Last Updated on March 14, 2023 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
“Do you participate in any forms of self destructive behavior, besides drinking?”
I was at my very first mental health counseling session of my entire life, and my therapist was cutting right to the chase.
“No. At least, I don’t think so.” I replied
“Do you do drugs?” she asked
“No.” I replied.
“Stealing? Promiscuity? Gambling?” she continued.
“No.” I replied once again.
“Any forms of physical self harm? Cutting? Burning? Binging or purging?” she asked, while looking at me straight faced, as if she knew that if she kept going, she’d eventually find something.
“No, none of that.” I replied shaking my head, and then paused.
“Oh wait…running. I run. A lot.“
15 years before this conversation took place, I fell in love with running.
It coincided with a huge upheaval in my world as I knew it: I had recently become a mother.
At age 23 I gave birth to my first son. At the time I was living nearly 1,000 miles away from my closest family members. I was the first first person in my group of local friends to become a parent, and so it was not much of a surprise that this group of young-20-somethings had slowly disappeared out of my life over the previous 9 months. My partner at the time worked late nights to support our growing family, and as such, slept much of the day.
I was very much alone navigating this new journey of motherhood.
But then I found running.
I ran through the first year of my sons life, as a way to have “me” time, to remember that I was so much more than just an exhausted mom who never slept, breastfed 24/7, and couldn’t remember the last time she ate a full meal or took a shower uninterrupted.
Running, to me, felt magical. It was the “self care” that helped me be a happy, healthy mom and human being.
Two years later, I gave birth to my second child, and running quickly became more than self care. It was suddenly more of a necessity in my life, akin to caffeine or calories. I truly felt I needed it.
It was the one refuge I had where I could temporarily check out from the chaos of life as a mother to two babies, who was also juggling a full college course load of in-person classes, and had to continue working nights and weekends as a bartender. Where I could disconnect from the reality of being in a failing relationship with a partner I rarely saw (in retrospect, we were both trying our best with our limited life experience, but we were both young, stubborn, and grasping at straws).
Not only was running an escape, but I found that the rush of norepinephrine, serotonin, and other hormones that came with a workout left me feeling reinvigorated and ready to once again tackle whatever motherhood wanted to throw my way.
Running was my support system. It was the glue that held me together. It was my life line.
Mind you, I followed no specific training plan, nor did I have any semblance of consistency in my running. If anything I ran foolishly and recklessly.
But it didn’t matter.
Because I truly believed that it was running that allowed me to stay strong through a stressful phase of life. After all, “running was cheaper than therapy.” My running was a good thing. For me, for my entire family.
A few years later my relationship with my then partner would end abruptly in a physically and emotionally traumatic way. Quite literally overnight, my entire life changed.
I was paralyzed by fear, heartache, and shame, and despite having a loving family to support me, I felt more alone than ever.
I didn’t know how to help myself, other than to run. I never knew a person could feel so incredibly numb, and yet experience such searing pain all at once. Running was the only thing that took the edge off.
When mental the fog began to lift, I ran to try and process what the hell had happened. Still overwhelmed with shock and shame, I couldn’t bring myself to even think about it any other time.
Like a shot of bourbon, running was the “liquid courage” I needed to even think about how I wound up in the position I was currently in: a single parent of two toddlers, living in my parents home, barely making enough money to feed my own children.
So when the anger phase of my grief arrived, I ran harder.
I sought out more and more difficult races. I ran in a way that screamed with every ounce of my being “you can’t hurt me, look how strong I am”. I wanted, needed, that control. If anyone was going to hurt ME, it would be myself.
And so I did…through my running.
The next decade would be a roller coaster of the highest highs, and the lowest lows, that went well beyond that particular breakup. Most of those lows were due to my own doing, my own choices, and my own actions (or inactions).
And through them all, I ran. Running became my focus, so I didn’t have to focus on – or even attempt to fix – my shortcomings.
By the time I had hit my late 30’s, I had spent so much of my adult life feeling like a failure. For the things I had done, for the things I hadn’t done (but should have), and for the things that had happened to me.
But I found that when I ran, the feelings of hurt and shame that followed me around every day would temporarily disappear. Even better, those feelings would be replaced with a catecholamine spiked high that left me feeling like everything was right in my world.
Not just “right”, but temporarily “great”. And that brief window of my day where I felt like maybe things weren’t so bad after all was enough to keep me going. Enough to keep me from giving up.
