Vertigo episode left Swansea Harrier bed-bound but her response was to fight her way back to running and earn further GB international honours
As a talented sous-chef and writer, as well as a Great Britain international athlete, Verity Ockenden is not someone who struggles to strike a balance between sport and her wider world.
There was a point last year, however, where balance was in desperately short supply, to the extent that she could hardly stand up.
Fortune did not smile too favourably on the 27-year-old for much of 2018. First there was the freak bicycle injury which left her with a haematoma in her leg and subsequently revealed a stress fracture which meant all summer competition was missed.
Then, roughly six weeks into her return, another debilitating foe came completely out of the blue.
“I had vertigo for a week,” says the Swansea Harrier who lives in Dorset and trains with City of Salisbury. “It came on really quickly and it was so bad that I had to go to hospital. I couldn’t open my eyes without throwing up because the world was just spinning.
“I was basically bed-bound and couldn’t walk for a week because I just lost all sense of balance.”
When she did get back on her feet and raced for the first time since March, Ockenden ran 14:47 at the ERRA road relays in early October, the fifth-fastest time for leg four as her Swansea team finished sixth overall.
As is so often the case, however, the numbers don’t quite tell the full story. In truth, it was a remarkable achievement simply for her to complete the course at all.
“I was back walking and running for a week before the national road relays, but I still couldn’t really see properly,” she reveals. “I had nystagmus, which meant my eyes were (involuntarily) moving from side to side constantly for that race, so it was really just a matter of getting round and not crashing into anybody or anything.
“But I knew I was fit and I’d been down to training and that was where my team-mates all made a little pact to run in formation around me and prop me up so that I could actually get through the session without being dangerous. It was a very surreal experience.”
Did she ever find out how the condition happened?
“It can be caused by a viral ear infection but it can also be caused by a lot of different things and they didn’t really get to the bottom of it,’ she says. “They just said it happens and that it can take a very long time or a short time to heal. You just have to wait.
“You can do exercises to try and realign your sense of balance but it’s a very slow process.
“It was a good month before I felt back to my old self. There were times when I felt ‘this is going to go on for months’ and I couldn’t imagine feeling confident in my stride and everything again.
“It was a very strange feeling. I’m so used to relying on my mind to take over when my body feels weak and I had to kind of flip that around with running and training. It was the case that my body could actually do it, even though my mind was telling me that everything it can perceive through my ears and eyes was wrong.
“It had to just trust that my feet were moving in the right direction at the right speed – and they were, but it just didn’t feel like it.”
When Ockenden did start to feel fully in control again, impressive things began to happen. In her third race back following her injury problems – the European Cross Country trials in Liverpool back in November – she remarkably finished second behind Charlotte Arter. That performance earned a spot on the plane to Tilburg and ultimately a team silver with Great Britain in the senior women’s event.
Ockenden and Arter will be part of a strong GB line-up once again this weekend, at the Simplyhealth Great Stirling XCountry. The Tony Houchin-coached athlete will be conscious not to put too much pressure on herself, however, given her clear sense of perspective and a gratitude for the creative side to her character which allows the pursuit of other interests.
“I don’t think I could just focus on just running,” she says. “I need something else to do, otherwise it’s a bit too intense.
“When I couldn’t run in the summer, I knew I had to find something else that would make me happy and I don’t think it’s healthy to determine your own kind of self worth on numbers alone in the sport.
“I did actually get to a point when I thought ‘I don’t need to go back to running to feel happy – I’m fulfilling myself in other ways.’ However, choosing to go back to running made me feel really powerful – I’m not dependent on running.
“It has been absolutely life-saving at times as a kind of escape mentally and I’ve used it as a crutch at times. I’ll never stop running – I can’t imagine it not being a part of my lifestyle – but I won’t depend on the performance side of it I don’t think.”
She adds: “I know that I’ll still be happy, even if I don’t achieve what I’d like to achieve. Everything that happens is a great bonus, really, but I’ll find ways to enjoy everything.
“With a lot of my races that haven’t gone well, I’ve still had a great time afterwards because of all the people who have been at the race. They always take care of me and cheer me up. There’s always their performance, or funny stories and other things to be doing.”
Balance, it would appear, has indeed been well and truly restored.
» See the January 10 edition of AW magazine for a preview to the Simplyhealth Great Stirling XCountry