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.
In partnership with New Balance, 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. The brand, through its Beyond The Run initiative, aims to show how running can activate your mind and body in ways that might change your life. Throughout the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ll be sharing those reader 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 Parts 1, 3, and 4 of Miles for Mental Health here, here, and here, respectively.
Anonymous: “Running helped teach me that our thoughts and feelings are not permanent; they come and go like leaves floating down a river.”
I have experienced a wide range of anxiety symptoms for a number of years at this point. Beyond close connections with family and friends, mindfulness, and going to counseling (I now work as a counselor myself), running has played a major role in my mental well-being. I ran cross country and track in college and continue to run competitively at the local scene, in conjunction with coaching a high school team. I have never been the best or most talented runner, but over time I have come to appreciate running as a lifestyle choice. I could never race again and I would still continue running almost daily. Running connects me to nature, to other people, and to my own mind in ways that only endurance sports can offer. Running helped teach me that our thoughts and feelings are not permanent; they come and go like leaves floating down a river. I’ve had stretches of greater anxiety, but running helps me return to the present, even for fleeting moments. Even when running faster, life can slow down and we can have a greater appreciation for the moment, our health, and the opportunity to move our bodies. I always try to tell my runners that running is much more than a time on a clock. There is so much more to gin from the experience.
ASH: “Running makes me resilient.”
I start my day by running. I do something I love and something for me that makes me feel good, physically and mentally. I figure if I can nail a quality workout or lace up and endure winter running weather, I can handle whatever else my day will throw at me. Running makes me resilient. In 2020, I was hit by a car while cycling. With my numerous injuries and extensive physical therapy (and COVID), I drew upon all my running grit to keep showing up to my PT and virtual appointments and to endure the pain and discomfort of healing. No one saw the amount of effort I put in balancing work, grad school, and weekly clinical appointments—similar to how no one sees all the work that goes into training for a marathon. But I firmly believe that hard work pays off and “what is done in the dark will be revealed in the light.” I made a full recovery and PR’d my last marathon in November.
Clare: “Running has been critical in regaining my sense of bodily autonomy after spending so long being controlled by someone else.”
I am the survivor of an abusive relationship that resulted in life-altering PTSD. Running, along with regular therapy sessions, has without a doubt saved my life. Running has been critical in regaining my sense of bodily autonomy after spending so long being controlled by someone else. When I run, I feel physically connected to my body in a way that I can’t manage to do any other time. I can step outside of my pain, internal and external. Some people can achieve mindfulness through yoga. I believe I achieve mindfulness through running. When I’m running, I can process what happened to me without being overwhelmed by the physical sensations and flashbacks. When I am pushing myself to my physical limits, I can revisit the moments when I felt helpless and remind myself that I am strong. Every workout, every race, every early morning run alone in the dark, I am proving to myself that I am not the weak person that my abuser told me I was. Each and every run is another brick in the wall that is rebuilding my self-confidence and self worth. There’s a common idea that’s always being pushed about ultrarunners, that most of them are running from something. I believe that I am running towards something, towards a version of myself that is free from the weight of my past trauma, a version of myself that is strong and powerful. Every single run is bringing me closer to her.
Elisabeth: “In what became the most lonely season of my life, running was a source of hope.”
In 2018, I graduated college and moved to Lima, Peru. I was somewhat overwhelmed when I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar people and places, struggling to master a new language. As a result, running shifted from being something I did purely for the sake of exercise, to a source of daily sustenance. By chance, I stumbled upon a Peruvian running group that met late at night to run in “los cerros,” the massive dirt hills that surrounded our district. Those night runs allowed space for my brain to breathe while simultaneously creating connection with people in a place that first felt lonely. Something shifted one particular night as I looked down at the sprawling Lima lights surrounded by newfound friends in a place I’d always dreamed of living.
