Running Through the Darkness: Understanding the connection between the run and mental health

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

By: Arielle Hicks, Charm City Run Rehoboth Beach Team Member

People choose to run for so many reasons. From staying physically in shape, to the community, all the way to the competition running has to offer, and then many people run for the mental clarity. For myself, I picked up running after giving up my favorite sport which was softball due to an injury. I needed to stay active, and softball was a sport that kept me active and stress free. In high school, following my injury, I decided to join the track team, and that was where I discovered my love for running. Post high school, I continued to run every single day. My routine was coffee and a run to start my day or else I wouldn’t be able to have a great day. My runs provided me therapy, and with every stride another worry would disappear from my mind. I, who considers myself an already optimistic person, needed to run every single day for the relief, the mood boost, and the clarity, until one day my run became the downfall of my mental health.

In December of 2021, I had to fly out to Palo Alto, California to receive the first part of a two part experimental brain surgery at Stanford University. As one could imagine, my nerves were all over the place for the days leading up to my surgery. I spent each morning, waking up and going out for a run, even on the morning of my surgery. I remember telling my family, who accompanied me for my surgery, that I needed to get a run in before we started each day or else I wouldn’t be myself. Running calmed my mind, and it put me in the optimistic mindset that I always try to stay in. It was important to get a run in. However, little did I know, that the last run I took before getting driven to the hospital would be one of the last joyous moments I would have with running for a long time to come.

Following the second part of my surgery in February of this year, I had to go through months of physical therapy to regain balance and strength to run again. As almost any runner asks when they’re out on injury, “When can I run?” became my most frequently asked question. In spring, I was given the clear to go out on my first run. I was so ecstatic that I finally had the therapy I needed back and the only therapy I really knew. That first run, however, would be the beginning of a major negative change in my mindset. My runs, which normally are a positive and empowering work out, became very dark and evil. My mind was not at ease, but it in fact began to torment myself and put myself down. I was constantly telling myself that I was not good enough, and that I was a failure. Now, I did not expect my first run to be pleasant because I knew that I was going to have to build back up to where I physically was months ago again and that it was not going to be an easy feat. However, instead of each run getting easier, it got harder. It got to the point that I couldn’t even lace up my shoes because the evil slander my mind told itself got louder and louder. I would find myself crying mid and post run due to the bullying that I put myself through. Despite how dark running had become for me, I still needed it, and I longed for it despite not being able to anymore. Every single day, my life got darker to the point that I did not want to get out of bed or do life anymore. I had lost my motivation to function and to take care of myself. I took all my medals down, I hid my shoes, and was on the verge of giving up everything. The one thing that kept me going, being running, was no longer a functional or healthy outlet.

For weeks and months to follow, without running and still stuck within a constant dark mindset, I knew it was time to seek professional help. I was no longer taking care of myself emotionally or physically from lack of sleep to lack of nutrition to being so hard on myself all throughout the day. I found it harder to make it to work and to even communicate with those close to me in my life. I became isolated, especially when my community is all within running.  I also was constantly physically run down and found myself getting ill. No one really thinks about the toll your mental health can have upon your physical wellbeing. I was neglecting myself to the point I was admitted into the hospital twice solely due to the negative physical impacts of my mental health. After visiting my primary care doctor, my physician referred my to a psychiatrist, where I would then be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and PTSD. I had expectations that with one round of therapy and medication that I would be cured, and I had expected that I would be back to my happy go lucky self again. I was very wrong. I was medicated, and I was put into intensive therapy three days a week for six weeks where I would gain the tools to heal my mindset and prioritize my wellbeing. I had to find an outlet for my mental health that wasn’t solely running. With the help of therapy and prioritizing my mental health outside of my running shoes, my mindset changed. I was able to gradually gain my motivation back to return to a somewhat normal life.

In June, I made a last minute decision to run in the Charm City Run 24 Hour Run presented by Brooks where my only goal was to run a 10k. As someone who dreams big, I set my expectations low, since in therapy I learned to not put too much pressure on myself since that is something I commonly do, and I feel that a lot of us can relate with. I showed up, and I assured myself that running a 10k was a major accomplishment. What I didn’t realize would happen, would be that I would run a 50k, my longest distance ever, and that I would feel so proud of myself after that run. Only a few months prior, my runs were taunting and self deprecating filled with so much pressure on myself, but with the help of therapy, I found that love for running that I originally had, especially being surrounded by such an amazing group of runners within the Charm City Run community. Following my 50k, my life became brighter, and my runs became easier. I realized that while so many people use running as an outlet for mental health, it can so easily became the downfall of our mental health due to the pressure we constantly put on ourselves. Learning to adjust our mindsets and being passionate for the sport in a healthy was was something that I had to adapt to. I still seek therapy on a routine basis, which allows me to live my life again, have motivation, and run. Following my surgical recoveries, my only goal for this year was to run my lifelong dream race, which happens to be the NYC Marathon in November, and with prioritizing my mental health, my current training has become one of the healthiest and best training regimens I have done all while healthily challenging myself. Even though I am still not in my best running shape that I would have been prior to these surgeries, and this mental health journey, I have chosen to persevere and pick this year to accomplish this goal. While putting my health first, physically and mentally, I am able to look forward to the NYC Marathon, with no pressure to aim for a specific goal, but I have challenged my mind to be proud of every single stride that I take on the way to that epic finish line.

I’ve learned that while running is an excellent outlet, it is never a bad idea to confide in a therapist or licensed professional to get help where running may not be able to always help. Many runners suffer from depression and burn out especially from all the pressure we put on ourselves physically and mentally due to training plans, pace, and nutrition. Mental health is something that I am proud is becoming more valued and prioritized in today’s society. I am so incredibly grateful to be able to work with a community here at Charm City Run who has always made me feel safe and prioritized throughout my whole journey. It is also so very important to understand that for those who struggle with mental health or may know someone that does, that mental health isn’t just a linear journey. It can be a very long journey that comes with peaks and valleys and can change from day to day.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

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