At a small school assembly in Worcester, pupil Jenny Nesbitt heard her name being called to go up and collect an award for being “the most happy and smiley child” in the school.
She shook the teacher’s hand, turned to her classmates to show her familiar smile and then wandered back over to her chair to continue her seemingly joyful life.
However, what nobody in the school knew at the time was that beneath her large, beaming smile, the friendly 12-year-old girl was suffering.
While the now 24-year-old British international runner is currently as free and happy as she has ever, much of her early teens were spent in the shackles of a terrible eating disorder.
“At the time (of the award) I was in one of my darkest places ever,” recalls Nesbitt, “when I was younger my parents separated, we moved around a lot and I went to a lot of different schools, so I never really had a settled childhood in my early years between one and ten.
“I don’t think there’s ever one trigger for mental health problems, but they can originate from wanting to be in control of something. I’m someone who likes a routine and a bit of control so unfortunately I think that combined with how my life was at the time is what actually triggered it.”
Putting huge limits on what she ate was the only way that Nesbitt felt she could have any influence over her life, such was the lack of stability at home.
However, the obsession with control was what soon spiralled out of control. While it may have been apparent to most who knew her that she needed help, she was reluctant to accept it.
“You don’t want people to take that control away from you,” says Nesbitt, “if you start to think about people knowing (about the disorder) then they’re obviously going to want to help you and then take that control off you and then it just cycles into other things.
“It’s really backwards if you think about it logically. You’re in this constant cycle of looking for perfectionism and it’s unachievable, because unfortunately people can die, they starve themselves so much that their body just shuts down.”
It was then that the troubled young teenager made perhaps the best decision of her life.
With places available in her school’s athletics club, Nesbitt saw an opportunity to try something new that could give her the control and stability she had always lacked. It soon gave her a new lease of life that hadn’t always been on her radar.
“To be honest before I was in secondary school I hated running,” says Nesbitt, “but then I joined the athletics club at school and really enjoyed it. I think the one thing that helped me put it all in perspective was the fact that I wanted to be healthy and have a healthy body to be able to run, so to do that I had to gain weight.
“It’s the social side (of running) as well. I isolated myself so much as a child that it took me a long time to gain confidence with talking to people and socialising. But now it’s something I love so much and I would never want to see someone else in a situation where they didn’t want to talk to people and they didn’t want to go out and have a good laugh.”
It wasn’t a simple path by any means, with many years of hard work having to be done for her to burst the bubble that she had hid inside for so long.
As a keen under-15 athlete completely new to the sport, Nesbitt decided to try out almost every discipline on offer, spending her first years in the sport as a self-described “failed heptathlete” before deciding that running was probably the best way to go.
It was all fun and games and it came quite quickly to the young Worcester athlete who was consistently finishing high up in national races as well as racking up county championship gold medals along the way.
Both on and off the track, everything now seemed to be coming together, as a now fit and healthy Jenny Nesbitt continued to enjoy and make the most out of her new-found hobby and growing confidence as a person.
However at the age of 17 and about to enter a crucial period in her education, would see her health and indeed her life take a “horrific” step backwards.
“I was just about to take my A Levels when out of nowhere I got a strep throat infection,” says Jenny, “about three days later I was in A&E and had an autoimmune disease where basically my body just attacked itself. My kidney functions pretty much stopped, my intestines twisted, I was purple because I suffer really badly from vasculitis and I was literally just in hospital for two months and then in and out for about two and a half years.
“It was a really horrific time in my life topped with the fact that I had already had a lot of mental health problems prior to that. But it has meant that I don’t take a single day for granted anymore because I’ve seen just how quickly life can be taken away from you.”
It was nearly two years before Nesbitt was ready to get back and compete in the sport that was so precious to her. Just to be able to do so was nothing short of a miracle in her eyes after everything that had happened, with her return in 2014 quickly bringing new PBs as well as more strong cross country performances as she rediscovered her mojo.
With the 2015 cross country season on the horizon, there was another turn. But this time, it would prove to be one of the happiest and most rewarding moments of Nesbitt’s life. She had already had a strong track season that year, picking up a bronze medal in the England under-23 5000m final and competing among the best in the country at the British Championships.
