Miles For Mental Health: Part 4|
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 3 of Miles for Mental Health here, here, and here, respectively.
Dipesh: “Running for me seems to be a metaphor for most of life; you get out what you put in.”
Running has helped me in so many ways: It’s helped me mentally in terms of being able to process emotions through a loss of a family member and other traumatic times.
It gives me the ‘me time’ that often doesn’t otherwise occur in a hectic day as well as ensuring that I’m not on my phone, mindlessly scrolling through a social media app or emails.
It has also helped me to realize that goals and ambitions can be reached by applying and pushing myself. I’ve been able to achieve quicker times by putting in the effort and hard work and also by problem solving—realizing that there are many ways to get to the end result (even if there is really no end result, even after a race- just progression).
Running for me seems to be a metaphor for most of life; you get out what you put in.
Sarah: “Every day brought different emotions, and I let myself explore them on the run where I was free to think, cry, cope, wallow, and then finish the run and put a lid on that bit of chosen suffering.”
I’ve been a runner since 1996, when I joined the track team in 8th grade. I continued to run throughout high school, college, and post-collegiately—both competitively and recreationally. Running was there for me during every major life event (graduations, marriage, moves, etc.), but never more than after my sister’s unexpected death in December 2017. She had an unknown brain aneurysm that ruptured about a week earlier, and her death was sudden and earth shattering for me and my family. It changed the dynamic of our interactions, it shifted my perspective on life, and it just really freaking hurt. In the initial weeks of grief, I ran as often as I could bring myself to get out the door, and often had to stop mid-run to cry. Running was familiar and comforting, and I started to see it as an outlet for displaced suffering—a sort of mirage for the very real and unwanted suffering in my life. In early 2018, I decided to sign up for my longest running event yet—a 50-miler followed later that day by a 50K, at the Hennepin Hundred race in Illinois in October 2018. It was, admittedly, partly escapism from my grief. But it also felt like an acknowledgement of my grief—choosing my suffering to honor my unchosen suffering. Week after week throughout the hot and humid Midwest summer, I spent hours on my feet thinking about my sister, my family, everything, and nothing. Every day brought different emotions, and I let myself explore them on the run where I was free to think, cry, cope, wallow, and then finish the run and put a lid on that bit of chosen suffering. I successfully finished the double race, and learned massive amounts about myself and my grief along the way.
Anna: “There is magic in running for me, and it carried me through yet again.”
Running has carried me through every rough life transition. With childbirth though, and horrible pregnancies that didn’t allow me to run much, I deeply felt the loss of running. I was two months postpartum with my second child when I realized I had postpartum depression. I couldn’t bring myself to do the PT necessary to return to running much safely, but the few slow minutes I allowed myself to run every few days were glorious. Sometimes I got a break from the anxiety and depression while I ran, sometimes all it did was give me a thing to look forward to. Either way, I felt like myself. Even when my favorite running clothes fit me weird, even when nothing about me felt like Anna. There is magic in running for me, and it carried me through yet again.
Sean: “I will continue to run as it is the perfect outlet to what I need for me to be my best me everyday.”
In 2004 my wife and I received word that we could not have our own children together (she already had one child). We decided to try adoption as a way to grow our family. In late 2005/early 2006 we were chosen by a birth mom and we were both present in the room when the baby girl was born. We took her home the next day but before the end of the week the adoption agency called stating the birth mom had changed her mind. After returning the baby and taking a vacation we returned to the adoption agency only to be told that they would not work with us anymore. We turned to donor sperm as a chance to expand our family but set ourselves a limit or 3 tries. It did not work and to help myself through the process I began to run. 15 years later, I now have many, many miles under me and I will continue to run as it is the perfect outlet to what I need for me to be my best me everyday.
Teal: “Running changed my life and made me realize I am capable of far more than I imagined.”
I suffered from depression starting in high school, doubting myself and my self-worth, wishing I could cease existing. Though I ran cross country and track in high school, I was mediocre and in college I only ran sporadically. Knowing it would force me to run and likely improve my mental health, I signed up for a marathon my sophomore year. I shocked myself by finishing in just over four hours and was amazed I had stuck with something so difficult. It planted a seed that maybe I wasn’t so worthless and incapable after all.
