Miles For Mental Health: Part 3

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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.

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, 2, and 4 of Miles for Mental Health here, here, and here, respectively.

T: “Before I started running, I was depressed, anxious and had low self-esteem.”

Before I started running, I was depressed, anxious and had low self-esteem. I joined my school’s cross country team and it has had a tremendous positive impact on my mental health and well-being. Besides the physical benefits of running, I gave myself a way to let go of my anger at the world. Running gave me community, friends, and a new point of view. I am so grateful for the sport and all it has done for me.

Andrew: “Running makes me a better person for many reasons, but most importantly because of its effect on my mental health.”

I struggled with depression throughout my teens and early 20s. In that time, I was an on and off runner, but struggled with consistency in running and in life. In my mid-20s I made the decision to dedicate myself to a healthier lifestyle, centered around running. Early morning runs before work and weekend long runs became staples, rather than occasional occurrences.

As expected, and planned, I got fit and saw improvement in my physical health. I found community and friendship through running. Unexpectedly, I experienced a drastic improvement in my mental health. The depressive episodes that had marked the prior decade were much less frequent and severe than they had been in the past. My state of mind was more frequently positive, and when the low moments came, they were not as low as they had been in the past.

This trend has largely sustained itself for the past 8 years since I made the choice to commit to a running lifestyle. Communities, scenery, and circumstances have changed, but the ritual of running 5-6 times per week has remained because of its profound impact on my mental health.

In those times when I have found myself out of running rhythm, I notice. The depressive episodes come back. Not as bad as before, and I know how to manage them better now, but they are clearly worse when running wanes.

Running makes me a better person for many reasons, but most importantly because of its effect on my mental health. I could give up every other aspect of the sport – competition, social, scenery – but the mental health impact is why I will be a runner for the rest of my days (should my body allow).

Jill: “I used to run away but now more and more I am running TO something…”

I ran the 2002 Ironman Wisconsin and approaching the amazing finish—the capitol building was beautifully lit up against a dark sky—I thought to myself that NO ONE can take this away from me. I accomplished this feat on my own. No one but myself can take credit for this goal and the work I put into it. Fast forward 18 years. My headstrong and overbearing Dad, with whom I had a very tumultuous relationship, passed away semi-unexpectedly in the middle of the night and I was there with him. He begged me to save him from what he knew would be his last heart attack. I could not. Without the huge direct and indirect expectations of my scientist and nature-loving father looming over me, I was without purpose or reason. My head was like static—loud, oppressive, without reason, blinding. I no longer mattered to anyone, especially myself. No one would be proud of me. I didn’t have to please anyone—worse yet, there was no one TO please! Career-wise, I was successful. Fiscally, I was successful. But I had no North Star and no real goals that I felt would make me worth anything. I ran from the emptiness of the purpose of my life. I ran more. Over time, the static lessened a little. I heard the birds. I sometimes heard my footsteps. I got a therapist. I felt my life. I felt MY life. I sometimes heard my Dad in the sounds of his beloved nature. I signed up and ran a half marathon. I celebrated. For myself. And I was proud, I AM proud of what I’ve done and I did it for me.  It’s not over.  I used to run away but now more and more I am running TO something, like I ran to that bright capitol building years ago. I’m not there yet.

Billy: “Running was the perfect outlet.”

While going through a divorce in 2018 I was lost, lonely, and needing an outlet that wasn’t wrapped up in what was going on in my personal life. At first, with my therapist’s recommendation, it was bouldering, but when I moved and the gym was too difficult to get to I started running regularly for the first time in over a decade. What I found out was that running was the perfect outlet to get me movement, give me time and space to process my thoughts, and started giving me confidence that even though it was hard (both the divorce and the running), I could keep going, and things would get better. Fast forward a few years and I’m working with a great coach who is pushing me. I’m in a happy, healthy relationship, and I’m faster in my mid-30’s than I ever thought I could be when I was in my mid-20’s.

Jordan: “I run to feel ALIVE.”

