Foreword: Everyone has their outlets. Their coping mechanisms. Their internal survival tools that help them make sense of this crazy world when things get tough. These “things” certainly feel right to the person who uses them, but might not make any sense to others who simply haven’t had the same experiences, or haven’t used or viewed some of these “things” in the same manner. All of that said, this post talks about one of the large roles running has played in my life over the last decade. Many of you won’t be able to relate or understand – and that’s OK. But I share for those of you who can, because I certainly know that I am not alone in this experience. And I hope that by sharing, it let’s you know that you aren’t alone either.
Because I can’t ever talk about The Revenge of Stede Bonnet race without mentioning it, let’s go ahead and get the uncomfortable part of this story out of the way. Back in 2018, literally minutes before the start of the inaugural running of this race, I got the phone call that my Dad unexpectedly died. I was a thousand miles away from my family, it was nearly 7 pm, and I was (obviously) completely devastated. I didn’t know what to do in that moment, so at the advice of my sister and my mother, and the fact that there was nothing I COULD do at that hour, this far from home…
I ran the race.
At that point, I had already become an expert at using running as a coping mechanism, so it only made sense that I start processing the immense shock and pain of what had just happened while running in circles for endless miles over the course of ten hours…overnight.
I cried, I fell (a lot), I grieved, I yelled, I was held literally and figuratively in the arms of my Eagle Endurance running family, I tried like hell to match my emotional pain with physical pain in order to numb that emotional pain, and ultimately…I won the race that night.
(You can read that whole story here. It’s heavy, but I suppose that goes without saying.)
Three years have since passed since. I joke about how much this trail and this race physically hurts (and it does), and about how running a race from 7 pm to 5 am is a sadistic, horrible idea (it is). But ultimately, the underlying theme of this race, for me, will never not be the “race I was at when Dad died”.
So that’s where our 2021 Revenge of Stede Bonnet 10 Hour story – the fourth year of this event – starts. If you know nothing else, know this race, this trail, and I have some not so pleasant history. I have experienced unimaginable pain while running this race, and a part of me is always reluctant to come back.
Fast forward to 2021:
Geoff really loves this race, and this course, because it’s rare that you find an overnight race that doesn’t require you to run the 12 hours prior to the sun setting as well. Being proud members of the Eagle Endurance $30 club, naturally we were going to be at The Revenge of Stede Bonnet in one way or another. So I reluctantly signed myself up for the ten hour option of this race once again, despite the fact that the furthest distance I have run since June is just over 13 miles.
Why, when a 5 mile and a 15 mile option were also offered at this event, did I choose 10 hours?
I don’t have a good answer.
I really don’t. Over the past few years I have been a staunch advocate for not overextending yourself in this sport, for training properly for ultramarathons, and reminding runners that burnout isn’t a badge of honor. So this is definitely not something I would have recommended to a client, or anyone for that matter.
Perhaps the appeal of an open-ended race distance appealed to me. I could pull out and call it a day around mile 20 if I wanted to, getting in a good long run without pushing my luck.
Perhaps I hoped that dipping my toe back into the ultra world after about 5 months off would be the motivation I needed to finally hop on the training wagon for the Long Haul 100 I’m registered to run this January. Because if I’m being honest, I’m so far behind on this training cycle that this “wagon” is pretty much at the point that if I don’t hop on RIGHT NOW, it’ll be too late.
Nevertheless, at 6:58 pm on an October Saturday night, I stood at the trail head of Biggin Creek Mountain Bike Trail in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, listening to the pre-race instructions of race director Chad Haffa.
And yes, I was actually listening this time.
The story I want to tell you today…
… is not about how I probably went out too fast for the first loop. So fast that when I finished the loop just minutes after people who were racing ONLY one loop, they said to me “uhhh…you’re doing the 10 hour?!” (Yeah. Oops, I know. Classic Heather. No regrets though).
It’s not about how I totally blew past the first “devil face/happy face” dreaded trail section, but so did the other people in front of me, and the race director DID say “this is a pirate themed race, cheating IS allowed” during the pre-race instructions, so I didn’t turn back to cover the missed tenth of a mile, and don’t feel guilty about it.
It’s not about how I confidently popped out of the trail at an intersection, only to find a handful of other runners running back towards me on the same trail, telling me that I was the one who was lost. (I wasn’t, but that didn’t stop me from second guessing myself). We spent a solid 5 minutes running around in circles at this 5 way intersection that I’ve never seen before despite having been on this trail numerous times, trying a few different trail options before finally figuring out which direction was the correct way.
It’s not about how I fell HARD on the one 5 foot stretch of trail that was littered with golf-ball sized rocks, and today, 3 days later, my palm is still swollen and in pain (who hurts their HANDS trail running?!)