After graduation, depression shifted to anxiety. As I tried to navigate a real job, graduate school applications, and a long-distance relationship, I again turned to the marathon for my mental health. I set my sights on the Boston Marathon, and, when I surprisingly qualified, I decided to aim even higher, for the Olympic Trials. It was a far-fetched dream, but it kept me running and each mile took me farther away from my mental struggles. Running gave me something to focus on besides my anxiety, somewhere to put my energy, something to check off every day and feel good about.
In my twelfth marathon, I qualified for the 2016 Trials. After becoming a mom in 2017, running saved me from the crushing combination of hormones, sleep deprivation, and a sense that I lacked the mom gene. It reminded me I was capable of hard things, even motherhood, and I re-qualified for the 2020 Trials.
I went from doubting myself, believing myself mediocre, to dreaming of making the Olympic Trials. That newfound confidence helped me to finish a doctorate, become a writer, and take on motherhood. Running changed my life and made me realize I am capable of far more than I imagined.
Mitch: “The pandemic continued to grip the world and I fought back by running.”
Forty years ago I was a senior and humbled by finishing last in 3000m. Fast forward four decades, I was challenged to run a half marathon and raise money for a non-profit. Could I even finish? Fair point. At least my knees were good. Then the pandemic hit and the world shut down. Being bombarded 24/7 with the stress of the unknown, my escape became my training. My mental well-being improved and I began shedding unwanted pounds. I started gaining confidence and now knew I could finish the race. The more I ran, my brain switched to setting time goals. Me the non-runner! Then the gut punch hit as the marathon was canceled. I finished the virtual run but it felt empty. My brain raced and heart pumped. What if I kept training and did a real race in 2021? It would mean running through a Canadian winter. The pandemic continued to grip the world and I fought back by running. It kept my head clear, my heart strong and my pants happily sagged. I got to finish my half to the cheers of my family. I beat my time goal and raised even more money. If only I had room to share the ultramarathon relay in the Rocky Mountains. Trail running had taken hold.
Carl: “Running (the movement and the community) has always been integral in managing my mental health and helping me work through struggles in my life.”
I’m a middle school teacher in South LA, writer, and a longtime Students Run LA volunteer coach (the program that trains kids to finish the LA Marathon—just finished my 11th marathon with kids a few weeks ago). Running (the movement and the community) has always been integral in managing my mental health and helping me work through struggles in my life.
Adam: “Running gets me out of my head and gives me something to feel proud of. This pride is genuine because no one but me has run my miles.”
I am a recovering alcoholic, 20+ years sober. I still deal with depression and feelings of hopelessness. I believe all the years chasing a higher buzz has permanently damaged my brain’s ability to experience pleasure. Running gets me out of my head and gives me something to feel proud of. This pride is genuine because no one but me has run my miles. I can’t discount my achievements by claiming it’s genetics, or inherited, or white-privilege. Every mile I complete is attributed to my lacing up my shoes and getting out of the house and hitting the road/trail. I have lost weight, toned my legs, and improved my focus with running. Also, after breaking my leg last year, I’ve rebuilt the muscles in my injured leg and come back to the fitness level of pre-run. Not bad for a 59 year old!
Anonymous: “But far more than hitting specific numbers on the clock, there was more to be gained—I found myself again. I found a restored sense of purpose in myself and in life.”
Running provided me an outlet when I had nothing else to turn to. Between 2017-2018 I had five miscarriages and had given up on myself, on living, on ever having the potential to be a competitive runner again. I had nothing to show for those years—I wasn’t accomplishing anything on the roads and I had endured bitter heartache time and time again, but had nothing to show for it. I had lost myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
In Dec 2018, with a deceased fetus inside of me and not one reason to even think a washed up runner could even complete a track workout, I showed up at a dark, cold track, several hours earlier than I had gotten myself up in years for a run (5:30am) and met a local group with the single motive—to feel alive again. I got to work and never looked back with the help of the greatest running group around me. I decided to chase the women’s OTQ standard and I had just over a year to do it. I needed the thrill of a bigger than life, scary goal to make me feel alive again. I was embarrassingly out of shape and hadn’t done a speed workout in 2-3 years, and had a dated PR 13 minutes off the standard.