Running has been my long-term Therapist, my Mood Booster, my Emotion Regulator. As someone who has struggled with depression off-and-on since childhood, running has been the single most consistent and reliable source of relief for me personally. To be clear, I am not diminishing other extremely important forms of mental health care. But running is what keeps me going when I’m feeling rough. I don’t have a single, life-changing story that will stop you in your tracks. Instead, I offer up lots of impactful moments experienced through running that have allowed me to live a joyful and fulfilling life.

Relationship coming to a tragic end? I tie the laces through the tears and run to process the feelings. Winter blues got me down? I hit the treadmill or strap on the YakTrax and get the blood pumping. Struggling to hit a stride in work and life? I register for a race and feel motivation returning in many facets. Mundane, day-to-day life numbing the brain? I run to feel ALIVE. Having trouble showing up fully for friends and loved ones? I run to be better for those around me. Worried I’m not making the most of this short & precious life? I run through the woods, I smell the trees, I hear the birds, and the worries drip away like beads of sweat off my running hat.

Simply put, running makes me better. I owe you one, running.

Alex: “Running’s taught me to keep going.”

As a runner, I live for the PRs, the podium finishes, the days when everything clicks and I feel unencumbered by gravity. But those won’t be most days. Most days are sort of average. And some are really bad. Sometimes, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ll never be good enough, or that there’s no use in trying. But as a runner, I know I simply have to show up the next day, pull those laces tight, and go again. Because even if they feel like they’ll last forever, the really bad days can be just as fleeting as the good ones. Running’s taught me to keep going. And looking back, I’ve realized all those bad-to-average days were a lot more valuable than I thought: that there’s joy in the process as much as the end result. That while I triumph on the good days, I also learn to persevere on the bad ones, and I’ve built up a lot of memories of the things I’ve seen and people I’ve been with in all the days in between.

In life, we plan for and look forward to the big moments: the wedding day, the birth of a child, the promotion or book deal or whatever our goals are. But those won’t be most days. Most days are pretty average. And some, we might feel like we can’t get out of bed, or like we’ll never be good enough, or like we can’t escape the feeling that the world is getting worse, and fast. But just as in running, I know I need to keep showing up, and that there’s value in trying to push through, even if I feel like I’m in an insurmountable hole. As an injury-prone runner, I also know the value of giving myself—and my mind—a break, and space to heal. As a runner, I have an invaluable appreciation for the fact that while those triumphant days are high points, that they’re sweeter (and made possible) by the bad days. Most importantly, I know not to ignore, or wish away, or forget all of the days in the middle, when I spend time with friends and family, travel, experience new food and music and art, and accumulate the experiences that will actually come to define me. Those big days might be my highlights, but all the rest is what I’ll really remember. 

Corey: “I had a counselor tell me to stop treating every run like a means to an end (aka a race!) and, instead, view it medicinally.”

I went through a separation then divorce back in the spring/summer of 2017 and during that tumultuous time, I ran relatively vigorously as a just turned 30-year-old. Simultaneously, I was hired as a collegiate head coach for cross country/track & field. Previously, as a volunteer assistant, I was training with the men’s team pretty regularly as well as racing every so often while also managing a local running store. I was an avid runner from my beginnings in middle school track all the way through my four year collegiate career. However, when my marriage started coming apart, I had to step away from that training environment that was a regular part of my life up to that point.

My head coaching duties made regular training nearly impossible as I found the stress of leading runners a monumental task! Throughout the next couple of years, with the help of counseling and some incredible friends and my family, I learned and began to reshape how I viewed running. I had a counselor tell me to stop treating every run like a means to an end (aka a race!) and, instead, view it medicinally. She encouraged me to treat it as a necessary part of my day like I would eating or sleeping. She wanted me to enjoy the process and allow it to empty my thoughts. It was a big challenge as a highly competitive person but it allowed me to see myself beyond the “runner” identity I had come to define myself.  

I am 35 now and still the head coach of my program. I recently got married again and it’s been wonderful. Running certainly doesn’t look the same as it once did and that’s okay. My handful of 20-30 minute runs each week are something I look forward to!

Sierra: Running helps get me back to a level place. 