So I used running the same way people use drugs and alcohol – as a means to temporarily forget the pain, experience the joy that I so desperately craved, and get through just one more day.
I used running to avoid all of the things that were still tearing me up inside, that I simply did not know how to face.
I used running to quiet all of the internal voices screaming at me that I was a failure, as a mom, a partner, a daughter, a friend…a failure as a human in general.
Every time I felt shame about who I was, I’d remind myself that I was a runner, and that was something to be proud of. When I would talk about running, people would praise me for doing something exceptional, something that most people simply couldn’t fathom doing. It was a confidence booster, and would make me feel like perhaps I had done something right in my life.
And just like drugs and alcohol, chasing the “great” feeling that came with running became addicting. I needed it. I became irrationally upset and even angry when things got in the way of me getting my running fix. I prioritized running over things – and people – that should have been more important.
Running had become my entire identity – the badass facade that my weak and broken self could hide safely behind. And I convinced myself for a long, long time that I could, in fact, run away from my problems. Because I was, and for a while, it felt like it was working.
But the reality is, you cannot run away from your problems forever. Literally or figuratively.
And over time, running stopped having the same effect at helping me ignore the feelings I so desperately did NOT want to feel. So naturally, I started running more to seek that high I desperately craved.
Despite the fact that my body was literally falling apart because of it.
The more ridiculous my running feats became, the more I believed that if I was strong enough to conquer these physical goals, I was strong enough to get past whatever was trying to break me inside.
Insert all of your favorite David-Goggins-esque quotes about being “unbreakable” here.
More and more frequently, I found myself realizing I didn’t even enjoy running anymore. But pushing through the physical and emotional discomfort sometimes felt like the punishment I deserved for being the disaster that I was. So I ran anyway.
Like all stories with a similar beginning, my self-administered form of “therapy” would only work for so long. I was physically running my body into the ground, and my mental health that was barely holding up to begin with was crumbling beyond repair.
Spoiler alert (or maybe not): we all, eventually, have our breaking points.
It doesn’t really matter why I finally decided to seek help. What matters is that I finally asked for help, and was fortunate enough to have the resources to seek help.
And even though during that first session I had tried to explain to my therapist how I quite literally ran away from my problems, she never brought up my running again.
Because running was never the problem. Just like drinking was never the problem.
Years of avoiding the root of the issues that plagued me, the ones that caused me to believe that I absolutely “NEEDED” running in my life in order to function, was the problem.
Therapy forced me to learn how to sit with the discomfort of all of the things I had spent the last decade running from, figuratively and literally.
Let me tell you, friends: there is not a race or endurance event on the face of this earth that hurts as much, or is as difficult, as learning to sit through emotional discomfort that feels like it could destroy you.
But I did it. And as I slowly and painstakingly worked through those issues, as well as came to accept – and learn how to manage – mental health issues I was genetically gifted with, the strangest thing started happening…
I was running less and less.
It was never a conscious decision, but over time I became more comfortable in learning how to face my demons, and realized that I didn’t have to literally run away from them anymore.
And that’s when I began to see with clearer eyes that I wasn’t the only one in the ultrarunning community who was struggling.
(Heads up, here comes the part I know some people aren’t going to want to hear, and I’ll certainly get shit for.)
I began to see the exorbitant alcohol consumption before, during, and after races. I began to see the excessive racing schedules of so many, with little or no time to rest in-between…and often no structured training to begin with. I began to see the self-destructive behavior disguised and even celebrated as humor.
I began to see how many people were genuinely hurting, but instead of asking for help, just immersed themselves in a community where it was perfectly normal to mask emotional pain with physical pain.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that it’s not the entire community. I cannot stress this enough, I am NOT generalizing an entire sport or it’s participants.
I recognize that there are PLENTY of ultrarunners out there who consume alcohol responsibly, and who plan training cycles around sufficient rest.
I recognize that there are a number of scientifically proven positive benefits to mental health that can come from running. Running absolutely can be good for our mental health.
Lastly, please know that I also recognize that some people just really, REALLY love to run far. Period, end of story, there’s nothing more to it.
Again, I’m not here to tell anyone that they are dealing with the situations in their own lives correctly or incorrectly.
But I am going to stand up and say that there is a giant, Fireball shooting, “IPOS” (that’s “injured piece of shit”, for those who not up to date on their ultrarunning meme slang) elephant in the room that I feel not enough people are talking about*: too many of us are using running AS therapy, instead of using it in addition to therapy.
