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Rising to the Challenge

When mental health issues left Alun Lucas feeling like he’d hit rock bottom, he turned to Cambridge-based charity The Cogwheel Trust – and he hasn’t looked back since. Alun tells Lydia Parkin about raising awareness and the epic challenge he took on for the charity that helped “save him”

Alun raises thousands for The Cogwheel Trust through year-long running challenge. Picture: Keith Heppell (12331952)
Alun raises thousands for The Cogwheel Trust through year-long running challenge. Picture: Keith Heppell (12331952)

It’s a glorious spring evening when I chat to Cambridge’s Alun Lucas. The clocks have just gone back, the sun’s out, and it feels as if summer is just around the corner. Alun is planning to make the most of it. “I’m off out for a run tonight and then fish and chips,” he tells me.

Nothing unusual about that, of course, with countless others probably pounding the pavements too. But what is out of the ordinary, rather extraordinary in fact, is that Alun has been out running every single day since the beginning of January 2018. Come rain or shine, for the past 500 days, he’s laced up his trainers and run, clocking up 2093 miles in a single year.

“2019 miles in a year was the original target," Alun laughs. “But then I’ve just kept going. I’m a bit scared of what will happen if I stop!”

It’s an astonishing feat, and one that Alun embarked on to say “thank you” and raise vital funds for a charity very close to his heart: The Cogwheel Trust, a Cambridge-based charity that has been offering support to people suffering with mental health problems for more than 30 years. In 2018 alone, it provided 5,000 hours of counselling and psychotherapy to almost 600 people in Cambridgeshire.

Alun turned to the charity in 2014 and he says the support he received proved to be “a lifeline” in the darkest of times. “Without it, I don’t know where I’d be, to be honest. I hate to think about it, it scares me,” he reflects.

Alun had been plagued by something “not being quite right” since 2008. “But I found it difficult to articulate how I was feeling.” So he carried on, desperately trying to push his worries to the back of his mind and “get on with it”. But things came to a head in 2013. “A lot of stuff started not going right in my life. I struggled on but then I just broke.

“It was a kind of complete numbness. Being able to do anything, anything at all, felt like a major success. Before I’d play rugby, run, do all sorts of things, but then suddenly, I’m struggling to even do the washing on a weekend. You just feel desolate. . .” Alun’s voice trails off as he searches for the words to describe how he felt at his lowest.

Feeling like his life was unravelling, Alun plucked up the courage to go to his GP in 2014, who in turn referred him to The Cogwheel Trust. With regular counselling, Alun started to get his life back on track. “I saw a counsellor at The Cogwheel Trust within two weeks and he was so brilliant; someone I could just have a chat with. He repeatedly asked me ‘Who are you?’ and I realised I didn’t know. I’d been jumping through hoops my whole life for other people.”

Alun raises thousands for The Cogwheel Trust through year-long running challenge. Picture: Keith Heppell (12331954)
Alun raises thousands for The Cogwheel Trust through year-long running challenge. Picture: Keith Heppell (12331954)

Before starting counselling, Alun had struggled to open up about his own mental health struggles, “as many men do”. But now he’s determined to break down the taboos, raise awareness and show others who are suffering that they don’t have to go through it alone. “When you actually start talking about it, I think you realise just how many people are going through the same as you,” Alun says. “I feel so lucky that I was able to get to a place where I could get some help and it’s important to show you can get through it; you can come out the other side.”

“84 men in the UK take their lives every week,” he continues. “I’ve met bereaved families since starting on this journey and so many don’t see it coming; can’t work out why it happened, which is so impossible to deal with and why we need to make sure we talk.”

It was in fact an open and honest conversation about mental health with a woman whose partner had committed suicide which turned out to be the inspiration behind Alun’s year-long running challenge. “We met on New Year’s Eve 2017 and she told me she was intending to Run Every Day January for Mind. I joined in. At the end of January I felt so much better, so I kept going, inspired to say thank you to all who have helped me with my own mental health – my children, family, great friends and colleagues, a wonderful GP, the counsellor at The Cogwheel Trust, a special godfather and his wife, and of course the woman who inspired me to start this journey, from which I have already gained so much.”

Running every day for over a year, including an ultra-marathon every month, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Alun has loved every minute of his running adventure, and says it has helped him mentally as well as physically. “I feel so much better in myself and so much more confident,” he enthuses. “I’ve been lucky enough to go to some stunningly beautiful places over the past year, having finally had an excuse to go and I’ve met some fantastic people along the way. . . it’s been brilliant.”

And with that, our conversation ends, and Alun heads out into the sunshine for yet another run. Number 501.

To find out more about The Cogwheel Trust and the support the charity offers, see cogwheel.org.uk

Source of Support

Esther McNeill, head of counselling at Cogwheel Trust, tells us about the charity

Can you tell us about the Cogwheel Trust and the service the charity offers?

Cogwheel has been offering affordable counselling to people across Cambridgeshire for more than 30 years. We see people from all walks of life, and provide counselling support to adults, children, couples and families. We ask for a contribution towards the cost of each session, but we make sure that this is an affordable amount no matter what your circumstances are.

Tell us about your role at Cogwheel?

I’m head of counselling at Cogwheel, which means that I oversee the work of more than 40 counsellors and psychotherapists. Cogwheel is accredited by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, and a big part of my job is making sure that the service always meets the high professional and ethical standards set by BACP.

How can people experiencing mental health problems access counselling at the Cogwheel Trust?

Just give us a ring! You don’t need a referral from your GP. One of our friendly admin officers will tell you a bit more about the service we offer, and take some details from you so that we can add your name to the waiting list. We try to see people within a few weeks for the initial assessment.

What advice would you give to somebody who is struggling with their mental health?

Most importantly: talk to somebody about what you are going through. Is there a friend, family member or colleague you can open up to? If not, your GP is a good option, and will take your mental health struggles as seriously as any physical health difficulties. It can sometimes feel difficult to talk about emotional issues, but it really is the first step to getting on the road to recovery.

What's the importance of people like Alun raising awareness of their own mental health struggles?

We really can’t thank Alun enough for his generosity and courage. When people like Alun share their own stories of recovery it helps people who are struggling to realise that they are not alone, and that mental health difficulties can absolutely be overcome with the right help. This is particularly important when we are talking about men. Men are just as likely to experience mental health problems as women, but far less likely to ask for help. There is still this perception that admitting that all is not well is some sort of “weakness”, whereas in fact nothing demonstrates greater strength than saying “I’m ready to find new ways of coping”. At least one in four people experience mental health challenges – it’s not unusual!Cogwheel has always been committed to challenging the stigma of discussing mental health – it’s improving, but there is still a long way to go.

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