The next 365 days of being fully committed in pursuit of a time I had no business chasing, brought me more life, more purpose, more fulfillment, clarity, and peace than any point in my life. It was so much of the breath and the pulse to every day. Spending day in and day out fully committed to being my best self each and every day to show up to that line in December of 2019—it saved my life.
I squeezed two marathons in that year, and pulled out a 2:52 and 2:48. I missed the goal, I just needed more time. But far more than hitting specific numbers on the clock, there was more to be gained—I found myself again. I found a restored sense of purpose in myself and in life. Running and dreaming did that for me. How blessed we all are to have the gift of running in its entire transformative capacity. Movement heals.
Lorena: “When I run, nothing else exists, and I focus on that moment and release all my feelings and thoughts.”
I am a psychiatrist. People usually ask how do I manage all the emotions and feelings I receive from the patients. I did not realize until years later that simultaneously as I began my residency in psychiatry, I started to run. Somehow, it helped me balance it; when I run, nothing else exists, and I focus on that moment and release all my feelings and thoughts. Recently, my dad received a cancer diagnosis, and we as a family were diagnosed. Those have been the worst days of my life. I even had depressive symptoms and stopped running for the first time in 9 years because I did not want to, not because of fatigue or injury.
However, I realized that I had more appetite when I ran, and I was more optimistic and less anxious for the days to come. Running was the most stable and secure part of my day; it became my safe place. Running was there for me and helped me release all the feelings I held.
Running helped me feel like myself again, training for a marathon again helped me understand that life is full of good and bad moments, and we decide how to endure each moment.
Allison: “Without running, I’m not sure I’d be able to cope with my fate, with this twist that has changed my life.”
In October 2020, during the thick of the pandemic, I was 30 and noticed a quarter-sized patch of baldness at the nape of my neck. For weeks it had been steadily growing, but I’d ignored it thinking it would grow back.
I was diagnosed a month later with Alopecia Universalis, a mysterious autoimmune disease that causes complete body hair loss. Over the course of the next five months, I lost all of the hair on my head and body, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. It was physically painless, but emotionally draining and mentally damaging. By May, the mirror reflected back a stranger. And suddenly, when I tried to navigate the world, I understood what it was to feel marginalized or judged: Many thought I was undergoing chemotherapy or deathly ill.
And yet, one seemingly meaningless thing saved me: Running. A runner since I was 14, I’d spent the last four years training and competing locally in the 5k, chasing PR after PR. For me, running was nonnegotiable—even if I had to do it without hair.
Still, there were difficult days. Days when I wanted to hide. But running got me out the door and I found, once running—in the midst of speedy 1K repeats or a 20 minute threshold—I forgot about my appearance. For a brief moment, I was a strong, capable athlete working to reach higher dreams.
Without running, I’m not sure I’d be able to cope with my fate, with this twist that has changed my life. Running makes me feel like more than my diagnosis, more than my disease. Even though there is no cure, in a way, I feel as though every run cures me.
Olivia: “I suffer from imposter syndrome daily in many ways but running keeps me grounded, teaches me mental endurance and is a tangible example of the power of perseverance.
I have been wrapped up in this narrative of “I don’t have a runner’s body” for a very long time, even though I am a person who runs, in this very body, exactly as it is today, meaning I DO have a runner’s body. I’ve struggled with body acceptance for decades—I can trace my first diet back to 3rd grade. I am a person in recovery from binge eating disorder and anorexia and once upon a time I thought losing weight was the most interesting thing about me. When you are in a larger body and you lose a significant amount of weight, people consider you a success story; but what if you had to nearly kill yourself to get there? I started working out compulsively when I was deep in my disease to change my physical form, and it took a long time for me to strike a healthy balance—hell, I still struggle now. About 5 years ago I started running, thanks to a bad breakup and finding some real cute pink Hokas I wanted. The process was slow, but it wasn’t punitive, like exercise used to be, and I stuck with it I can still palpably feel the pride that burst out of me when I finally ran through an entire song—LCD Soundsystem’s “Home.” I suffer from imposter syndrome daily in many ways—circle back to that initial statement about not having a runner’s body—but running keeps me grounded, teaches me mental endurance and is a tangible example of the power of perseverance. Also, the power of finding cute pink shoes and needing an excuse to wear them. We live in a society designed to make us loathe ourselves. Running has helped me find ways to love my body for what it does for me, and I am beyond grateful for that.