At her lowest, Kay Woodburn was malnourished, surviving on stress and completely overwhelmed by OCD.
But discovering endurance fitness and changing her relationship with her body turned her life around and finally allowed her to let go of the things she couldn’t control.
Control was a defining factor in Kay’s life for many years. The 37-year-old grew up in an underprivileged area of Lancashire and her family faced serious financial difficulties.
‘It was tough growing up. We faced a lot of money issues,’ Kay said. ‘I think my struggles with OCD really stemmed from this period. I felt like because there were so many things in my life that I couldn’t control, I tried to control other things instead.
‘I tried to control what was happening in my own body, and it took me a long time to realise that was actually a form of self abuse.’
Kay lost a friend to suicide at just 10 years old, and then left the family home when she was just 16 because of a variety of difficult circumstances. She was forced to grow up much quicker than her peers.
‘I went from feeling like I had this fairy tale family, to realising that I don’t, and that really took its toll on me,’ says Kay. ‘As well as what I was doing to my body, I became obsessed with turning things off, and putting things in straight lines. It felt inescapable.’
Kay suffered domestic abuse as a teenager. As a result, she had to sit her GCSEs while in a wheelchair. What she went through triggered PTSD, anxiety and an eating disorder. The stress left Kay malnourished and weak, and put huge amounts of pressure on her physical and emotional health.
Kay was determined to work to create a better life for herself, so she threw herself into her career. She worked for BT for 13 years, reaching the position of Head of Learning and People Strategy. But, after years of giving her all, she hit full-on emotional burnout, amplified by long hours and work-related stress, but intrinsically caused by the 360 degree stress in her life.
She realised that she had never really addressed the underlying trauma that caused her psychological disorders, and perpetuated her OCD.
‘I just wasn’t managing it,’ explains Kay. ‘I had managed to get some of my OCD symptoms under control, but it was never easy. It was a constant struggle.
‘I would have my friends over for dinner after I bought my first house and they would tell me to sit down and eat – but I just couldn’t. I had to clean the whole kitchen and have everything back to perfect before I could sit down with them. They would have all finished their meals before I could sit down to eat.’
Existing at this high level of constant stress and worry just wasn’t sustainable. Kay began to realise that she was forever putting her own needs last, friends told her she looked malnourished, and she spent every minute worrying that someone close to her was going to die.
The turning point came when Kay discovered neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). NLP is a psychological approach that involves analyzing strategies used by successful individuals and applying them to reach a personal goal – and it had a transformational effect on Kay’s life.
It allowed her to channel her need for control into something much more positive and beneficial – endurance fitness became her outlet. And she is now careful to approach it in a really positive, helpful way.
‘Fitness for me, is nothing to do with how my body looks, or anything to do with other people. It’s about how I feel in myself,’ Kay tells us.
‘When I had an eating disorder it was a result of feeling out of control and the only thing I could control was what I ate or didn’t eat – an act of self abuse. My shift to be more fitness focussed was when I started to respect my body again.’
But it wasn’t an easy place to get to. Kay tried her first run in 2015. She managed a mile and a half before she had to stop because she felt so sick.
Her stressed, under-nourished body just couldn’t handle it. But, thanks to what she had learnt through NPL, Kay was determined to try again.
‘I have this personal ethos, that whenever somebody says they “can’t” do something – something else must be going on. There must be a limiting self belief in there that needs to be addressed,’ she explains.
‘That’s how I felt when I first went running – I hate this, I can’t do this. So I thought about what I was telling myself to come to that conclusion.
‘I went home and immediately signed up to the Cheshire Marathon.
‘I spent five months training, learning about nutrition and getting to know my body. My only aim was to finish, and to enjoy it. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to achieve a certain time or smash any records. Five months later, I finished it and I loved it.’
Since then, Kay has caught the endurance bug and has completed triathlons, Tough Mudders and lots of other marathons. But that first medal is still her most prized possession.
‘It will always be special to me,’ she says. ‘Every time I look at it, I am reminded that you can make the impossible, possible. Every time I think you can’t do something, this medal reminds me that I just need to change my attitude and have the right mindset and drive.’
Kay is now the founder of Gritty People, where she helps people at work, competitive athletes and entrepreneurs master their mindsets to help them achieve things that they never thought were possible. Her aim is to empower people to become the best possible version of themselves.
‘I am grateful for all my life experiences, because I choose to learn from them, they became my sword,’ says Kay. ‘My sword is my strength and my experiences sharpened it.
‘My skills and experience allow me to help others do the same, I want to reach as many people as I can, so they can have access to the mindset I have come to have and experience the world through a new lens. It’s liberating, enjoyable and elevating.’
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.