Katie Heelas, 36, is one of the newly recruited people who'll train as a Trail Therapy run and walk leaders. With a true passion for the outdoors and its impact on mental health, Katie kindly shares her story for us.
The source of my love of nature
I’m a Manchester-born mum of two playful boys, now living in the National Forest. I grew up in a flower shop, so naturally, I’m addicted to anything that blooms and brings colour. I love plants, and romance - which helps when you’re a wedding photographer!
My first memories of running are back in my early secondary school days, during school holidays. I’d run to meet my best friend at the time who lived in Cheadle. This was probably around four or five miles away, but if the weather was good, it made for some of the happiest times back then.
I never really felt like I fitted in at school or with peers near home, I’d always had excess energy, and my family always described me as energetic (and a little bonkers!) so to run felt like a little release and a slice of freedom rolled into one. It didn’t seem to matter how far away my friend was, we’d arrange a time to set off, a place to meet, and follow the school bus routes on the pavements parallel so we didn’t get lost.
At around 16, I became fascinated with yoga and meditation and would run into Didsbury Village for a yoga class every week in the evenings, and then walk back after a lovely meditation.
The walk along Barlow Moor Road was around 2-3 miles I’d say, dotted with trees at the Didsbury end, and the greenery always made the stroll back more positive and happy. I used it as a time to reflect, and couldn’t wait for the next session the following week.
When I moved to Leicester and began working full-time, I started running again in the mornings before work. I lived in the city centre, and worked in an office, so running was predominantly for exercise, and to make sure I got outside more. There weren’t many green spaces in the centre, so hitting the pavements for a run soon became more of a chore, and I didn’t run then for quite some years.
heartbreak DURING THE PANDEMIC
Shortly before the pandemic struck my husband Neil nudged me into finding something for myself, to help switch off and unwind again. So in January 2020, I joined Overseal Running Club - a Jog Derbyshire group - and it was the best decision I could have made! I’d only ever run solo before, but running with this group of people, chatting away about the awesomeness of food and putting the world to rights was joyous!
The pandemic started kicking in around early March and shortly after, we found out I was pregnant with our third child too. Surprise doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt, three children under five was going to be full on!
The first scan made it all real, but the second one, along with some tests quickly started to show some potential health concerns. With the restrictions being so stringent within hospital settings particularly, we had to make decisions without really being able to speak to specialists face to face.
My waters had broken early on, and approaching my 5th month, I ended up spending just over 10 days in hospital after a bad bleed, and due to covid restrictions, no visitors were permitted. I’d never really been away from Jonah or Jack before, and being apart from them at such a worrying and emotional time, was incredibly upsetting.
On August 14th 2020, we had family over to see the boys. We drank tea, ate cake and caught up on life whilst I attached name labels and ironed all of Jonah’s very first school uniform.
I was coming to the end of my 5th month of pregnancy at this stage, and we were due to view the NICU the following Monday and meet the staff to discuss what would happen going forwards when the time came.
That evening around 9pm, I felt something was wrong and I was utterly terrified. Before I knew it an ambulance had arrived, our neighbour had hurried over to watch over the boys while they slept, and I was blue-lighted to the Royal Derby.
Our daughter was born still, the following morning at 8.44 am.
The impact on my mental health
I had an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-doubt for a very long time after we lost Isabel. The doubts lead to severe anxiety at times.
"What if I’d made different decisions, what if we’d had more support from our doctors”.
Nothing prepares you for that kind of feeling or self- blame. The funeral was a month later, on September 15th, and felt like the hardest thing ever. It was an incredibly lonely place emotionally.
I drank every night, and had episodes of uncontrollable crying, feelings of frustration and helplessness. It felt, for a long while, like being in a haze, treading water daily. It wasn’t easy but with two boys to look after, all I could do was paint my happy face on and be mummy.
Gradually we started going on walks and exploring again as a family, and when I eventually got back out running on the trails again, it felt like magic. Little by little, the weight was being lifted each time I went out.
WHAT THE OUTDOORS DOES FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH
I can’t explain it, but there is something about the breeze and birdsong, being surrounded by lush meadows and trees and feeling the softer earth underfoot that makes running trails so much more connected than anywhere else.
Seeing sunlight stream through the trees, or feeling heavy raindrops on your hands while you run makes my heart happy. These moments feel SO good that they can only have a positive impact on our mental and physical well-being.
So much of my stay-at-home parenting life has been spent outdoors and enjoying forest school sessions in The National Forest’s magnificent spaces, and those moments have arguably been our favourite time of the week.
Battling mental health, felt like being caged, but being outside surrounded by nature and beautiful landscapes, there’s a sense of calm. You can breathe without restraint, think more clearly, and generally feel more connected with the world around you.
WHY I WANTED TO BECOME A TRAIL THERAPY LEADER
When a friend mentioned putting myself forward for the trail therapy leader role, it initially took me by surprise. But as I thought about the idea, how much I had benefited from both walking and running out in the beautiful countryside, and the positive effects nature has had on my mental health, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give back and help others.
Our son Jack was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in March during the pandemic, and his additional needs are vast and complex. He struggles to communicate, which causes frustration, which can be a lot of pressure as a parent. He has a huge fascination with nature and flourishes when he’s in the open air, so being outdoors doesn't only benefit my mental health but his greatly too. Understanding how nature has such a positive impact on him too, gives me all the more motivation to lead others to get out for their mental health and well-being too.
As humans, I don't believe we get out in nature as much as we should. Spending the bulk of our time binge-watching Netflix, glued to phones and computers, with the long winters herding us indoors for long periods even more so. I can say with confidence that once we do get out in clean open air, there really is nothing like it. Reconnecting ourselves with nature and spoiling our senses promotes positive living for sure.
So many people haven’t had the chance to experience the therapeutic benefits of just being outdoors. The healing powers of green spaces are remarkable, and I would love to share that with others.