Miles For Mental Health: Part 1

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Over the years running has served a number of different roles in my life. It’s been a competitive outlet and a form of physical exercise, but also an opportunity to connect with myself, others, and my environment in a meaningful way. It’s also helped me to work through various incidents and occurrences that have challenged me if not shaken me to my core, from the unexpected passing of my Mom in 2008, to the global pandemic of the past two years, and countless other periods of stress, anxiety, and sadness in between. Through it all, running has kept me grounded and provided me the tools to work through all manner of challenging situations and emotions. I asked readers of the morning shakeout how running has helped improve their mental health, overcome challenges in their lives, and/or made a difference in their lives beyond its physical benefits. Throughout the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ll be sharing those stories in a series of posts on this website. It’s my hope that by compiling these stories and sharing them widely it will help someone who is struggling to feel less alone, start running, and/or seek out the help they need.

More: Read Part 2 of Miles for Mental Health here.

Jenny: “Running became so much more.”

The worst years of my life were saved by running. And the community around it.

Running was something that felt like home since 1995, when I first laced up for my high school’s XC team. Feet pounding the pavement made me feel grounded and after success with XC championships, state divisional records, recruitment to college. Training led to friendships, memories and success. It was bliss.

Then, in 2001, running became so much more. It was my lifeline. It was as necessary as breathing; the reason I woke up in the morning. My life was in circles of chaos, with bouts of calm that only made the unforeseen crisis that inevitably always came in waves. My mother and three younger siblings were living in domestic terrorism and I was in the know. They lived 11 miles from my college campus and there was little I could do. I kept showing up despite the emotional and physical abuse I would receive in the hands of my stepfather. I called 911 about a dozen times, was interviewed by police, pleaded with my mom to run (ironic pun). 

I should’ve told more people. My mom was proud. I was 19 years old. I was a pre-med student. I changed to psychology. My college friends would complain about essays and boyfriends. I stayed silent; their normal teen angst taking priority in the daily conversations over yogurt and granola. I never shared that I called my mom almost every hour, just to make sure she had survived since the last call. The broken bones and sleepless nights were the norm behind our big white smiles. Why bring this sadness to others?

So I took to running. My place of process; that lessened the feelings of loneliness and isolation. The repetition of banter, heavy panting and feet smacking pavement with teammates. Together. It’d get better, one step at a time.

Darin: “I know I can always count on a good run to relax.”

Running has been a big part of my life since I was young. I grew up watching and running with my dad in local races and marathons. I ran track in junior high and high school. I played basketball in college, but always knew I wanted to get back into running post college. Running has been a great way for me to stay active, relieve stress and let out some competitive energy over the years. Whenever I am going through a stressful time at work or at home I know I can always count on a good run to relax. 

Lucy: “Running became a part of my well-being rather than my self-destruction.”

I ran in high school to make friends and manage chaotic emotions. Sometimes I felt pent-up and angry; other times I felt so desolate and hopeless that I wondered why I was alive. I tried to excise my emotional demons with track intervals, but that didn’t work, so I turned to drugs. 

I continued to deteriorate during college, but my coach noticed, and she convinced me to see a psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, but at 20 years old, I couldn’t accept the diagnosis or treatment. The permanency and stigma were too scary. I continued to self-destruct, and running got urgent. I repeatedly ran myself into injury.

After graduation, I tried to give up running because it broke my heart, but I realized that I was even worse without running – I was short-tempered, and my body felt unwell. I laced my shoes back up, but amphetamines and opiates were getting in the way of my return. I was finally so defeated that I sought help. With the support of a therapist, psychiatrist, and recovery community, I got sober and worked on my mental health.

As I managed bipolar disorder, my competitive ambitions returned. Ultra races intrigued me, because when I was on the trails for hours my brain felt quieter than it had since I was a kid. So I started logging miles and got to know Bay Area trails. Running became part of my wellbeing rather than my self-destruction. Running now helps me monitor my mental health—when things are going downhill, I often observe symptoms first in my running, prompting me to engage proactively with mental health care. Breakthrough episodes and medication side effects sometimes make training hard, but I’ve finally found joy in running, and I’m getting faster than I ever thought I could be.

