Asking For Help Is a Greater Challenge Than Any Ultramarathon

Just like we practise running, using tempo runs, hill repeats, we must practise the vital act of asking for help.

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I had always intended on writing a post at the end of my Laidlaw Scholarship research period, following the amazing runners of the Hardmoors race series. However, this post seems to be primarily a way for me to put out my thoughts and add to the conversation on a topic so important, it leaves me feeling anger at our collective inability to seemingly stem the flow. My thoughts are just that and not to be confused with anything relating to my recent research work at ultramarathons, although my thinking maybe crosses over both worlds.

We hear all the time about the need for men to ask for help, great campaigns and appeals that I have no doubt have helped many men, myself included. Never forgetting some of the conversations with people involved with the State of Mind charity. Through my darkest periods my inability to ask for help was finally brought home to me. It was a sign of weakness. In fact, emotion was weakness. When I suffered my breakdown, I didn’t have the strength to ask for help, I was lucky, by the grace of god that a good friend came and found me. Shame was the catalyst for change and not having the strength to ask for help. It was the most important act in my life, and to my old pal John Davies one that always links you to such positive thoughts, apt as you're such a miserable git.

 Life conditions us in certain ways and sadly within our culture asking for help is negatively perceived, especially for males.

The only way I could take on the challenge was to put myself in positions where I simply had no choice to not ask for help, hence my various charity walks, without support or money. The walks, not the challenge, practising the act of shouting out, the habit I needed to condition most. Life conditions us in certain ways and sadly within our culture asking for help is negatively perceived, especially for males. Many times, in the early days, good pals would almost recoil when I spoke candidly about my problems with depression and anxiety accompanied by alcohol. People would prefer the status quo, quite simply perpetuating the problem that sadly exists as strong as ever. I’ve worked on building sites, been in rugby clubs where the best people can manage is to sometimes tentatively ask about the issue using the third person way. However, my reason for writing this post isn’t to simply bemoan the state of affairs, more importantly - to try, even if it is futile, to see from a different perspective the matter at the centre: how we learn to ask for help.

Quite simply, when times are toughest, we will default to what we know, our mind attempting to help us by automating actions. Sadly, this means that, in our world, the act of asking for help for many of us, is never going to happen. This, I guess, is the cornerstone of my thinking, we must practice this skill and develop it just like we practise running, using tempo runs, hill repeats, we must practise the vital act of asking for help. It’s already too late when the dark times come if we have never done it before, the chances are we won’t then. So, we must make it something that is goal driven to be put on a pedestal just like achieving race goals, getting faster. We must practice learning to think and act in a different way. A prime example: our lovely northern greeting of “Alright mate,” - how many times do we say these words, how many times do we reply with an honest response. It’s not the social norm so we don’t, or maybe we could. Piece by piece to those we trust most, that select group of people who we can share a little piece of our inner soul. Imagine practising giving a slightly more honest response and slowly building up the confidence. I often use the term “fair to middlin,” in my world it represents a low mood, a chance with those trusted friends to chew the fat, to share some shit, often trivial, but again consistently practicing the act for when I really need to do it. Taking this a step further, when I begin to fall under the throes of the black dog, I shout loud and keep shouting, again to those who allow me to feel safe.

Bringing this to the competitor in us, imagine that this made us stronger in all the old school ways, helped us run faster, further; achieve our life goals. Well, that is then the act of strength and a core part of our training, just like posting on Strava. Accepting ourselves in ways that feel uncomfortable, and at times so much easier to not do. Could accepting this challenge dwarf the completion of the toughest ultramarathon? I reckon the answer is yes. Many of us who run know how that fall in tension from the act of running and the physical exertion results in us sharing our life stories with relative strangers, forming friendships so deep in a single meeting, that would require years in any other environment. Possibly, this is the foundation stone - we practise where we feel safest with likeminded people who will not judge us. This weekend amongst the darkest of times, I’ve seen so many acts of people dragging others out of those dark periods and achieving amazing goals.

Let’s say how shit we are feeling and share this with people who make us feel safe to do so, and let’s keep doing it. 

I cannot deny that the weekend’s events have not left a dark mark at the moment, but I reflect on my own responses. From dropping my hire car off, to a meeting on the Yorkshire Dales, my responses to perfect strangers to the question “How are you,” the most unfiltered “Pretty damn shit,” the awkwardness to the other person not even comparable to the damage of once again keeping it all in. Let’s say how shit we are feeling and share this with people who make us feel safe to do so, and let’s keep doing it. It will take time and conscious effort but piece by piece, just like driving a car, running a trail it will become habit. But let’s not pretend it is easy or that we are all instantly going to do it. We are not, it takes a new kind of courage that society has told us for many years is weakness. Well, fuck you. Sorry, my current emotion is most definitely anger and it stems for the frustration of seeing another amazing and selfless guy attempt to find peace in another land.