Upon moving back to the States, I was quickly confronted with a slew of new challenges. I started my first corporate job working 60+ hour weeks, felt isolated from friends who lived in other cities, and was debilitated by my first experiences of heartbreak. In what became the most lonely season of my life, running was a source of hope. For thirty minutes or more, I could transport myself back to that dusty hill in Peru. The more miles I ran the more I was able to sort through the emotional closet where 20+ years of experiences had been shoved and unattended. Slowly, I began to process and heal—not just with respect to my short term struggles, but from pain that gripped me at my core.
The thing about running is that it doesn’t fit in one box or serve one purpose. As I change, running does too. I suspect I’ll never outgrow it or learn everything it has to offer. Thank goodness, because I can’t imagine my life without it.
Anup: “[Running is] my happy place—my one hour of 24 hours where I do not need to be anybody else.”
I started running in 2016 and more regularly in 2019. I am from India and moved to Sweden in 2019. I have been an academic person whole my life and sport was never a part of family culture. In India you study hard to get a job otherwise there will be a million other people to cut you out. That’s what I did: Worked hard and got a job but now what, I was still not happy. Markers of success set by the society were so many that I was always struggling to achieve those. After moving to Sweden, I didn’t have anybody to impress, I did not know anyone and did not know the Swedish language. One day while returning from my job, I saw some people running on the street. It was damn cold that day but rather than questioning why they are doing it, I felt I should try it. And there I was next day. It was Stockholm Run Club, I joined the 6min/km pace group led by a pacer thinking this would be easy. I couldn’t run for 2 kms and got lost in the city, and it was still winter eve. The group leader came back to run with me, very easy explaining that it happens with everything you try for the first time. I realized that I do not have to impress anybody here. I felt that I belong there. In September 2021 I ran my first marathon. My whole family questioned why do I need to do it. I never bothered to explain them, because I know they won’t understand. I run because I like it. I run because that’s the time I feel purposeful and somedays just shitty, but still never regret it. Because of running I feel more fit and became more aware about my body. My family still questions when I get out for a run. It’s difficult with them, but I understand that it’s my happy place—my one hour of 24 hours where I do not need to be anybody else. Thank you Mario: You and so many other running podcasts have been there when I wanted to shut off outside noise.
Liz: “Running and training for something gave me and my life structure when other aspects felt like they were crumbling.”
Have you seen the episode of Lost called the Constant? In a topsy turvy time jumping episode for the featured protagonist Desmond, he is grounded to what is real by his great love, Penny. Well in a less cinematic but similarly chaotic few years, I’ve had two constants—my partner and running. My parents’ nasty divorce, the pandemic, the deaths of two beloved uncles and a domineering boss all led to self-doubt about my own abilities, heightened anxiety about everyday life and the feeling that my life was out of control/I was not the one steering the ship. But if you look at my running, well, that was where I had belief in my abilities, what I (mostly) looked forward to doing every day, and where I felt goal-oriented and headed in the right direction. Since 2017 I have taken nearly 15 minutes off my half marathon best and over 20 minutes off my marathon time, from 3:52:23 at NYC in 2017 to 3:32:12 at Indianapolis in 2021. Training blocks helped organize my days, weeks, and months, which otherwise felt overwhelming. Life felt like it was always piling on. Training for a race had an end date, a goal in sight. People kept comparing the pandemic to a marathon or ultramarathon, but that never made sense to me. Or it only made sense if the marathon finish line kept getting moved and the rules kept changing in the middle of the race. Running and training for something gave me and my life structure when other aspects felt like they were crumbling. The run was when I could focus on the sole task at hand, not be bombarded by 25 other sensory inputs. The run was where I didn’t feel drained of energy, but given energy. The run saved me during a time when I was afraid of being swallowed up by the woes of the world around me. The run was my constant. And my partner’s knowledge of that, and support during this time meant the world to me. He is my ever present cheerleader, race support, run enabler, and best friend.
Alexis: “So I can be all I am meant to be for all those who need me. So I can give my best and love to the fullest.”
Repeat countless times, often simultaneously. Pulling me in multiple directions.
Mom. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Teacher. Coach. Editor. Photographer.
My life is full of blessings. Wonderful, joyful, immeasurable blessings.