David: “Life goes on and running is right there beside us, accompanying the journey of ups and downs.”

Turning 43 this year, husband and dad of 3 kids; I’m a 3rd generation alcoholic, AA sober 11+ years—running saved by life as a teen, broke my heart in college and guided me through the aftermath of losing 3 family members to cancer in my mid 20’s. I’ve gained and lost 50 lbs. My best friend at age 15 shot got kicked out of our Catholic school, joined a gang and is serving life in prison for shooting and killing people at Galveston Mardi Gras. At age 16, running had fully engulfed my life, steered me away from the path he chose, and led me to life as a runner. I was a top Texas runner, 6 time all state, XC and Track team captain. Then, I went to CU Boulder to run with the buffaloes—in 1997! When they wrote the book Running with the Buffaloes. I was “Tex” to them, the guy at every practice and tryouts who couldn’t make the team in 1997/1998. I pivoted away from running for a decade and then came back to it in my mid 30’s. I ran 2:56 in my first and only marathon at CIM a year after our 2nd child arrived. Still running, still working. I’m a teacher and strength, conditioning and mobility coach at a Jesuit high school. I run about 50-80 miles weekly. Life goes on and running is right there beside us, accompanying the journey of ups and downs. 

Jeremy: “When my life needed it most, I found distance running in my mid-20s.”

I’ve been an endorphin addict for as long as I can remember. My childhood was filled with the unrelenting pursuit of recognition and achievement. But no matter how much I accomplished in a given day, I’d always lay in bed at night wishing I’d done more. Until the age of sixteen, that is, when I discovered a way to plug that void with excessive junk food consumption. Not just a few scoops of ice cream and a couple cookies, though. We’re talking about a large Dominos pizza, followed immediately by a family-sized package of Oreos. Or six items from Taco Bell and a dozen donuts from Dunkin. At first, I didn’t even recognize my binge eating episodes as an issue, mainly because they occurred alone, in the middle of the night, and didn’t harm anyone else. But as the illness followed me over the next ten years from high school to college, then college to adulthood, it effectively ravaged my professional, relational, and lifelong aspirations.

Thankfully, when my life needed it most, I found distance running in my mid-twenties. Like so many others, I was drawn to the initial challenge of a half marathon. Once accomplished, I moved the goalposts to 26.2. Then a 50K. Then 50 miles. Then 100. And now, a shifted focus toward Boston-qualifying. Throughout the five-ish years of pursuing these goals, I’ve learned more lessons and refined more character traits than this 300 word message will allow for. But here are the biggest ones that I’d be remiss to leave out: patience, discipline, acceptance, gratitude, and selflessness. While these lessons and character traits have allowed for self-improvement as a distance runner, I consider their role in my recovery from binge eating disorder most important of all.

Jason: “Running filled a void left by a loss of innocence in war and loss of community after getting out of the military.”

Running has been a mainstay in my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up only a few miles from the Boston Marathon course, I would cheer on the runners grinding it out…from the elites, to the Hoyt’s, and to those in the final waves. I remember watching my father run Boston and would eventually run it with him in 2014…side by side from Hopkinton to the finish line. 

At first, running was a path to being in shape for soccer. Then, after finding track in high school, running itself became my sport and passion. In my years at the Naval Academy and in the Marine Corps, running sustained my fitness and built a strong foundation to handle the rigors of military service.

After getting out of the Marine Corps however, my relationship with running changed. I had served two tours in Iraq and had a lot (still have a lot!) to process and work through. For me, long distance running provided an exceptional outlet for quiet reflection, for letting my mind parse through experiences and feelings, for exhausting both body and mind, and for pushing my limits. I am typically a “pre-dawn” runner…the solitude of the dark, early morning roads and trails has a very grounding effect. There are no distractions…just me, the miles, the sound of my own breath, and my thoughts. Subconsciously, running quickly became somewhat of an act of therapy and healing and filled a void left by a loss of innocence in war and loss of community after getting out of the military. I found that a rediscovery of self was possible through pushing my limits to the extreme as I got into ultra-running. 

By going into the darkness as the miles increase, I have begun to find the light again. 

KC: “Running has been there for me without ever turning its back.”