I will finish on an open offer, 10 years after my own breakdown and as a part of staying free from alcohol, I have run on the North York Moors most Saturday afternoon/evenings, sometimes I share it with some good pals. I am not training; I am not competing; I am visiting my place of peace. When I feel good, I enjoy going there. When I feel shit, I simply need to drag myself there by hook or by crook. So, if anyone wants to come and run, no garmin, no pacings, no nothing, but the trail of our thoughts and some good people who can allow us to be the real us, then please drop me a line. My love is to all my friends - old, new or those to come through, our shared love of our sport, and to those closest to a cracking guy Ian Gorin. Every piece of positivity I can muster at this time to you all.

Originally published on my blog on 17 September 2019:

Paul Burgum

CEO/Founder & PhD Researcher, BCT Aspire CIC /Durham University

I have spent the last 10 years working on the concept of mental fitness, as counter to the old stigmatized concept of mental health. I am hugely interested in how people can develop resilience and endurance. This has led me to studying applied psychology. My Laidlaw scholarship research project has been looking into the effects of emotion on the performance of Ultramarathon runners at distances of both 60 miles and 110 miles. This is the first sports psychology study that has attempted to measure this actually within-race rather than just pre and post race. Since suffering a nervous breakdown in 2009, and finally admitting to himself his own mental health and alcohol problems. A period of his life that is now looked upon as the positive beginning of a new chapter. Paul has gone on to build an awarding social enterprise BCT Aspire CIC, completed numerous high-profile endurance challenges and applied his learning to helping others and now supporting his academic journey as a mature student. BCT Aspire CIC has over the last decade delivered thousands of successful youth sessions and activity programmes for local children & young people on Teesside. Currently BCT Aspire delivers five youth sessions every week in Billingham including; Youth clubs, fitness sessions, music lessons, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and community events all with a voluntary team. A former talented Rugby player who represented England North at his peak, Paul’s attempt to get to grips with his problems led him to begin walking. This resulted in a 3000 miles adventure spanning the length of Europe, from the Southern Tip of Italy to the edge of the Orkney Islands, also passing through France, England & Scotland. All completed without support and relying on the human kindness of strangers. This has been followed up by running single stage ultramarathons up to 160 miles and last year completed the Wainwrights Coast to Coast completely barefoot to raise funds for his work and supporting his belief in positive thinking. Paul’s first two EBooks from the “Jumping the Cliff” series have topped the Amazon EBook charts for both Depression, Anxiety & Mental Health sections, with his next book from his six-week journey across Italy now out in paperback. Paul started his speaking career talking to pupils at a school with children who had behavioural problems, a place where Paul gained the courage to talk about his own way of trying to reset his own learnt behaviours. Since then he has given talks to a cross section of people including business people, professional sportsmen, youth groups, colleges & universities. Paul has also won numerous Business & Community Awards for his diverse range of work including; Entrepreneurs Forum Emerging Talent 2012; Evening Gazette’s Community Champion for Children & Young People 2012; Gazette Community Awards Finalist twice (Ambassador & Fundraising), Teesside Philanthropic Charity – Teesside Hero Paul is a qualified outdoor leader with BCT Aspire CIC who enjoys sharing these skills with people aiming to build confidence and also relaxing on the hills with his dog Molly and now his young son Pavel. Paul currently mixes his role as Managing Director of BCT Aspire, with speaking work, and studying applied psychology at Durham University. This also includes holding a prestigious Laidlaw scholarship for emerging global research talent, currently researching the mental approaches of endurance athletes. Furthermore, a trustee of Catalyst Stockton on Tees the VCSE infrastructure body for the area.


Go to the profile of Nikol Chen (she/her)
almost 2 years ago

What a moving post, Paul! Thank you so much for sharing, and I definitely support your message of learning to share your feelings during difficult times, and practising asking for help. 

Go to the profile of Lucy Morris
almost 2 years ago

Paul this a truly inspirational and honest post!  This is a virtual standing ovation not only for
the message of hope in the action of learning to ask for help that you so
eloquently talk about, but also for your tremendous efforts and invaluable
contributions to the Laidlaw program here at Durham.  It has been our absolute pleasure to see you
grow over the past 2 years, and we are very excited to hear of where this will
take you next.