Racing for life: Skye athlete talks candidly on running, mental health and addiction

In an honest and frank account the talented Skye runner HUGH CAMPBELL details his long standing, but until now relatively unknown, battle with mental illness and addiction – offering inspiration to others who might be struggling.

Hugh Campbell racing to victory

In my hometown of Portree, I’m known for being a runner. I have won the Isle of Skye Half Marathon five times and set records in most of the other domestic races.

And yet despite these successes – none of them represent my greatest victory.

I had a normal childhood initially.

I was raised in a loving family but then one day in 1989, my father was taken from us in a tragic car accident.

My mother had to try and tell her two young sons what had

As I became older the absence of my father started to become a source of great pain to me. I did what a lot of people do in tragedy – I suppressed it.

As I grew older, I was bullied.

In high school, this became physical abuse, and I was seriously injured on several occasions.

Hugh as a child with his father Donald, who was coastguard officer in Portree

I was a promising first-year student with top grades who suddenly slipped into mediocrity. Rather than face my problems I hid at home.

As a result of my withdrawal my problems, which had been developing under the surface, were hidden until I had to get my first job aged 16 at a local hotel.

Thrust into a public service job the first indications of my mental illness started to become apparent.

The staff noticed I was unable to look people in the eye. I was also very withdrawn and found serving customers utterly terrifying.

I suffered from a stress rash, which would cause my entire upper torso to become unbearably itchy.

I didn’t last long at this job.

Long battle

Around then was when I first started drinking. It was a total revelation at first – but it was the start of a long battle with alcohol.

I attended university when I was 17 but was now so unwell, I was having
uncontrollable panic attacks.

During freshers’ week, I woke up after a heavy nights’ drinking, utterly convinced I was going to die.

I jumped in a taxi in a state of total panic and began hyperventilating, and my arms were seizing up from the loss of carbon dioxide.

I thought I was dying.

“Please take me to the hospital!” I explained to the taxi driver.

Healthy and happy on Ben Tianavaig, Skye

When we arrived at the hospital, he rushed for help, and immediately the paramedics knew I was suffering from a panic attack.

They took me inside. I can still remember sitting in the hospital corridor breathing into a brown paper bag.

Eventually, the attack subsided, and I was taken to my family’s house.

I vividly remember sitting opposite my auntie and telling her that the attack had left me so exhausted that I felt like I had “run a marathon”.

I attended many GP appointments and tried high doses of antidepressants, but they didn’t work.

University is a very social environment, but I found this unbearable without alcohol.

Four large doubles were what I needed just to ‘level me off’.

But I would keep drinking and then the blackouts would occur.

On one occasion I woke up in hospital after falling down a flight of stairs.

In addition to this traumatic episode, I also nearly died several times after vomiting in my sleep.

At this point, my day to day life had become an utter torment.

I tried therapy and antidepressants, but they didn’t work for me. I became so unwell I couldn’t cope anymore and dropped out of university.

My drinking had become such a problem that I lost many jobs.

As a result, I developed a reputation, and nobody would employ me.


I spent Christmas 2005 in homeless accommodation drinking on my own.

After the new year, I spoke with the head chef of a local hotel and he levelled with me – “I’ll give you a chance. But you are only getting one.”

Hugh has run half marathons in under 1 hour and 10 minutes

I knew this was my last chance. I was still drinking heavily but whatever it took I always turned up.

Often, I was still drunk from the previous evening, but I never missed a shift.

They had no idea the torment my illness was causing me.

Then my friend’s father who owned a design company offered me a huge leg up – an apprenticeship.

I almost messed it up on the first day, but managed to make it to the initial training still drunk.

I was living on the edge but like the last job, I always made work.

The illness was not improving though.

I was still trying to fight off panic attacks at work. I still struggled with eye contact and I still was totally reliant on alcohol.

Running to recovery

In 2007 I decided to start running. This was the start of my recovery.

Running gave me a high and a temporary relief from my daily torment of chronic anxiety.

My running would lead me to discover a hidden talent and I won my local
half marathon in 2010.

But I was still drinking.

At the start of 2013, I decided to totally stop.

It was very hard for the first few months but eventually, I broke the habit and would go running instead.

Slowly but surely, I began to find myself again.

Running allowed me to become more confident and comfortable with myself. And because I now did not have the crutch of alcohol to lean on it forced me to finally confront my fears.

This process took many years, but I persevered.

I also decided to confront my other fear – public service jobs. I once again returned to the hotel that gave me a lifeline years before but this time I was working on reception.

For the first three months, I was utterly terrified each time a customer came to the front desk.

But as the months passed, I realised the fear was irrational and I discovered that, surprisingly, I’m a people-person and I love to meet people from across the world.

Given where I came from this felt nothing short of transformational.

As the years passed my running successes continued and I won many more races and I started to feel better mentally and physically.

Several years later I now have a flat and have developed a successful marketing business.

My therapist asked me how I felt about my father dying. I responded with “I don’t know”.

I had completely suppressed any thought of it. But now I was starting to get my health back I could begin to understand this pain too.

I would often say I would get more sympathy if I had a broken leg – because the problem is visible.

But mental illness is very much worse, invisible, and even now poorly understood.

Hugh was honoured by the local council for his achievements

I wanted to write this article as a message of hope.

Because I found a way back through facing my fears every day and replacing alcohol addiction with a healthier addiction to running.

I can’t tell you things will improve straight away – it takes a long time to recover, but they will improve!

We have many more mental health support services available today.

After the many long hard years of battling for my life back each day, I have finally won my greatest victory of all – overcoming my mental illness.

It was not greeted with the loud applause of a crowd cheering a race winner but contentment inside of knowing how much I had accomplished from where I had started.

If you feel you need support and are struggling please know you are not alone and can contact the following organisations for help:
Scottish Association for Mental Health –
Breathing Space –
Samaritans –