(*Unless, of course, we’re talking about it by sharing self-deprecating memes that make fun of the ultrarunning community as a whole…which, I’ll be the first to admit, I too laugh at and re-share).
As Zoe Rom says in her article Running Isn’t Therapy: “If someone said they were signing up for ultras as a means of treating a painful toothache, hopefully, you’d kindly recommend a good dentist. Equating ultrarunning with treatment can send the message that mental illness isn’t real illness. Implying that mental illness is just something you could run off downplays its legitimacy.”
We are essentially self medicating instead of seeking real help, and frankly, it breaks my heart to see it.
As a coach, I have had to have countless conversations with clients over the years where I had to remind them that big running goals often require big, uncomfortable sacrifices.
And in almost every situation, the sacrifice I was referring to wasn’t giving up any sort of “fun” in order to put in hard training efforts.
Rather, the sacrifices in question would be things like cutting back on hard runs in lieu of easy efforts, skipping unnecessary races that wouldn’t positively contribute to their “A” goal, or, the seemingly scariest thing of all: adhering to rest days.
Not doing what most would perceive as the “hard thing”, was the actual struggle.
More than once I have had clients tell me that they absolutely NEED running for their mental health. For some, that meant adding one or two more workouts per day on top of what I had already programmed. For others, that meant that “rest days” were not something they were willing to consider.
Friends, I am not a mental health expert.
It is not my job – nor in my scope of practice – to tell a client that their relationship with running is perhaps an unhealthy one, or that their running is likely a means of avoiding some bigger issue…an issue that they should probably seek real, professional help for.
What it is within my scope of practice is to remind my clients that big goals often require big sacrifices. And while the thought of taking a rest day may seem scary, it is necessary in order to reach their goals.
And so that is what I’ve always done.
But in this space I am not speaking as a coach, and I am not making recommendations for a single individual. So I’m going to use this platform to boldly say the following, with the utmost compassion, having been there myself:
If you ever find yourself in a position where you feel like your mental health is going to absolutely crack, or your life is going to fall apart, because you have to miss a training run or a race (or a training run/race didn’t go as planned)…
If you find yourself hungover on race morning more often than not (and trust me, I’ve been there)…
If you find yourself physically falling apart but unwilling to go back to square one and work on your health, because you are afraid of losing your running or ultrarunning status…
I urge you to talk to a professional. To seek help. To have the courage to look deeper at what is hurting you, and to have the strength to work through it.
And this may look different for everyone – whether it’s professional therapy, speaking to a doctor, or just asking a friend or family member for help rather than ignoring what you’re running away from.
Because while running CAN be a part of recovery and an amazing tool to help you maintain positive mental health status, it can also be incredibly unhelpful, and even dangerous, if it is used as a full substitute for genuine mental health care.
And I also want you to know this: there is something so amazing about not RELYING on running to hold you together.
There is something so freeing about not feeling like your world may crumble if you miss a training run, being able to laugh in the middle of a race when things just aren’t going the way you planned, or not feeling like you have to run your body into the ground every weekend at another race in order to prove your worth to yourself (or anyone else, for that matter).
And while it may seem scary or even impossible from where you sit right now, I promise you: it’s absolutely worth doing the hard work to reach that place.
When you participate in anything extreme, it is inevitable that someone is going to eventually ask you why.
Over the years I have been asked many times (and I’ve written about it here on this blog many times) why I choose to push my limits as an endurance athlete, and for years I have had some version of the same answer:
Because running hurt less than real life did.
More recently, someone posed the same question, and I had to truly stop and think, because all of my previous go-to answers were no longer applicable.
It wasn’t to numb the pain.
It wasn’t to prove to myself, or anyone else, that I was strong enough, or that I was worthy.
It wasn’t to escape a reality I didn’t want to be a part of.
I finally answered that I push my limits as an endurance athlete because I truly enjoy the process. Because it’s rewarding to be out there living and experiencing life in such a raw, uninhibited way. Because I find it fun.
And for the first time in a long, long time, there was nothing more hiding behind those words.
I still love to run. In fact, I’d argue I’ve never loved it more than I do right now. But I no longer NEED to run.
And the ability to say that – and truly mean it – it is the greatest gift I’ve ever been able to give myself.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.
Thank you for writing this, it’s what so many of us need to hear and remember. You are very brave, Heather.