I dealt with serious binge drinking my junior year of college after I experienced three deaths in my family in a one year span. I was on my college’s track and cross country teams at the time but it wasn’t until I received my diagnosis of depression and anxiety in October 2018 that I realized how big of a role running plays in keeping my overall mental health stable. I’ve been on medication since my initial diagnosis but I’ve always told my doctors running is a medicine too. It keeps my mood in check and if I happen to have a bad day or some sort of episode, I know running will help get me back to a level place. The combination of my two medications and running has done wonders for my mental health—I used to be in a place where I couldn’t bear to feel my emotions and I had to rely heavily on alcohol to function but training for my first marathon helped me to get to a place where I was able to process my emotions and life. It was the schedule and act of working towards something, a greater goal, that helped get me to not only a better place with my mental health but also a better place with my running. I didn’t take my running seriously as I should have when I was competing collegiately but the nice thing about running is it’s mostly accessible and you can pick it up again after spending some time away from it. It’s hard to say whether I would have rediscovered running in this same way if it wasn’t for my diagnosis of anxiety and depression but I am grateful things ended up the way they did for me.

Andrew: “I committed to seeing what I could do by working with my body, rather than against it.”

I didn’t start running until age 30 (I am now 35), because for most of my early adulthood, I couldn’t physically do it. I had a resting heart rate in the 30s not from fitness, but from anorexia. In the anorexic mind, the body is the enemy and is to be suppressed. For some friends I met in treatment, this was a losing battle. I was fortunate. 

My friends Greg and Craig were instrumental to my recovery. They are also strong runners. As I reconnected with my body, Greg and Craig encouraged me to try running. Prior to getting sick, I had only run when chasing a ball in youth sports. But in keeping with the spirit of recovery and trying new things, I gave it a shot. I will always remember my first run. I could actually move. It felt good. I could speed up, slow down. I could go. It was exhilarating. My relationship with running strengthened through solo runs like my first and through camaraderie with Greg and Craig. I signed up for races. Competition pushed on the nerve of “what am I capable of?” The eating disorder was a means of coping with this question, by way of self-sabotage: if you destroy yourself before the race, you don’t reckon with your limits. But with health and great friends/coaches, I committed to seeing what I could do by working with my body, rather than against it. Running has taught me the importance of mindfulness, adaptation, humility and grace. These are critical values for growth as a runner, where I learned how important listening to the body is. These values have carried over into other areas of my life as well, strengthening my recovery and helping me grow as an individual and member of my community.

Marie: “Running helps me deal with the unexpected and uncontrollable.”

Running has given me so much over these last two decades—it brought structure to my days as I adjusted to a new routine & life when transitioning from an in-person office job to working from home 14+ years ago, gifted me with so many life-long friendships, helped me process the accidental death of my only sibling in 2014 while I was 38 weeks pregnant, made me discover through racing the athletic potential I didn’t know I had, was my saving grace while going through an out-of-state move 3.5 years ago (thanks to numerous therapeutic cry-runs with friends).

Running helps me deal with the unexpected and uncontrollable, including all the life challenges brought on by the pandemic these last two years. Racing has also gifted me with so many incredible adventures and opportunities I would have never experienced without running, like carrying my country’s flag at the 2018 NYC Marathon’s Parade of Nations, or meeting and connecting with countless amazing runners and even Olympians.

Running remains the ever-constant in my life, like a meditative space that helps me keep calm and enables me to juggle a busy work/family life routine. Running with friends feels like free therapy! Running brings stability and balance to the often chaotic/busy aspect of each day, week after week.

Gerard: “I am almost always in a better mood after a run compared to before a run.”

Running has been a gift in my life. I definitely enjoy its physical benefits, but the main reason I run is for my mind. I usually can’t wait to out for my run and work out my issues of the day. I am almost always in a better mood after a run compared to before a run. If I didn’t run I would be a much unhappier person and more difficult to deal with.

Brendan: Running=mental freedom.

I don’t have a specific story but running used to be 100% competitive and never about the mental freedom that comes with it. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned just how much my mood and wellbeing is tied to getting out and running.

