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From fear to freedom - a runner’s brave story

Five years after leaving an abusive relationship, Nelson runner Tanya Bottomley is focused on setting an ultramarathon first for women, while raising awareness of family violence

Desperately alone, depressed and “beaten down”, Tanya Bottomley was trapped in a destructive, abusive relationship. 

At home with her children, she felt isolated. Controlled.

But a throw-away line from her sister - to help lift her out of depression and get her out of bed - led Bottomley to her local library, where she borrowed books on how to run a marathon.

Running became her escape, her safe place. Somewhere she finally felt confident and free.

Even then, it wasn't pure liberation. She wasn’t allowed to run with other people.

She was permitted to run on the roads, as long as she was by herself, and she was home in time to put meals on the table.

Now, five years after leaving her partner, Bottomley is a different woman. Her life, she says, is "limitless". 

After a short stint in the police force, she’s a customs officer living in Nelson. And she still runs, but now on trails, and with other people. A very long way.

“Back then I had a grim determination with my running, but now it’s just a pure love,” Bottomley tells the Dirt Church Radio podcast.  “It’s something I do because it makes me really, really happy. It’s seen me through hard times, to now, which is the most amazing time.”

Today, Bottomley is an ultramarathon runner, who’s 100 miles shy of completing an incredible feat.

Earlier this year, “to celebrate my new life free from violence”, she took on the Southern Seasons Challenge – to finish four 100-mile (161km) races, run across the South Island, in the space of 12 months.

So far, she’s run three of them – in Christchurch, Hanmer and Naseby – with the final leg the soul-destroying Northburn Station mountain run in Cromwell.

If she finishes that race in March, she will be the first woman to knock off the challenge.

As she’s running, she’s also raising awareness and funds for Shine, the charity making New Zealand homes violence-free, which once helped her.

And she also hopes to set up a group to help women who’ve experienced domestic violence to discover trail running.

Tanya Bottomley has had to focus on her health to get through three 100-milers in six months. Photo: Kunal Kumar, kunalkumarphoto.com

“Part of why I love it so much is because I do feel that freedom,” Bottomley says of running. “I feel limitless now. It’s such a contrast to where I was five years ago.

“Running has been a massive catalyst. Don’t get me wrong, there’s heaps of personal work that goes on too. Running isn’t everything, but it plays a part and helps build that confidence. And it encourages you to go out and learn more and be more.”

So how did she find running? It was 12 years ago, when Bottomley was at one of the lowest ebbs in her relationship. A heavy smoker, she also wanted to quit for her daughter, be a good example to her.

“But I really struggled with quitting smoking. I was depressed, I was in bed. Life was all pretty hard,” she recalls.

“I was talking to my sister one morning and she said: ‘Why don’t you run a marathon?’ I was like, ‘You are crazy!’ It was winter, and she was talking about the Auckland marathon three months away.”

Still, the idea struck a chord with Bottomley, who borrowed library books on how to run a marathon.

“I didn’t manage a whole marathon; I managed the half,” she recalls. “But that was the start of my love affair with running.

“It was something I could get out and do, that I was allowed to get out and do. It was my happy place in what was a pretty tough time.”

But there were certain things Bottomley wasn’t able to do as a runner. She was forbidden to run with people.

“I actually experienced my most amazing trail run during that time. I went out with a running group … the first time I had run on a trail. But I wasn’t allowed to do that again. It was years before I hit a trail again,” she says.

“Road running I could do; I could get up before the kids woke up. I could do a race, as long as I was back to put lunch and dinner on the table.”

But then Bottomley’s running journey hit a stumbling block. She was at a job interview for a gym instructor, when she fell on her knee and tore a ligament. She didn’t run for 18 months.

“It was really hard. I spent so much time crying on the phone to my sister. I’d kind of lost my identity, the thing that kept me sane,” she admits. “I tried body building, but nothing replaced running, my first love,” she says.

Yet, there was an unexpected silver lining in that dark cloud. Bottomley ended up taking a corporate job, where she met a woman who gave her support to finally leave her relationship. “Things happen for a reason,” she says.

Tanya Bottomley, running downhill in the Krazy Kapers 100-miler, loves the freedom of running. Photo: Kunal Kumar, kunalkumarphoto.com

After her injury break, Bottomley got back into running while she was training to become a police officer - another thing she'd always wanted to do. That's when she got hooked on trail running.

That love for trails deepened when she moved to Nelson two years ago. When she couldn’t get a job transfer, she left the police, and now works as a customs officer at the region’s ports.

She’s loved the three 100-miler races she’s tackled in the past six months – the most recent, the Krayzie Kapers in Christchurch last month.

“I didn’t realise how much focus I’d have to put on my health,” she says. “That I’d have to dial in nutrition, and regular blood tests as well. It takes everything – mentally, physically, emotionally - to get through it.”

She sees a hypnotherapist, who helps her body recover through sleep. While she’s running, she sings songs to herself, and doesn’t think about a lot, or worry about anything: “I’m just being in the moment”.

“As a runner, I feel more like an athlete now. I’m much stronger, and I understand my body a bit more. As a person, the confidence that has come from it has been amazing.”

She admits it's taken many years for her to learn how to be around people again, but that's where the running community has helped her. "Everyone’s so welcoming, and we have this common thing that you can talk about and bond over,” she says.

Now she wants to share that connection with others.

“I’m looking at the idea of setting up a community for women who have experienced domestic violence to provide training and coaching to get them into trail running. Through our sport you can gain confidence, learn discipline and gain health, and there’s an amazing community connecting women who have been isolated,” she says.

“I’ve been really lucky to have had people there to lift me up and help me out. But not everyone gets that.”

Her sister Vanessa, who first convinced her to run, is her “rock”, who crews for her at ultramarathons, and has just started trail running.

Bottomley admits she was initially reluctant to share the story of her life outside running.

“I felt I had to edit my life; I didn’t want to share that part of me. There’s so much shame and so much stigma, I thought I don’t want to put myself out there for that,” she says.

“And then that was exactly the reason I did.”

* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com

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