Since my early 20’s, running has been one of the few “constants” in my life. It has been there through breakups, before big job interviews, during times of celebration as well as times of sadness. While partners, friends and jobs have come and gone—running has been there for me without ever turning its back. And then running is what brought me and my husband together. 

I probably needed running the most after suffering a miscarriage—I felt so hopeless and powerless but going out for a run made me feel like I was doing “something.” I remember so clearly the weeks after, going on runs wondering if I would ever become a mom and looking for “signs” at every turn. This was almost 3 years ago and I now have an amazing 2-year old daughter and am pregnant with a son. I now use running as my “me” time but also can’t wait to share it with my children!

Jeremy: “Running is my daily anchor.”

Running provides me with a way to do something each day that’s just for me. It’s my daily anchor. When I’ve finished a run, I can then attack the day, knowing that if everything else goes wrong, I still succeeded by running.

My career isn’t physical, so running provides that physical outlet which reminds me of the worth of doing activities out in the world. I view running as a practice, much like meditation or daily journaling, and running grounds me when the rest of my life is turbulent. Running is also my time each day which I can be with my own thoughts, out in nature and appreciating what being in the moment feels like.

Sarah: “Running helped me deal with the uncertainty of life.”

I fell in love with running at an early age. While it made me feel free, I primarily viewed it through the lens of my results. Then my sister was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2014 at age 27. 

Running began to take on a different purpose. It helped me deal with the uncertainty of life. I ran to reduce my stress and worry. While I couldn’t escape it, moving my body was a healthy way to lessen my anxiety.

I flew across the country when she had chemotherapy. To cope with the stress of long hours at the hospital and managing her medications, I’d run every day I was there. Those runs helped me be a better sister and a better version of myself.

When she started hospice, I went home to be with her. Running was the only thing I did for myself those months and it kept my panic and trepidation somewhat manageable. 

I drew my stamina for those months from my runs. It was the only way I could ensure fear and stress didn’t consume me. Friends who weren’t runners told me I needed to take breaks. They didn’t understand that a weekend away would make me more anxious. That running gave me the break and strength that I needed. I was using running as maintenance. I didn’t want to wait until I was broken to take a break.

When she died, I spent months wishing I was dead as well. Many mornings, running was the only thing that got me out of bed. The simple act of putting one foot in front of another showed me that if I could find a way to get through one day after another, perhaps I could find meaning and even joy in my life again.

Erin: “Running has given me the strength to fight against my eating disorder.”

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, depression, and anxiety when I was 11 years old. Before I was a teenager, I convinced myself that my life was so insignificant that it would be preferable to waste away by starving myself and over-exercising. While I was only severely underweight for a couple of months, I never recovered from my anorexic thoughts because I refused to deal with my anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. I refused to let go of my anorexia because I believed that it was my most defining feature so its obsessive and restrictive tendencies have controlled over half my life.

Then I started running and I discovered there was more to life than my anorexia. I became obsessed with the sport in a similar way that I was once obsessed with counting calories, only this new obsession added value to my life. Running has given me the strength to fight against my eating disorder because I know I will fall short of achieving my running dreams if I continue listening to the voices telling me to starve myself. For the first time in my life, I am challenging my fear of food because if I want to run fast, I need to fuel myself properly. Running has also reshaped how I look at my body. I used to only place value on how my body looked rather than what it could accomplish. I would stand in the mirror and be disgusted by the size of my thighs, but now I tell myself that it is those same thighs that will power me to the finish line for a PR, or maybe one day, an OTQ. Running has taught me that my value isn’t defined by a number on a scale, but through my passion, grit, and determination.

CGB: “Our world crumbled. But we kept on running. We needed to stay sane.”

My husband and I are both runners. When I got pregnant, everybody commented on how the baby was going to be a runner. Instead he was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. I found out while I was going to the gym and I got a call from the hospital: he had turned out positive to the routine screening. Our world crumbled. But we kept on running. We needed to stay sane. When he was in the hospital we would take turns and go out for thirty minutes, then go back to the NICU. Then our son started to come on runs with us in the stroller. And we applied all we had learnt in sport to his journey. I promised him and myself he was going to walk. We put in countless hours of work and PT every day and one day he did walk. I went out for my run and when I was alone in the park I let it all out. I shouted “My son is walking” and cried my eyes out. We kept running when nothing made sense precisely because running does not have to make sense. It’s “just” one foot in front of the other and it kept us grounded.