Vanessa: “Running eventually provided l release from the tumultuous aspects of my studies.”

My whole life, others told me that I worried too much. “Vanessa, you’re overthinking everything,” said my friends and family. “You just need to get out of your own head.” But these thoughts went beyond worrying: I was clinically anxious. High-pressure situations, especially those related to my pursuit of a Ph.D. in medieval history, caused me to toss and turn at night, have panic attacks, and overall diminished my quality of life.

Two things happened simultaneously when I started grad school in 2008. My anxiety, which was problematic in college, revved up to a new level. But, in taking up running as a coping mechanism, I had found a way to lessen the stranglehold that my anxiety had on me.

In those early days of school, I felt frustrated with my lack of progress. After I changed out of my dress clothes and into my workout attire, I took those emotions out on my runs. Blowing off steam, I slipped on my running shoes and put aside my homework for an hour as I breathed in the fresh air. Running eventually provided l release from the tumultuous aspects of my studies. 

In my head, I chased down my Latin teacher, imagining my physical strength to be enough to vanquish his harsh comments. I was the one who had the endurance to run double-digit miles. Surely, the professor’s looks of condescension would disappear in a flash if he saw me running down the National Mall. 

It was a tactic that I learned to employ throughout graduate school. Running is never a cure-all for my problems, but it turns down the volume of the negative chatter in my head and makes it more feasible to get through the day still standing on two feet.

One Song: “I never regret going on a run even when the run doesn’t go great.”

Pandemic, death in the family, laid off. I had a few challenges this past year to say the least and desperately needed a healthy outlet to reframe my mind and set a positive tone for myself and my family. Running served that role. It’s so awesome. It doesn’t cost much; just a pair of running shoes and shorts is all you need. I never regret going on a run even when the run doesn’t go great. And when running does go great, which is often, I feel rejuvenated, happy, loved, reaffirmed. 

Amy: “That false north star will likely always be there.”

The relationship between the body’s mass and power is typical with a few outliers. When I say typical I mean the outliers everyone typically aspires to. The north star. If you have it, you’re it. For a good long while, for a certain subset of the population, the north star has been this: as little physical mass as possible. To achieve it is to gain power. This power doesn’t lead to riches outright, though for a select few it may. But it does wonders to influence interactions at a personal day-to-day level, and with the introduction of social media, to scale that influence to unholy levels.

When one feels deprived of it, one will look for power wherever they can find it. But when women in athletics come out about their eating disorders, they almost never talk about this one critical factor. Not the one about self image or self control or societal expectations. The one about searching every nook and cranny for power in a world where it sits with a select few who are keen to not let it go. 

My relationship to food, like many athletes, is complex and complicated. I’m lucky that I’ve never had an eating disorder. But as a runner and as a person, that source of power is still available to me. That false north star will likely always be there. And I’ll keep running past it to the next one.

Brad: “Running helped me survive—I ran hard and angry, and it felt great.”

Running was not always present in my life. I found it, or it found me, when I was 38 in July 2018. The weather was perfect that day and I still remember quickly getting my shoes on and barrelling out the door straight into a run—no stretching, no warmup. Some force was propelling me away from the house and towards my new life.

That was the morning after I received a letter from the court ordering me to vacate my home and to leave my four year-old twins until further notice. It was granted ex parte, which means I was not present to defend myself. My marriage was dying and my attempts to resuscitate it were failing but this blindsided me.

It is clear I was running away from the pain of not seeing my children on a regular basis. Finding a new home, battling in the courts—those were easy compared to stitching the hole in my heart. Running helped me survive—I ran hard and angry, and it felt great. I ran marathons and remember tearing up when I crossed the finish line in London because I thought about how I wanted my kids to be there, how I hoped they would be at future finish lines, how I hoped one day they’d be proud of their dad. 

Overtraining lead to injury and I had to take time off. I should have attended to it earlier but I was scared of not running. My identity had become wrapped in running and I preferred one type of pain over another. This forced me to rethink my relationship to the sport. It takes effort but I no longer run away from things. I run for things—for clarity, for strength in mind and body, and for my kids.

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