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“Fitness is not just physical, it is mental as well."

When a bike accident forced keen runner Rob Shenton to stop exercise, he had to draw on coping skills he had built up over the years to help him recover both mentally and physically. The army veteran, who is also a member of Southampton Athletics Club, says getting out in nature during his recovery helped lift him out of a potentially damaging low mood. Here, he shares his story.

Trigger Warning: mention of suicidal thoughts

Last year I had what was classed as a major accident. I came off my push bike and broke four vertebrae in my neck, two in my back, my lower skull and my shoulder socket. Yes, I am very lucky to be alive, I even more lucky to have literally walked away from the accident, albeit delicately. A few things saved my live that day, my cycle helmet, the amazing work of the NHS, but also my fitness played an important part.

But fitness is not just physical, it is mental as well. 

We spend time exercising our bodies and preparing it for the stress of a sports event, running, cycling, swimming and I have gained much from doing that. But we need to spend time preparing our mind for stress in a similar way. By a series of unfortunate life events, I have suffered a lot mentally. This led to me being medically discharged from the army after 25 years in uniform. I have recurrent depression and PTSD. I have suffered from the former for over 20 years. The recurrent part of the depression is the important thing, because without building up my mental fitness I would struggle to come out of some of the regular lows that hit me from time to time. Well, lets be honest here, these lows have the potential to make me want to take my own life, I simply have to have the mental resilience to cope. Seeing as we are being honest, I need that mental resilience to pick myself up from being a sobbing, crying, wreck. In work I may appear normal, but the evening before may have been working out the best and quickest way to end my life.

Before I had my accident I was in good place with my mental fitness, ironically for the first time in many years I felt good about myself and where I was in life. My bike ride that morning was uplifting, it was local to my home and I was feeling a deep down happiness for the first time in a very long time. Then I crashed…. and my life took an unexpected turn.

I live in a small cottage that I bought as I was leaving the army. I decided I would find somewhere close to my family in case I ended up working abroad, then as least I would have people to keep an eye on it for me, should the need arise. However, when we drove to the property it took me through country lanes that I rode a bike on when I was child. Not too close to my family home, back then we did the longer bike rides, the longer bike rides became an adventure and we would stuff jam sandwiches in our cycle jersey pockets. It is a moor where you can see the peaks on one side and on a clear day you can make out the Southern Lake District, Snowdonia and Shropshire hills in the very far distance. It can be idyllic watching and listening to the birds, the weather can be rough at times. But it makes me smile.

When I was going through therapy, (I have had lots of therapy) we would discuss places I could visit that I found peaceful and could be grounded. 

I paid lip service to this and didn’t really get it. But I did try hard to find that place, I visited country parks, walked up hills, but nothing made my heart smile. It was not until I was lying flat in a hospital bed, where I had been for long enough that my mind was play tricks with me. Telling me the wall beyond my feet was actually the floor, and the ceiling a wall, it dawned on me the special place was where I wanted to be most at that moment in time. It wasn’t my home; it was the lanes around my home.

You see I use to run around them every day, different routes ranging from a mile to ten. Everyday something would be different, a sunrise that would stop me in my tracks, bird song that would catch my ear, the changes of colours and light from season to season. Just the beauty and the power of nature, I really didn’t need to go far. 

When something is about to be taken away from you then you truly realise its real value.

When I finally got home, I needed lots of help, I couldn’t wash myself, shave myself or walk very far indeed. But the doctors did say try to walk every day. So, walking became my new running, it took effort, the help of my partner to steady me and in the early days carry some morphine. We would walk for 5 mins, the pain would reach a level where I would stop, I would take the meds and walk back. This would be followed by much sleep. These walks became the main feature of my day and require some serious planning, get washed, have rest, get changed, have rest, go for a walk, sleep and so on. I really enjoyed them, I enjoyed the company of my partner, I enjoyed the exercise and enjoyed the views. 

My partner takes note of the colours of the berries and leaves growing in bushes and how they change, something I have never really taken the time to think about, but because I needed to stop and rest, I too would pick up this detail. 

Also, because I can’t turn my head very easily, the action is now a deliberate act, as I now only have about 20% movement in my neck. I have to stop and turn my body; I can’t simply glance across. So, I was taking much more in. I was appreciating things more, that in the past I would have just give a cursory thought.

These lanes have been good to me, the nature has been good for me. When I was allowed to start running again, those lanes took me on that journey. Yes - it hurt, yes -I got upset that 10 steps were all I could jog at the start, but that sadness was overtaken by me saying, ‘but look at your surroundings’ closely followed by ‘there is always tomorrow to try again’. But it took the real risk that tomorrow could have been taken away from me, to start appreciating those surroundings and how much they could lift me out of a potentially damaging low mood.

I have been so lucky, lucky that my mental fitness was in such a good place when my life had an unexpected event. But we can all be like this. 

We just need to treat our mental fitness in the same way we do our physical fitness. 

We warm up, we stretch, we exercise and when we get injured, we see a doctor, we go to physio. It is just the same with the mind, we can warm it up, stretch it and exercise it and if it gets injured, we can seek help. It is expectable to talk about physical injuries with you mates. By having the same attitude to mental fitness as we do to physical fitness, it becomes more acceptable to talk about what you are doing to improve your mental health. By doing simple things, getting out into nature, going for walks, taking notice of what is around you and being thankful that it is there. This can make your mind stronger, because you don’t know what unexpected event might be coming your way, when you really need mental fitness and resilience to bring you through it.

I have been so lucky, and no matter how bad it gets from now on, I know I am always going to be lucky, I just had to look a little closer….

About the author

Rob Shenton spent 25 years in the army and was medically discharged with recurrent depression and PTSD. He is a mental health champion as well as being charity ambassador for Help for Heroes. He is also a strong supporter of armed forces veterans, running and supporting numerous work based veteran support group. He enjoys running and orienteering. He has ran the Marathon des Sables, Everest Marathon and North Pole Marathon to raise funds for charity in honour of his father who died of lung cancer in 2009. Rob started running on the track at Southampton Athletics Club in 2018 with an aim of being selected for the Invictus Games. Whilst he still dreams of being selected, he keeps his track running up, now focusing on the 1500m event. Before the accident Rob use to get outdoors every day to run. His running streak ended due to the accident on 01 Aug 20 after 1314 days. He has since started this again and has now ran everyday since the 27 Nov 20. His describes his aims for 2021 as modest: To recovery from the injury and get as much rehab as possible, get back to doing a triathlon – though he will be riding recumbent now as his neck elevation is too poor for a normal road bike, and get a PB at 1500m.

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