Alex: “Running saved my life. Full stop.” 

Running saved my life. Full stop. 

A few weeks after my first marathon, my body had been recovering really poorly. Weeks of aches and pains were made no better by rest and relaxation. I began to build up my running again, hoping that would shake off the cobwebs a bit more. 

One Saturday in July, I went out for an 8-mile effort. Fifteen minutes, and nearly 2 miles from home, I blew up. Not physically, but mentally. Full-stream tears and agony. I called a friend and asked him to take me to the hospital. That day that I broke down was the day that I began to heal.

The truth was that I hadn’t slept in weeks. Possibly months. I would lay in bed at the end of the day, only to stare at the ceiling. That’s what depression does. 

Major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression, is a silent killer. One bad day probably won’t have any lasting effects. But weeks, months, and years strung together can be disastrous. As I learned, sometimes you don’t even realize how much your mind and body are changing.

Here is where I must pause: self-medication is not a form of treatment. Do not attempt it. 

The months after that fateful July run were spent re-learning basic things: how to sleep, how to care for myself, when to take a break. I was in outpatient therapy and treated with a powerful combination of antidepressants.

Eventually, I began to rest. I remembered what self-care looked like. And I attended every single therapy session without compromise.

I also began to run again and lined up at the Detroit Marathon just 4 months after my diagnosis. That day was everything to me: a shot at redemption. And a reminder of the power of recovery.

Larry: “I run now to collect my thoughts. I run to solve my problems. I run to find inner peace.”

I struggled with depression throughout much of my life. The triggers varied, an unexpected death of a friend, family turmoil, or nothing specific at all, and like many of my generation I was unwilling to acknowledge that I had a problem or to seek help, professional or otherwise. I was always able to clear out my head with a hard track workout, or by downing too many drinks in a crowded bar, or by simply closing off my thoughts, stuffing them into a small black box in my head, and pushing forward for another day, another week, but these were temporary solutions, impermanent, unsatisfying.

Faced one day with an unthinkable family disaster I found myself running along a long dirt road in a mountain valley. It was supposed to be a quiet walk to collect my thoughts but the air was fresh and the sun warm and I found myself running, running, mile after mile until my legs ached and my throat was dry and my thoughts began to sharpen and become alive. It was a spiritual moment, a door that opened, a realization of a future.

I run now to collect my thoughts. I run to solve my problems. I run to find inner peace regardless of what else is happening in my life. These are not the short quick runs of my youth but hours through the woods or along quiet roads where all seems possible and hopeful and real. I am the happiest man in the world.

Erin: Getting back to running was my main goal after suffering a severe stroke. 

I had a severe stroke at 31. I ran before it and getting back to running was my main goal when I went to physical therapy. My therapist said, “Well, let’s start with walking,” and I was like, “I guess if we have to go in that order…” 19 months and 1 day after the stroke, I PR’d at the San Francisco Half Marathon, my 5th all time and 1st after the stroke. It helps with stress, it gives me time to think and let my mind wander, and it gets me outside even if the weather isn’t great, which is hugely important for anyone’s mental health.

Betsy: “My only real time along was out running.”

During the pandemic, I was working from home with three kids doing “distance learning.” We saw each other and only each other and only left home for curbside grocery pickup. We were all miserable and frustrated and anxious. My only real time alone was out running. Eventually I was able to run with friends, once we learned outside spaces were safe enough. Those runs were lifesavers for my mental health and probably for my whole family, as I came home a better mother, wife, and person. I got outside all year, even through the Minnesota winter, nearly every day, and setting up a run with friends was absolutely the highlight of the day. Having other parents to commiserate with, to get a gut check on new information and the constant risk-benefit analysis we were doing every day, and to laugh with about our new absurd lives—it got me through 2020. The endorphins from the run and the perspective and beauty of being outside were critical to staying sane, and bonus! I’ve got a great base for races happening now from all those miles!

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