This is the best running book of 2024
Battling through alcoholism and depression to reach true gratitude for running trails and for life itself, with There Is No Wall, Allie Bailey has written a classic memoir
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Allie Bailey is an ultrarunner, a coach, and an alcoholic. She’s also written a book, and if this isn’t the best running book of 2024, we are in for a vintage year of reading, because There Is No Wall is truly magnificent.
Since we spoke, late last year, Allie has been nominated as the Inspirational Runner of the Year and Coach of the Year at the UK’s National Running Show and pre-orders for her book have sold out twice.
Even though it recounts decades of deep, personal anguish in honest, gory detail, you won’t want to put it down. It’s like a motorway (freeway AmE) car crash in that way, and Allie’s story is of the rubbernecking level to cause a 5-mile tailback.
There Is No Wall gruesomely details her struggles with alcohol and depression, while also briefly mentioning her numerous successes, almost as asides. Her journey through suicide attempts and turbulent relationships is accompanied by a playlist of the music that got her through those times.
Allie writes with honesty and self-awareness about her path back through pain, shame, and blocks of therapy. She utilizes that work with her celebrated coaching techniques to put forward a calm and balanced view of my favorite way of running: thoughtfully, and for oneself.
During this Dry January, conversations about a changing relationship with alcohol are increasingly common among my friends as well as in wider society. N/A craft beers are fast creeping onto major supermarket shelves. Gen Xers and Millennials are shocked by how little Gen Z wish to participate in drinking. It strikes me that this is a memoir for right now.
We speak on Thanksgiving Day - me on my sofa in Los Angeles, and Allie at her desk in Yorkshire, England. We talk first about our lovely dogs, and then about her 25-mile run the next day with record-breaking ultrarunner, Damian Hall.
“I’m not as good as Damian in any way, but the thing about ultra running is that it doesn't really matter who you are or what you've done, everybody is kind to each other, everybody is the same.”
Then we get onto a potted history of Allie Bailey…
Allie’s first steps
“I was an alcoholic from the age of 14,15, and then, working in music, alcohol is everywhere all of the time. I was not well at all. I was very depressed.”
She recalls the #MeToo gaslighting, and the constant drinking found in the music industry. In a bid to retain her major record label job, Allie would drink at every opportunity - with the band, at press junkets, before the show, during the show, after the show. She would do everything to make herself appear fun and necessary to keep around, while in reality, she was having the most monstrously awful time. Running seemed like a way out.
“I thought, ‘I'm gonna start running because running's really good for your mental health,’ so I did start running, and I'm expecting something to happen like, ‘Oh, I run now, so maybe I'll get better - magically just not feel like a piece of shit,’ but that didn't happen.”
My path into my adult running practice was similar, but to a much lower degree. I started running organized races to avoid alcohol. Being able to tell colleagues about to embark upon their post-work seven pints of lager that I very sadly wouldn’t be able to join them because I had a training run to complete that evening worked really well.
There were other reasons, but that was a big one: health. For Allie, that abstinence was a first window to sobriety and a brighter life.
“My first marathon, I didn’t drink anything for 80 days. I know it was 80 days because I remember every day as being very hard, and it was harder to do that than it was to train for the marathon.”
“When I finished the London Marathon, that was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m good enough.’ Because my whole life, I've not felt like I'm good enough to do anything.”
Allie talks about going on to run more and more road marathons, but no longer “living like a monk” during training. She talks about completing a three-day binge with a bunch of German rappers before the Berlin Marathon and drinking almost until the starting gun of London, for instance, but also getting her best ever marathon times.
Allie kept drinking, though. (You can and should read all about it in the book.) Even through a year of running an ultra distance every weekend.
Allie hit rock bottom, however, two and a half years ago during a perfect storm of abandonment and loneliness, a load of wine to mask it, and more suicidal thoughts. She knew she had to stop drinking or she would cease to exist.
“And so I did stop, and now I'm better, and everything's fine... That's bollocks,” she laughs. “I am a lot better, but everything's not fine because it doesn't work like that, does it. No, I've got to deal with the emotions and the thoughts.”
It’s those emotions and thoughts that Allie has learnt to deal with and understand that has given her some formidable tools to work with and wisdom to impart.
“A lot of the stuff you're taught in therapy when you're not well, you can use on a hill, in the middle of an ultra, and if you can use it on the hill you can use it at home. And that’s why running is brilliant.”
I really love asking coaches what they do when running sucks, so here’s more brilliant Allie Bailey wisdom:
“If you start running and you think, ‘If I feel this shit now, how am I gonna feel in X miles? How am I going to get to the end?’ Come right back to the moment.”
“You don't know how you're gonna feel in 5 miles. All you can do is control what's going on in the moment. So if you feel tired, slow down. If you feel hungry, have something to eat. If you feel bored, put your headphones on. But just be in that moment and don’t think 15 steps ahead.”
Running + Therapy = ?
I’ve written previously about moving away from quantitative data to run for happiness, and the capitalist mindset of the sport, and Allie nails the idea of success for the recreational runner.
“The amount of clients I have who can't hit a certain time and they're like, ‘It's making me so depressed and really anxious.’ I tell them they’re running for leisure time, and should be enjoying it. It takes a really long time to unpick that, but it's all based in the idea of success”
“When you're running along worrying that you're not fast enough or that Dave from accounts is quicker than you, that’s not going to help your anxiety, is it.”
Allie wrote this book because of the notion that running can save you. She worried that people who buy into it are going to be really badly let down.
“The running will give you the tools and the environment to test strategies, to test your resilience, and to test fear. What if it doesn't go right and you don't finish the race? Then what happens? If you take a chance in life, and it doesn't go right, then what happens?”
“I want to illustrate to people that if you use running for the right reason - as a place to test the stuff and as a place to keep your brain and your mind healthy - it's great. If you’re using it to prove something, there's every likelihood that it's not going to work out that well for you.”
“When you stop drinking, and hit rock bottom - it's beyond words and I've written a book about it - the days after that, I thought, ‘I can never feel like this again.’”
“When I fully woke up, I was so grateful. I was grateful for the smell of my dog's ears. I was grateful for my pillow. I was grateful for so much, and that is how my relationship with running has changed. I am so grateful to be able to put my shoes on and go for a run.”
“I've been in recovery for two and a half years and I'm getting more grateful. When I was drinking, I didn't feel anything for so long, so now it doesn't matter if the weather is shit, it doesn't matter if the hills are hard, I'm just fucking grateful.”
If there was a forced moment of enlightenment for Allie - one that came at a severe cost - the stories that she’s sharing will surely help people get to a place of enjoying their running - and their lives - in a healthier, more purposeful way.
If you have any suspicions about your relationship with alcohol - and Allie estimates three-quarters of ultrarunners are in some form of addiction recovery - There Is No Wall could be essential reading for you.
If you’re struggling, know that there is a brighter path forward for you. If you’ve linked your use of alcohol with depression like Allie did, there is help available. Asking for it is a big step that you will never regret.
Enjoy your running this week. In body and in mind.
Ways to make running suck less covered today
Test your resilience
Test difficult moments
Stop trying to prove something
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