It’s not about the two separate armadillos that scared me when I stumbled upon them, but not nearly as much as I clearly scared them, as they both frantically ran straight into trees with a “thud”, leaving me feeling guilty and saying things like “WHAT THE HELL MAN, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? ARE YOU OK?” to armadillos in the forest at 3:00 am.
And it’s not even about how I won the race. Not just first female, but first overall, beating the second place runner (and first place male) by two full loops (10 ish miles).
Instead, the story I want to tell you today is about what DIDN’T happen out there on the trail over the course of about 9 hours and 15 minutes that night. Because for me, it was an even bigger “win” than actually bringing home that first place title.
Reality hit early on.
My body physically started protesting somewhere around the start of loop #3…about 10 miles and about two hours and fifteen minutes in. This particular race course – which is loops of a just-shy-of-5-miles-mountain bike trail – is punchy, full of winding twists and turns, and absolutely covered in roots just waiting to catch your toes. There are very, very few sections in the first three quarters of this course where you can really open up and run (save for the back half, which is the Hallucination race course, if you are familiar with it). The constant up/down/side to side/pick up your feet so you don’t fall really does a number to your legs, quickly.
Especially if you are from coastal South Carolina, where pretty much everything is flat and we are no strangers to running across fields or down dirt roads in a straight line for seemingly a full mile at a time before the path deviates to the left or right by even a degree.
So I knew it was going to physically hurt, and I had a pretty idea it was going to start early on. This was not unexpected. Once my body started protesting, I instinctively started preparing myself for my mind to inevitably follow on this downward spiral.
Because in addition to the whole “not trained” thing, overnight running has always been my nemesis, and this 10 hour race ran from 7 pm until 5 am the next morning. I often joke with people that after my children, who absolutely refused to sleep as babies and toddlers, FINALLY started sleeping through the night, I resolved myself to never NOT sleep through the night again. Thus, around 10 or 11 pm in every race I’ve run that goes into – or throughout – the night, I start to slowly fall apart. Every time.
And lastly, the new ADHD meds I’ve been adjusting to for the last 6 weeks or so have absolutely destroyed my appetite. I’m working on it, but I know that at any given time I’m under-fueled and dehydrated, and this day was so exception. So I truly expected this evening to eventually fall apart into a messy, exhausted, under-fueled/undertrained struggle.
But I know the messy, exhausted, under-fueled/undertrained struggle, and I also know how to get through it.
I am no stranger to “the suck” of ultrarunning – whether I’m prepared for the race or not. I honestly have no idea how many running and endurance races (OCR’s, AR’s, etc.) I’ve done in my lifetime. A quick rundown of the events I’ve written about on this blog shows that out of hundreds of events, at least 35 have been ultramarathon distance races, including three 100 milers and at least 15 races with distances of 50 miles or more.
I know how to suffer when it comes to running, and further, I’ve grown to incite it. In fact, ultrarunning had become the place where I purposely go in order to suffer, in order to feel and experience discomfort and pain…but perhaps safely, and on my own, controlled terms.
(Get ready, here comes the deep-Heather-oversharing- stuff you are either absolutely sick of hearing about OR feel glad someone actually talks about, rather than pretending the world is nothing but rainbows and puppies. Either way, brace yourself.)
My introduction to the sport of ultrarunning, the place where I truly learned how to push through physical and emotional lows, coincided with a time in my life where I was constantly on the verge of completely breaking down due to numerous painful life experiences I didn’t know how to – and frankly, didn’t want to – deal with.
But no one can live forever on the cusp of drowning without some sort of safety net to help keep their head above the water, even if only barely high enough to gasp for air.
It was never an intentional decision to make this sport a coping mechanism for my ever deteriorating mental health, but it quickly and turbulently became one.
I had initially convinced myself that running, and soon ultrarunning, was a place where I could go to prove to myself that I was strong during a time when I desperately needed that reminder in order to avoid completely giving up. Further, ultrarunning appealed to me because it was something I could do that would force my mind to shut down for long, long periods of time, so I didn’t have to emotionally feel anything.
I could check out. I could be numb. I could ignore my problems for awhile.
Except I quickly realized the opposite was actually true – ultrarunning was giving me long, long periods of time alone with my thoughts. So I shifted my avoidance approach, and instead decided that running was the perfect place to temporarily let my guard down in order to safely feel decades of emotional hurt and trauma I’d been lugging around for far too long, but refused to properly deal with. So many painful things, guilt, anger, and sadness I’ve been holding on to that go far, far beyond (and long before) simply grieving the loss of a parent that I initially mentioned in this post.
And I would only let myself feel those things while running because I knew that the physical pain and emotional discomfort of this sport would act as a buffer. It equal parts numbed the feelings and left me feeling like I was in control.
(Kind of like alcohol, but I digress.)