But November at the Liverpool Cross Challenge saw her finally achieve a lifelong dream, as a fifth placed finish at the European trials saw her on the plane and heading for her first ever international competition at the European Cross Country Championships in France.
“It was such a big moment,” says Nesbitt, “because if I look back just three years prior to that no-one would have thought I’d even be back running, let alone running for my country.
“It was probably just as special for my mum, dad and brother them as it was for me, to see where I had been to then seeing me put on the GB kit and representing my country. They were the people who had got me there really, they looked after me day in, day out, gave me a shoulder to cry on and they never judged me or questioned me as a person.”
Since this huge breakthrough into the British international ranks, the 24-year-old has gone on to have many more satisfying seasons in the sport she loves, winning the BUCS 5000m title the next year, along with having the experiences of a lifetime at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and the World Cross Country Championships in 2019.
Struggles with mental health seem to be buried away, with the once shy young girl now a keen adult who will take on any challenge, with this year also seeing her begin a Broadcasting Masters course at Cardiff Met University.
Nesbitt admits that the “demons” that emerge during mental health struggles can only be lessened rather than wiped out completely and she knows that there are still many sufferers just like her who need much more than an inspirational pep talk before they can recover.
“It’s easy for me now to say that you shouldn’t be scared to try new things” says Nesbitt, “but if you’d said that to me six years ago I would have just thought you were giving me all this ‘blah blah’ and that it was never going to happen.
“It’s such a horrible position to be in because you truly believe that you’re a lost cause when in reality no-one is a lost cause. Everyone’s got every right to be here and to have as many opportunities as anyone else. But you also have to be willing to accept other people’s help because it’s impossible to get through a mental illness on your own.”
Mental battles are also still a very big part of Nesbitt’s life, as with every athlete in a highly individual sport such as athletics. Despite winning the 2019 Inter Counties title in Loughborough, the week leading up to the race had been far from ideal, with training not setting a very good omen for the race.
“The week before I won in Loughborough, my coach Chris pulled me out of a session just two reps in,” says Nesbitt, “he then told me to take the next day off, so just a week before winning the Inter Counties I was in a very bad place in my training. But I think if you let things like that get in your mind too much, you’re not going to be able to run well.
“If I ever have a bad race or training session I can always give myself half an hour to have a strop or whatever and then I can get over it. And I think that’s good to still be able to have those bad moments because we put so much time and effort into the sport so it would be a bit weird if we didn’t get emotional about it.”
Now, armed with merely a pair of spikes and a fancy Garmin watch, Jenny is ready for more mud, hills and excitement in the cross country season. The Worcester athlete is part of Great Britain’s senior team for the European Championships in Portugal, alongside the likes of Kate Avery and Jess Judd.
The desire to compete internationally is always a big driving force for Nesbitt, who always enjoys one particular part of the build up to racing for her country.
Mud fest, but the best race I’ve ever had at Liverpool! 6th place and crossing fingers for selection 🤞 pic.twitter.com/3b9n5RWpjf
— Jenny Nesbitt (@jennynesbitt) November 23, 2019
“I’ll never forget the day the kit arrived for my first international in 2015,” says Nesbitt, “you always dream of being able to get on the GB team so that day was very special. I was one of those really sad people who got every single item out of the packaging, tried them all on and then packed it really neatly in the suitcase ready to go.
“We got to much kit for the Commonwealth Games as well, I’ve still got labels on some of them because there’s about seven or eight of the same thing there so I didn’t get the chance to use it all. I’m still after the navy blue puffer jacket though from the GB kit, I’ve got the red one and the black one but haven’t got that one, so if I get on the team this year I really hope I get that one this year!”
Whatever kit she wears, be it Great Britain, Wales, or her club vest, the Cardiff Met student is happy to be running and to be healthy physically and mentally.
With a bright and busy future ahead of her, Nesbitt’s attention now turns to helping others like her when she was younger. “It’s so important to have role models,” says Nesbitt, “back when I was 14-years-old if I had known that someone else made the Great Britain team who had been through similar situations to me, then it would have given me so much confidence and hope that it one day could be me.
“I’d love to be able to show people that you can go through really hard times but then come out of the other side and be stronger, braver and tougher than you’ve ever been before, so if there’s anything I can do to help people who are possibly in similar situations then it can only be positive.”
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