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Runher: 'Just months ago I wanted to take my own life... now I'm on track for a brighter future'

Leah Kirk (22), from Carryduff, has battled depression since she was just 14. Earlier this year she took an overdose but thankfully recovered. Now she's training for Runher and says exercise is making her feel so much better.

By Stephanie Bell

Running for Leah Kirk is her medicine and she says it has literally saved her life. As she trains for the Belfast Telegraph Titanic Runher, Leah is a wonderful example of how getting out in the fresh air and pounding the pavement can clear the head and help fight mental ill-health.

The 22-year-old dental nurse from Carryduff has bravely battled depression since she was 14 and just a few months ago reached an all time low when she tried to take her own life.

Despite hitting the depths of despair, Leah mustered up all her strength and got her running shoes on. She signed up for the Coastal Runher and hasn't looked back. Her focus now is on Titanic Runher in October.

She says: "The feeling I get when I run is something I can't get at the gym or on the bike. It's something refreshing, as if every step I'm taking is stamping out the bad memories from my past and every breath I'm breathing in is new positive thoughts.

"When I'm really low I would come home from work at 6pm, eat and just sleep.

"I would be in bed at 7pm and sleep until the morning. Now, I can't wait to get my running shoes on and even when it's pouring with rain, I can't wait to get outside and run."

Leah was in her early teens when depression struck for the first time, and it came completely out of the blue.

She has struggled on and off with the illness over the years and has been on numerous medications.

But the only thing that lifts her mood and makes her feel good again is running.

"I've had depression since I was 14 and been on lots of tablets over the years," says Leah, "but running is the only thing I find helpful. I am off all my medication now as I train for the Titanic Runher.

"I am a sensitive person and an animal lover, so simple things like people not caring about others or stories of animal cruelty, which can be quite horrific, can affect me deeply.

"I remember as a teen I just didn't want to go to school. I couldn't face going out and kept making excuses that I wasn't well. I just felt so down and drained.

"At first my mum and GP thought it was my age and the fact that I had glandular fever.

"Then one day, mum just saw me sitting in a zombie-like state. She could see for herself that I was depressed.

" I have suffered with it on and off since then."

It is well known that exercise is good for depressive illness and Leah is proof that it can literally make you well again.

It is her sincere hope that by talking about the powerful effect running has on her mood that others will be encouraged to give it a go.

She has come a long way since March, when she hit rock bottom and felt so low that she didn't want to live anymore.

Tragically she took a huge overdose of pills but thanks to a friend she was brought to hospital.

It was the very next day after she could have lost her life that she signed up for the Coastal Runher.

"Depression is something a lot of people deal with but keep very quiet about it like I did," says the young dental nurse.

"Not many people knew I had depression and were shocked when I told them as I have always been the bubbly, crazy, outgoing person - on the outside. I was good at hiding it.

"I'm talking about it now but I've kept it hidden for so long. I'm not a big talker but I've realised it is better to talk about it.

"When my depression hits me like a tonne of bricks I stop eating, lose focus, get angry very easily and I do let my mind wander and think maybe ending my life would be the best.

"I had lost my job and a place on a course I was doing and been dumped by my boyfriend - all within a couple of days in March.

"I just went home from work and into my bedroom and took an overdose. I just thought it would be an easy way out and that hopefully I would just go.

"I texted my best friend to ask her to look after Lola my dog and she came racing up the road. She didn't even tell my mum or dad, but got me dressed and took me to A&E.

"I got out of hospital the next day and went to work and carried on as if nothing had happened. That night, I signed up for the Coastal Runher to give myself a target to motivate me.

"So, slowly I've been out running again. "

Leah runs three times a week and has started other outdoor activities such as kayaking and Zumba. She has found a new purpose in keeping herself busy and no longer sees any appeal in climbing into bed to shut the world out.

She explains the wonderful feeling she gets from her runs.

"I enjoy running because it's just me and my mind out on the road and it gives me time just to be able to think," she says.

"I think being around TV, Facebook, Twitter and other social media when you have depression is dangerous, very dangerous and that's what I enjoy about running - you have no access to social media and any negative comments on there.

"I run with my earphones in and I love my music," says Leah.

"I end up singing to myself or making lists of the goals I want in my life. It's something that keeps me going through the run. Then when I get home I am buzzing with energy - just like my old self.

"It just sets my mood for the rest of the day and I always have a good night's sleep after a long run."

After hiding her illness for many years, Leah bravely spoke out for the first time during a youth summer camp she attended this year and was overwhelmed by the positive reaction from other young people.

Many said they too had experienced depression and were inspired by her story.

She is now happy to talk about it in the hope that others who are struggling with my illness will take hope from her story and know it can be beaten - and by something that is free, easy accessible and good for your physical and mental health - running.

"I have noticed a massive difference in myself physically and mentally since I started running, so I would advise anyone who is suffering with mental health issues to get outdoors, leave the internet behind and just be alone with your thoughts and to breathe in the air.

"It's worked for me and others and I hope to encourage more people to open up about depression and to kick its butt by doing something about it and getting out there into the fresh air.

"I am now back to my original weight, my skin is glowing, my diet is improving daily and I have a smile back on my face," says Leah.

"I just want others to know that depression can be defeated.

"I believe depression is a killer - I could have died because of it. There are people there to help and I was lucky to have Lifeline on the other end of the phone whose counsellors were amazing and who I don't think get enough recognition.

"Signing up for Runher was the best thing I could have done. I'm not the best runner and the Coastal Runher was my first proper event and I thought it was brilliant.

"I loved the scenery so much that I ran slower to enjoy it more.

"The thing about Runher is that you are there for one thing - the enjoyment of the run.

"All the women motivate each other and it made me happy to see so many people out there trying to get fit and enjoying themselves.

"I'm really looking forward to Titanic in October."

Our nutritionist Majella Farrell on carbohydrates’ importance

Carbohydrates should make up 50-65% of the diet when training.

If a runner does not consume enough carbohydrates, they may suffer from hypoglycaemia (a very low level of sugar in the blood).

Good sources include pasta, potatoes, rice, wholegrain breads and cereals, oats, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables.

Plan a meal that contains carbohydrates three to four hours before exercising.

One to two hours before exercising, eat a snack that contains carbohydrates — apple, bananas, wholewheat bread, raisins, isotonic sports drink.

For intensive training, every hour during exercise sessions that last for longer than an hour take in 30g to 60g of carbohydrate.

To help top up your glycogen stores and repair your muscle tissue after exercising, eat a meal that contains plenty of carbohydrates and some protein.

Also, it’s very important to remember to keep hydrated when you exercise, too.

Our trainer Melissa Eccles explains how to use the hip flexor with band

  • We spend most of the day sitting at a desk, in the car, and on the sofa ... all of which involve our hips being kept in a flexed position. Keep them in that position long enough, and they lose their flexibility and become tight … the opposite of what you need for running
  • This hip flexor stretch uses a band to help put the hip in a more extended position which will allow for a greater stretch. If you’re in the gym you can use a squat rack to prop the band or if you’re at home find a leg of something that won’t move
  • Put one leg inside the other end of the band and place it up tight against where your glute is. Come back on that leg to get a good stretch on the band and place the knee on the floor
  • Careful not to over-extend the back, think of your hips as a bucket of water — you’re going to flatten your back by tilting your pelvis under and push the hips forward, while squeezing your glute
  • You will feel a good stretch on your hip flexor. Hold this for 20-30 seconds, two or three times on each side

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