my opinion of myself was that I was ugly and obese, and that I’d never be good enough. 

I was on the combined pill until the end of 2018 and when I came off, my period never came back. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I thought it was embarrassing.

I couldn’t tell the truth because I was petrified of what the truth was. I was afraid of sessions, I was afraid of food, I was afraid of everything and everyone. 

But RED-S isn’t just losing periods, it’s everything else I was going through – the anxiety, depression, self-worth, stress, over-training, under-fuelling. 

I made random rules around food and weight and I don’t even know where they came from, but they became the most important thing in my life and the anxiety around that made me miserable. 

I used to weigh myself every day, but I told myself it was to make sure I wasn’t losing weight. I wouldn’t let myself eat foods I liked because I didn’t feel worthy of it. I’d never let myself slip off this trajectory of perfection. 

It got to the point where I wouldn’t even eat a biscuit if it was broken because it wasn’t perfect. If I was going to have a biscuit, it had to be the best biscuit in the world, not a half-cracked custard cream. I had all these thoughts going on in my head and it was exhausting. I was totally consumed by it.

A big thing for me was that I didn’t realise I was under-fuelling. It was pure negligence. I was under-weight and over-stressed and my body fat got down to 8.7 per cent. I honestly didn’t care about myself at all. 

Being ready to change 

I changed coach to Luke Gunn at the end of 2020, but I didn’t tell him fully what had happened or how I felt. I thought if I could keep up the pretence it might become real but, of course, it didn’t. 

In April 2021 I had a stress fracture in my femur and that really scared me. That was when I knew things had to change, and I thought: “Whatever this costs, I’m doing it, and I’m going so all in you will not be able to stop me.” I genuinely stopped being sad because I’d finally made a decision for me. 

I spoke to my parents and asked them: “Will you still love me?”. I told them everything and they were heartbroken. 

At that point a lot changed. I was seeing Sarah (physio Sarah Connors), I got nutritional support (Renee McGregor), I got amazing support from Luke, I went to see (sports doctor) Kim Gregory and (endocrinologist) Dr Gittoes and I had a mental health therapist. My life changed and it honestly felt like I was on cloud nine. I wasn’t alone. 

I’ve taken my recovery very slowly. I’m part of the Birmingham Talent Hub now and I’ve got the biggest support going and I’m not afraid anymore. I’m willing to take risks, to have fun, to have a couple of drinks on a Saturday night. I’m willing to try new things and see what happens. I’m genuinely really, really happy. 

I only now realise that asking for help makes you stronger, because I felt so weak when I was alone. 

Hayley Carruthers (Mark Shearman)

Learning to enjoy life again

The person I am now doesn’t put pressure on herself, she enjoys running for the movement of it, she enjoys running because she wants to see what she can get out of herself; she doesn’t do it because she has to or because it defines her. 

Running should contribute to your happiness. It shouldn’t be the be all and end all and it certainly shouldn’t drive your unhappiness.

There are so many other things I enjoy doing now, too, but I didn’t know I enjoyed those things because they didn’t contribute to my running, and so I felt guilty. 

I had to re-learn which foods I liked, because I’d told myself so many times “you don’t like this or that”, it became the norm. I have no rules around food now and it feels so freeing.

I see so many young girls getting trapped, and they don’t know that it’s not meant to be like that. It’s heartbreaking, but you just can’t stop it. You can’t give someone help if they won’t let you help them. 

Now, life is amazing. I’m going to set the Birmingham Commonwealth Games marathon as a goal for 2022 because I like goals that scare me a little bit. It is a big ask to be ready, but I never thought I’d turn my life around like this and the only limits that you have are the ones you set yourself. If you do something with confidence, then you never know what’s going to happen.

» This article first appeared in the January issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here

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