With those blessings come a lot of responsibilities. A brain that is constantly on.
How can I be a better mom? Am I making the right choices? Am I failing miserably today?
How can I challenge top end students enough while reaching struggling students and not lose the quiet students in the middle of the pack?
How do I make time to write a book review, the local District basketball game and get the weekly newsletter out to subscribers all on Sunday?
How can I spend more time with family? And make myself fully present the entire time?
How do I recruit more kids for the cross country team so we can be a force in the conference and Regionals but maintain the values of the program I have worked so hard to build? Do my athletes know they are loved and enough and can do hard things every single day?
How can I possibly come up with one more dinner idea? Oh and make it healthy.
The steady beat of my feet on a “Church of the Long Run.”The mind-numbing power of 400 meter repeats. The methodical process of training. The excitement of race day.
So I can be all I am meant to be for all those who need me. So I can give my best and love to the fullest.
Running is the part of this beautiful, messy life that keeps me physically and mentally capable to persist when the going gets tough and to fully celebrate when life presents the highest of highs.
Erica: “Running provides a routine around which I anchor the rest of my life.”
I struggle with poor mental health, and though I know it’s not a substitute for getting other forms of help, I realize when I take breaks from running how much running helps me feel better. By running, I get time outside, often in the forest, most days. The sun, wind, fresh air, plants, smells, and sounds are good for the soul. And if I run, I know that no matter what else is going on in my day, I managed to move my body for a while that day. Running provides a routine around which I anchor the rest of my life. In some seasons of life, the miles feel great; in others, the miles are more difficult. But either way, running is a chance to get outside, use my body, be alone with my thoughts, and structure my weeks and months. It helps keep me balanced and, ultimately, happier. A mental health bonus is when I can share miles with good friends.
Amanda: “I don’t like to view running/riding as ‘therapy’ but rather a tactic of restoration.”
In each of my days, there is a constant tension that I mentally pursue. In one sense I’m fine and filled with purpose but simultaneously feel two steps behind. I have answers to burning questions from my colleagues, students, and children, but also have no wisdom to share. Some days I am an adventurer with the most horrible risk assessment score in the books. Likely, these tendencies originated in my late teens or college years, when I then developed disordered eating habits and body image concerns in my own life. Since being removed from therapy and living in recovery over the last decade (personally this is an ongoing daily process for me), I find that movement, primarily through running and riding my ElliptiGO, actually produces a way to dissolve those ongoing tensions before they snowball into problems. When I run, I generally go mind blank, trying to focus in on breathing, posture, step after step, and my surroundings. This blank mind space gets even broader when I’m on the trails. My head is clear of the to-dos that are building anxiety, the daylight literally restores my soul, and I return with gratefulness for the art of movement. I don’t like to view running/riding as “therapy” but rather a tactic of restoration. My mind is more focused to carefully pursue the next task, my body has exhausted nervous energy, and my mind tells me it’s to replenish nutrients that were lost. I’m moving, I’m fueling, and I’m thinking…things that I am incapable of doing in the midst of tension. Movement over tension, any day.
Michael: “No other activity has given me what running has: helping me find my purpose, while strengthening my resolve to fulfill it.”
“When you work on something significant, something significant is working on you.” —Brad Stulberg
Through the sudden death of my father, the birth of my children, the natural challenges of marriage and stress of growing a company, running has been there.
What started as a way to get in shape, turned into something much greater. Yes the marathons, BQ’s, and various coaches and workouts have all been special. But slowly, I discovered that a deeper, more fulfilling transformation was taking place. Something significant was working on me.
It’s hard enough to change one’s habits. It’s even more difficult to change who you are. Yet, running, the time spent alone with my thoughts, often in nature, has prompted that change.
I’m 40 years old, married with 2 kids, doing my best to make a difference in this world. I struggle just like everyone else, and I do my best to learn, grow and persevere. I couldn’t have solved these problems and survived the struggles without running.
