Why I’m taking on the London Marathon for people with migraine

By: Aileen Hitchins, who lives with chronic vestibular migraine

28th September 2022

I signed up to run the London Marathon – something I never thought I would do – in October 2019 to celebrate my recovery from (or rather I should say my more successful management of) crippling and debilitating chronic migraine. Little did I know that as I reached the end of the exhausting training schedule ready to face this unbelievably scary challenge, a global pandemic would cause the event to be cancelled for the first time in its history. This is my take two. It’s been even tougher second time around – deja vu is not a feeling I have relished as I have slogged along the Thames Path.

It has been one of the hottest summers on record (the event was moved to October this year again for Covid reasons) and as well as dealing with work, teenagers and summer holidays I finally succumbed to the virus myself in July taking me totally out of training for three weeks. Oh, and my migraine attacks flared up again just to remind me how challenging it is to live with this little understood and devastating condition.

My migraine journey

My journey began back in May 2017 when I started having what I described as “dizzy spells”. I am (or should I say was, given what migraine has done to me) extremely laid back from a health perspective (being the daughter of two doctors) so I ignored it. It escalated over the summer with more frequent dizzy attacks and significant problems with my vision. Things continued to get worse, and I ended up having a severe vertigo attack in the office. I was having tingling and numbness all down my left hand side and my head “hurt” – a lot. At its worst I was unable to walk (never mind run) without holding on to someone.

After numerous tests and trips to various doctors (during which time I got increasingly worried and my symptoms worsened) I eventually found an amazing neurologist, who diagnosed migraine. Finally it clicked.

Like too many people I assumed migraine was just “a bad headache”. Whilst I did get “bad headaches”, because I didn’t vomit it didn’t cross my mind they were migraine attacks. I had no idea what else migraine could do to the brain. It totally turned my life upside down. I have suffered four or five extreme attacks with aura over the last couple of years (which have each floored me for a week or more) and beyond that I have had sometimes daily symptoms of vertigo and vision problems and what I call a “bad head” where noise and busy environments are impossible.

I have had to take a variety of unpleasant medications, was forced to take a prolonged break from
my career and have explored countless remedies from acupuncture to vestibular physio. Some things help, some give me something to do. In total, I’ve had a year and a half off work and I’m really not someone to be off sick a lot. It’s made me very nervous. It’s really shaken my trust in my own body.

Thankfully, I now feel in a much better place with it than I did at the beginning.

Running with migraine

For me personally, one of the key parts of my recovery was being able to run again. Running is a huge part of who I am and when I couldn’t do it, it hugely affected my mental health. When I say run, though, I was a 5k and 10k person not a long distance runner! I’ve found when it comes to training with migraine, it’s helpful to be rested before going on a long run and to start with very short runs and build up slowly. I also see running as a way to manage stress, get away from everything and get some headspace, which actually can help manage my migraine, rather than seeing it as another stressful thing.

When I decided to run the London Marathon, I knew I had to support The Migraine Trust. I wanted to try and raise awareness of just how crippling migraine is. Too many people have their lives severely disrupted and those who don’t suffer think it’s “just a headache”. I can assure you, as someone who lives with chronic vestibular migraine, it is not.

However, I also want people to know that it is possible to live a full life with migraine. It won’t totally go away, unfortunately you have to live with it and learn to manage it by avoiding triggering situations, but you can certainly live a full life.

Thank you so much for your support as I undertake this bucket list challenge. I know this is a huge endeavour given how vulnerable my health has been these past couple of years but, with your support, careful training and pure grit I am determined to make it.

Aileen will be taking on the London Marathon on 2 October. You can support her here.