Bibrave recently started this “Release the Runner” campaign to help recruit a lot of nonrunners to our sport now that the only way most of us can escape our house is through exercise. It made me think about how and why I started running about 6 years ago now. I’ve talked about it in my “About me” section in very sweeping terms, but I thought this was a good opportunity to really discuss how running changed my life. And, more importantly, how running saved my life.
Flashback to 2012, I was four years into my graduate work as a neuroscience graduate student. I had had a series of mishaps. There were transportation issues of reagents that pushed me back four months, and was dealing with finding out someone who had been working with me on my project had been falsifying data. This meant we had to throw out EVERYTHING that person had touched, losing months of work. We then had a parasite infestation, pushing me back another six months as we decontaminated the whole facility. I started working 10-12 hours a day, every day, for months at a time trying to catch up while in windowless, darkened rooms. On top of this, and without getting into a lot of details, I was in a terrible, unsupportive relationship that I wasn’t happy in but too stubborn to leave. I was incredible depressed. I cried everyday. I loved being in the lab, but I was tired and burned out. January of 2013, I was committed for suicidal idealization. My ex drove me to the hospital and dropped me off in the ER.
I spent four days in the hospital, not at all improved, now with medical bills also to worry about on top of my very small graduate student stipend. For another full year, I struggled with different antidepressants, therapy, and graduate school that I eased back into after my hospitalization. My health continued to deteriorate. That year, I ended up getting both kidney stones, and shingles, at the age of 27.
In March 2014, two weeks before my 28th birthday, I finally got out of the relationship I was in and I went back to my doctor. This whole time, my vitamin D levels were incredibly low. At the time I was hospitalized, they couldn’t even detect the vitamin in my system. Working in the dark for years had really taken a toll, and the antidepressants were not working. My doctor recommended exercise. “Go for a run,” he said. “During the day, get some sun. The supplements don’t seem to be helping as much as we would like.”
I got a pair of shoes. I ran down the block, and hated it. I couldn’t breathe, my legs hurt. This was hard, and I was never the most athletic person. I was the nerdy child who was picked last for sports and would rather be in the bleachers reading a book. But, I’m also stubborn. I downloaded a running app that was about running from zombies and started trying to run for about twenty minutes every other day. I didn’t do couch to 5k, but I started researching and reading. (There is a large amount of scientific literature about running and its effects on the brain and I consumed a lot of it.)
On July 4th, 2014, I ran my first 5k. And while I had been running for about two months before this day, I really consider this to be the day I started running. At the Liberty at the Lake 5K, the atmosphere beforehand was just so happy. It was only about 2 miles from my house, but I drove, passing by many runners warming up as they headed to the park. At the time, I couldn’t believe people were running TO THE 5K! I can’t say that I was able to run the whole thing, my knees weren’t ready, and knee pain forced me to walk on and off during the last mile. I finished at 35:56, 4 seconds below my goal. I honestly see this as a turning point in my life. I think if I hadn’t have gone to this 5K, I might not be here today. This was the day I started to win against my depression.
This first 5k is what really hooked me. Before this, I had only been running alone. Either through my neighborhood, or on a treadmill at a nearby gym. I had NO IDEA how supportive and kind the running community was. After my relationship, my self-esteem was practically nonexistent and I was so shy. I didn’t really meet anyone, but having random people cheering me on the course that day really changed my life. (I’m literally sitting here crying as I write this.) I had felt for so long that I really had no day-to-day support, and that camaraderie made me feel like I belonged for the first time in a very, very long time.
I immediately signed up for two more 5ks I could find within my budget in the next few months. I wanted to run a sub-30 so bad. I wanted to see a goal and reach it. By September, I ran another 5k in 32 minutes. By the end of the year, I ran that sub 30 minute 5k. It was utter elation. I was hooked. I wanted to run faster, I wanted to run farther. I was gaining confidence, and in the first time in a very long time, I was happy. I was no longer on antidepressants and my vitamin D levels were finally at normal levels, and I had lost almost 30 pounds. I ran my first half marathon in December 2015 (and went into lab immediately afterward, still wearing the race bib.)
Running through the pain
Around the time I ran my first half marathon, my Dad was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer and was given less than two years to live. Running saved me. I lived so far away, but I tried to fly home at least once a month to see him. I was hurting, and I was scared, and I ran. Oh, did I run.
There is something cathartic about running that I found then. When you’re angry, you can run fast and try to leave it behind you. When you’re sad, there is something magical about mile 8 in any run that will help me bring out the tears I need to shed. I needed something during that time, so I signed up for my first marathon. Can I tell you how proud my Dad was? He told EVERYBODY I was training for a marathon. He passed away about 6 weeks before I had planned to run to San Antonio Rock n’ Roll. For two weeks, when it should have been the peak of my training…I didn’t run. I didn’t do much of anything, and I slide back into a pretty deep depression.
But, Dad had told everyone that I was running a marathon. I couldn’t make him a liar. Without much training the last month leading up to the race, I lined up at the start line anyway. I wasn’t ready, and it wasn’t pretty, and it rained the whole time, but I finished at 5:06.
The next year, I decided to run with St. Jude, raising almost $2000 in his name. Again, running was there for me when I needed it the most.
In conclusion, running was there for me when I needed it the most. It helped me gain confidence in myself, it made me feel better about my body, it was there for me when I needed an emotional outlet. My friends like to tease that I will try to get anyone to come run with me, but really, running to me is more than just exercise. It saved my life from clinical depression, it helped me while I dealt with my father’s illness and death, and it continues to be there for me any time my stress or anxiety get the better of me.
Of course, I’m a full convert. Releasing my inner runner changed my life in so many ways and I’m so glad for the community around the sport. Thank you to every runner that has paced me near the finish line, or given a random high five or wave. And if you don’t run? I hear all the time that “Running isn’t for me.” Give it a try, start slow, have a goal, and tie up those shoes.