In this podcast episode, we caught up with Sabrina Pace-Humphreys to find out more about making friends and building community as a sober ultra runner.
Running and getting sober
I’m a 42-year-old mum of four, grandmother of two. My professional life has changed quite a lot over the last couple of years, I previously ran a PR agency for 14 years. Now I work as a coach, personal trainer, and motivational speaker. Running is in my bag of tools that I use to manage my mental health and I want to do it for as long as I can. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and I suffered a hell of a lot more with that when I was drinking. Often I’ll do a long run with a friend and it’s like free therapy for both of you. It helps with a lot of stuff.
I look back now and I think ‘how could I have thought that I was being a responsible parent when I was at that party with the kids and I was behaving in that way?’.
I got sober six years ago. Honestly that was one of the hardest decisions that I have ever had to make. I did that classic work hard, play hard thing. I thought alcohol was helping me to manage my anxiety, but of course the next day things were always worse. My marriage was falling apart. My children were witnessing me in hungover states. I look back now and I think ‘how could I have thought that I was being a responsible parent when I was at that party with the kids and I was behaving in that way?’.
Toward the end of my drinking, my husband said to me ‘whoever you are if this is who you want to be, I don’t think we can continue to be married because I don’t like the person that you’re becoming. You’re not the woman that I married’. That was a massive turning point because he meant it. He said it with tears in his eyes. When I stopped drinking, he continued to drink, which I found difficult. He was less caring and thoughtful when he was drinking, as many of us are. I told him that I was finding that upsetting and difficult, that I didn’t enjoy socialising with him like that. He eventually decided to stop as well. He didn’t want the hangovers and wanted a healthier, fitter life, so that was it.
Life doesn’t stop being difficult just because you stop drinking. You have to find other coping mechanisms to get you through the hard times.
Life doesn’t stop being difficult just because you stop drinking. You have to find other coping mechanisms to help you get through the hard times. I’m very grateful that my husband is with me in feeling the pain of life when that happens. All the stuff that happened in 2020, I think to myself ‘if I had still been drinking, I would have gone to town on lockdown!’. I can honestly sit here and say to you that I’m so glad that I found sobriety.
Early days of not drinking
In the early days of not drinking, you realise really quickly who your real friends are. My DMs and WhatsApp groups went really quiet because I wasn’t going out drinking and making friends, I wasn’t the life and soul of the party anymore. Putting down the drink forced me to address the reasons that I drank the way I did, and that involved a lot of self-reflection and therapy. Making friends when you aren’t drinking, and maintaining friendships can be really heard.
I relapsed about a year into my sobriety. I thought, ‘oh I’ve got this, so I can drink in moderation’. Then I drank for a few months. It was worse than ever. Me having a break for a year didn’t make me drink less. It made me want more. I knew I needed to try and get sober again.
I didn’t want to be there when everyone was getting plastered. I didn’t want to be the designated driver, that’s not what I wanted my life to be.
I had to be in environments that felt safe. I didn’t want to go and drink Diet Coke – the only non alcoholic thing I drank at that time – in places where there was loads of alcohol being consumed. People would say to me ‘bring your diet coke’, but I didn’t want to be there when everyone was getting plastered. I didn’t want to be the designated driver, that’s not what I wanted my life to be. I knew that I had to surround myself with people who were for me and the journey that I was on.
I’d started running after I had my fourth child because I put on about five stone. I seem to like doing things to excess. After years of watching what I ate, when I found out I was pregnant, I was like, ‘I can eat whatever I want!’. I didn’t drink during any of my pregnancies. But as soon as I wasn’t pregnant anymore, I was back on it. The same applied to food, and I also suffered from postnatal depression. So that was what spurred me to take up something which I could do. I didn’t want to go to the gym, I just felt really ashamed of my body and I wanted to hide. I hated running, but I did it because I could and I could find routes where I wouldn’t be seen. My doctor had said to me that it would be good for my mental health. It was also about doing something which could almost take the place of the drinking.
To get started in running, you don’t need much at all. I wore a baggy t-shirt, old trainers, and some jogging pants. And I went out and I said to myself ‘I’m going to do half a mile. ‘I’m going to jog for 30 seconds, then walk, and keep alternating’. I’d never done this before, and when I got home everything hurt. I thought ‘oh my god, how do people run three miles?!’. Although my body hurt and every sinew of my being was saying ‘don’t do that again’, I had that little glimmer of achievement. That’s what got me to go out again.