Accepting where I am, acknowledging my strengths and weaknesses, working slowly to improve. This is how I became a runner, but it’s also how I’ve changed my life.
While running, I’ve unpacked problems and found solutions that were previously unavailable. I’ve burst into tears (on many occasions) lamenting my struggles and the thought of losing my wife to cancer. The time spent with great thinkers via podcasts or music would not have been available without my hours on the pavement each week. I’ve had moments of pure bliss when feeling nature’s arms wrapped around me. Each time I make the turn to my front door, I return having found a bit more meaning.
No other activity has given me what running has: helping me find my purpose, while strengthening my resolve to fulfill it.
Gabi: “Over the years I’ve learned that running is a reflection of what I need in my life at any given time.”
Over the years I’ve learned that running is a reflection of what I need in my life at any given time.
In high school, I only thought of running as a way to hang out with friends. When I ran in college, I still enjoyed the social component but began working on being more competitive and gaining confidence in races. During this time, I also realized that runs were a perfect opportunity to think about life– projects, friendships, adulthood, anything I needed. I could take on the world after a run.
When the pandemic hit, that idea was tested. I had low motivation and was overwhelmed, so it was hard for me to even get out the door. But eventually I found my way back to running. I let it become an activity to enjoy for the sake of enjoying. It helped me cope with the uncertainty of the day, and I found peace in it. However, life kept throwing curveballs.
My dad passed away from leukemia on Christmas 2020, and running was my way of processing that. The following week I ran more than I had in a long time. Even though my dad wasn’t a runner, going out each day helped me feel close to him. His passing changed everything for me; the miles now meant something more.
Then in December, our home was impacted by wildfires near Boulder. I struggled then, and still do today, with the sudden loss of normalcy. I couldn’t get out the door for days at a time. But recently I’ve felt up to the task again. Just as it was before, running has been there for me. It’s how I work through hard moments. It’s something to enjoy because I enjoy it. It’s exactly what I need it to be right now.
Luke: “Running, and just life in general can get stressful, so look for the positives.”
Since I started five years ago, running has helped me immensely, but has really taken exponential leaps in just the past year. Whether I’m running with my high school XC team focused on competing and doing our best at the state meet, or even just going on a run to get away from all of my school work, running has become a huge part of my life. Bad things happen. But despite the stress of difficult tests in school and my girlfriend breaking up with me, I know I have something I can always rely on: Running. This past XC season I qualified for the state meet in Alaska but got injured experiencing IT band pain for two weeks leading up to the race. I ended up running 18:20 at the state meet, almost exactly a minute slower than I ran two weeks prior, a 17:22. Running so far below my potential crushed me, as I knew how much faster I was capable of running. But after contemplating this sharp decline in performance for months, I stopped seeing this race as a failure and started seeing it as a learning experience. Running, and just life in general can get stressful, so look for the positives. Start seeing your failures as learning experiences and lean on your mental toughness to keep you going. The key to your success will be delaying gratification, delay those smaller rewards today for a greater reward in the future. In running terms, don’t sell yourself short and quite early when fatigue starts to set in and lactic acid builds up. This is where you improve as a runner physically and more importantly mentallly. Running has allowed me to really grow mentally as a person, and I know that it can help you too.
Jeanne: Running helps us work through the fog.
My brother, Michael, gifted me running. He took me on my first run when we were together living in our childhood home as adults, he in the New York City Fire Academy and I in law school.
When Michael lost his life on 9/11/01, he was in the lobby of the North Tower as it collapsed. Michael ran through thick fog.
My husband, Clay, never got to meet Michael as we were just dating in 2001.
Clay suffers from bouts of depression and I’ve come to describe them as fogs. We have 3 children and we work through the fogs together.
Thanks to Michael, one of the tools I use to get me through a foggy period is running. I try to get the kids also to employ this tool. They had no choice when we were first quarantined in 2020, trapped together at home with Clay in a fog.
It was April then and I came up with what I thought might get us through May, which I coined Mile-a-Day May. We live on a big circle drive that is divided by a cut-through. If you run once around and through to loop a figure 8, it equals one mile.