In my late 30s, I realised ‘oh my god, I’m going to be 40 soon, what can I do?’. If I’m sober I don’t want to have a big party with loads of alcohol. I need to do something that makes me appreciate my body and my mind and I need to do something that pushes my boundaries in a healthy way. I was sitting one Saturday night feeling really sorry for myself. I’d lost loads of friends who only seemed to be with me if I was the party girl. I was looking at the people around me and feeling disconnected.
I remember looking through the TV channels, and this James Cracknell documentary came on about this toughest foot race on earth. It was about the Marathon Des Sables, a multi-day race across the Sahara Desert. I was thinking ‘that’s crazy! There’s no way I could ever do anything like that, I only run marathons!’.
I finished watching it, and I thought, ‘what if this is the thing that I need to focus on, to see where I can go?’. Getting into ultra running was a way to channel that thing inside me, that desire to prove myself. It would also mean having something to do with the time, I wouldn’t be drinking or thinking about drinking or partying or thinking about party.
All or nothing attitude
The way I train now, the strengthening, conditioning, the running and yoga and nutrition, it could be described as transference. The all or nothing attitude to drinking has shifted to something else. I’m aware of this. But my husband will never leave me because I go out and do a 12-mile tempo run. My husband will never leave me because he has to travel to Chamonix to watch me compete in UTMB. But he was going to leave me when I would go out on a 12-hour drinking session and arrange for our children to be picked up by the next-door neighbour. He was going to leave me when I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow for 48 hours after a session. I believe that I have this addictive gene. I come from a family of problem drinkers. I’ve found a way to take that obsessive, addictive nature, and use it in a way that keeps me healthy. When I’m out on those trails, I’m calm. I’m processing those thoughts, those questions we ask ourselves constantly. And then I get to the beautiful part of trail running, that nothingness where I’m just gone, it’s quiet.
I show my children daily that if you put your mind to something, whether it’s running or creating community, that’s an ok thing to do. I’d much rather be setting this example, than have my children waking up and seeing me comatose on the sofa, because I didn’t get in until two hours before they woke up because I was out partying hard.
It’s that Field Of Dreams saying, isn’t it? ‘If you build it, they will come!’.
I launched Stroud Mums on the run, which is a women’s only running community. The week before New Year I created a Facebook group and ran a couple of adverts. I think it cost me £1.10. ‘If you are someone who wants to learn to run, in a women’s only environment with a professional coach, hit me up’. I was shocked when I got about 40 responses. Now we have four groups a week. It’s that Field of Dreams saying, isn’t it? ‘If you build it, they will come!’
Like minded people
We would go out during the day, lots of women had to take the kids to school and then felt they were scrambling around for like-minded people to be around. Running with a vehicle to share experiences, it was a safe space. Exercise is a fantastic leveller in terms of breaking down barriers and allowing people to talk about difficult stuff. I’m just so grateful that over those five years the community I started has continued to grow. It’s a space where you can drop the mask and be really vulnerable.
If you’re feeling lost and want to start something for yourself, or you want to help people with making friends, find people who are successfully doing that, and learn from them.
We saw the same when we started Black Trail Runners. We’re a group of seven Black trail runners who believe there is a lack of diversity in trail running, so we have done work to improve visibility for Black runners. If you’re feeling lost and you want to start something for yourself, or you want to help people with making friends, find people who are successfully doing that and learn from them. There is so much content available in the world now, there are so many people using social media to educate and share what’s worked for them. Ask people questions. They may not always reply, but I have never had someone be unpleasant to me when I’ve asked for their opinion or advice.
Making friends, finding a community
That’s the great thing that I’ve seen with Club Soda. Through community and sharing stuff online, I’ve found more options. I’ve discovered loads of alcohol-free drinks that are so much more interesting that my Diet Coke! We know that there are ways to create change, you just have to find the people that want the same change as you. The mums I run with, they know that there are ways that they can manage their mental health and that running can be a part of that. If you don’t have a community, and if you feel alone, it’s really hard to believe that you can affect change in your life. It all seems too big and scary. It’s about taking those small steps.
This is a life I don’t want to escape from. This is a life that I want to be fully present in.
I drank as a way to numb myself and escape from this life that I had created. I had all the trappings of a successful business and all that. I would drink to blackout, alcohol was my chosen vehicle for escape. I realised, in order to really live, I needed to create a life that I didn’t want to escape from. Launching Mums On The Run, I realised that I liked helping people to become the best version of themselves, whatever that might be. That isn’t about being an ultra runner or running an award-winning business. For some women that I coach, it’s just being able to run around the park with their kids on a Sunday. That’s all they want. They just want to be fit enough to play with their kids. And when I realised that I love helping people in that way, I could see that this is a life I don’t want to escape from. This is a life that I want to be fully present for.
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