Every day in May 2020, I would text the kids a quote with the word “mile” in it and the kids would run one figure 8, one mile. One of the early quotes was: “The first mile is mental.” Appropriate that May is Mental Health Month.
While the kids may never admit it, Mile-a-Day May is a bright spot in our early COVID experience. Number 8 was Michael’s favorite number. Clay, too, deals with the fog by running. Every day, he hits the treadmill because he and I both know we can and will run through the fog.
Erin: Run to overcome.
Running helped me overcome my depression and suicidal thoughts after my brother was suddenly taken from me after a routine surgery years ago. His death rocked my world.
Nick: “Running squeezed everything out and it all dripped away.”
I think it all started in high school. Most of it would have been running away from problems after I had already dived right into them. After a late night with a ‘friend’ I could taste but barely knew; after an exam; after a frustrating day being an unsure outcast among lash-out locals, I had to run. Running squeezed everything out and it all dripped away. It carried on like this through university, career, parenthood, and now, outpacing the black dogs, one day at a time. I ran the morning before my cousin’s funeral, the day after my father-in-law’s, the night before my other cousin’s, the way home from my student’s. Funerals and running are like gin and tonic. Sometimes the sun is up and it hits like lime. Some folks say they don’t know how I run ‘so much.’ It’s not even much, but all I can think about is admiring someone for taking their medicine, and it seems to make sense if awkwardly. Medicine miles, I call them.
Tim: “I quickly discovered how effective even just a slow jog could be at dispersing the anxiety.”
For no real reason I could ever discern, I went through a period of chronic anxiety and mild depression five years ago. It caught me by surprise: a constant, gnawing ache in the pit of the stomach signaling impending doom and a crushing, dark weight of nothingness that made it hard to even move. Perversely, running got tangled up in that. The prospect of trying to run, to breathe hard, to raise my heart rate, seemed like an impossible task and made the feelings worse. I also felt I didn’t deserve to run and enjoy myself; not running became of form of self-punishment.
Eventually, once I’d admitted—to myself and my loved ones—what was happening and sought help, I was able to allow myself to run again. At first, I found the side effects of anti-depressant medication made running harder than before. Any significant effort made me nauseous, and it was a constant effort to maintain even a slow pace. I had to let go of comparisons with the pre-anxious me and realise that nobody cared how fast or far or frequently I ran. I quickly discovered how effective even just a slow jog could be at dispersing the anxiety. A weight lifted, a knot untangled, a perspective shifted; no drug could match the feeling of getting out of the door, moving through space with the feeling of the sun, wind or rain on my face.
I still occasionally experience episodes of anxiety and the prospect of a run can sometimes make my stomach twist in old, familiar ways. Now I give myself permission to accept that feeling and remember that, within a few minutes of lacing up my running shoes and heading off, an inner calm will be restored.
Sylvo: “The fog cleared every single time I laced up and got out there.”
Before running, there was a fog I couldn’t remove. I’d lost 100lbs in weight in 2012, so physically I was in pretty good shape—but the fog remained. In September 2013, my wife asked me to go for a run with her after I’d recovered from a broken foot; for some reason I said yes. Quite simply put, the best decision of my life. I was wearing a cotton t-shirt, cargo shorts and a baseball cap back to front. I got out of our side street, and about 200 yards further down the road I was blowing out of my arse and sweating profusely. I kept going, bit by bit. Those first 3 months there were constantly moments of doubt about whether I could ever eventually do this 7-mile loop (my wife is a taskmaster) in under an hour. It took patience. And guts. And incredible support from my wife and daughter. March 2, 2014 I ran my first half marathon in 1:43:23, the time is etched in me but by that point I was already smitten—the fog cleared every single time I laced up and got out there. I’m more present, more humble, more grateful and more compassionate as a result of running. Even when I’m injured, I’m still all of those things. The fog makes a guest appearance every now and again, as it always does—but it never stays, so long as I lace up and get out there. Running is life as far as I’m concerned. Running is life.