The running discomfort took up just enough space in my brain and body to not allow the pain of the past to completely overwhelm me. Running let me feel it a little bit – but not too much. I find this to be true during running in general, but even more so once you surpass the 40, 50, 60 mile mark. After all, it’s hard to truly feel the weight of things that emotionally tear you up inside when at the same time your feet feel like they are going to break into a thousand tiny pieces with each step, or when seemingly every ounce of your being is focused on taking just one more step forward.
Your mind has an incredible way of detaching when your body is simply trying to survive.
So in this space, it felt safe to let some of it out. I knew it couldn’t fully hurt me here. I knew it didn’t have the power.
Further, while in this deep, dark hole I let the painful things that happened to me in the past seamlessly blend with current self-inflicted pain I’d be experiencing on the trail into a big messy pool of bitter, vicious, anger. I would then use that jumbled, angry mess as fuel to get to the finish line.
I’ve been good at hiding it in the past, but the truth is, I almost always ran angry.
The physical and emotional discomfort gave me permission to feel mad. Mad at running, mad at people and situations in my past that hurt me so much, mad at myself for a bajillion different things, including of course, letting myself get hurt in the first place. It made perfect sense, because I knew I could use this to my advantage. It felt as if choosing to get mad and choosing to use that anger as a fuel to my proverbial fire to get what I wanted out of running (finish lines, PR’s, wins, whatever) would also somehow chip away at the power the things and people that hurt me still held over me.
I was in control here.
I convinced myself that this a good thing. That this approach would wear down the hurt over time, until it was no longer an issue. I WAS working on myself, after all. Running was my unconventional method of choice.
And so this mindset, to immediately defer to cautiously poking the bear that was my anger and hurt, both because I needed to and because it seemed to get me to finish lines, became my default while running 95% of the time. I stopped knowing one without the other.
While in retrospect, what I then viewed as a healthy coping mechanism (in a classic “running is cheaper than therapy” thought process) was actually like a barely-there-band-aid holding together a gaping wound that desperately needed stitches. The reality was that my mental health was akin to a pressure-cooker always on the cusp of boiling over, and running was merely a way to siphon off just enough steam to make sure I didn’t completely explode.
No matter how many times I professed how much running helped me – and to an extent it did – I now realize it was only ever a temporary, surface level fix that would momentarily buy me a little time and breathing room. It would make THAT day more bearable, but it did nothing to help me actually heal in the long run (pun always intended).
But let’s talk about now. The present.
As many of you know, I’ve spent the last 8 weeks finally, finally working on all of this shit that I’ve been both figuratively and LITERALLY running away from for decades.
I’ve been sober for 46 days (as of today, as I write this post). I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist who has helped me find medications that have made me find enough mental clarity to be able to go to see a mental health counselor on a weekly basis. And that counselor has been an absolute godsend at helping me connect the pieces of my hurt. To have the courage to face all of these things that have truly paralyzed me over the years. Things that even I, the queen of oversharing on the internet for complete strangers to gobble up as entertainment, won’t share in this space. Never the less I am finally utilizing the necessary tools and people to help me grow and move on to a better life.
And most of all, I’m learning how to forgive myself.
And it’s working. It’s not even close to over – I’m not sure it ever will be. And I won’t lie and say it’s been easy, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And I’m not so naïve to believe that there won’t still be hard days in the future. But it’s working.
I’ve used the words “life changing” so casually in the past regarding other things, that I don’t even know where to begin to describe this experience. Relief. That’s the best I can come up with for now. It’s been such an amazing relief.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH YOUR TEN HOUR RACE, HEATHER?
I’m getting there, I swear.
As I mentioned, I had every reason to believe that I would eventually fall apart and find myself in a messy, exhausted, under-fueled/undertrained struggle. Both experience and simply logic (I probably started that race at 7 pm with less than 1,000 calories consumed that day – I’m not proud but it’s the reality of the situation) led me to believe that a messy crash and burn followed by hours of dark suffering – by choice, because it’s become habit – were inevitable.
But the low never came.
During loops #3 and #4 (miles 10-20), when I found myself practically dancing down the trail, singing to my music with such joy and ease, I thought it was just luck. I was having a good day, despite everything I had physically working against me.
During loops #5 and #6 (miles 20-30) when I found myself laughing about nearly tripping over roots, not feeling at all lonely even though I had run every step of that race all by myself so far, and not feeling one ounce of “woe is me” emotions about having an unexpected upset stomach from gels that normally never upset my stomach, I thought the caffeine was to thank for the positive mindset.
During loop #7 (mile 30-35) when I finally made the conscious realization that I had spent the last 30-ish miles skipping right through all of the endless angry, rage filled songs on my playlist that I would normally listen to in order to further fuel my anger, in lieu of more peppy, upbeat songs that I could dance down the trail to, I stopped in my tracks.
“Holy shit. I’m not angry.“
For the first time – perhaps, ever – I was well into the physical pain cave that accompanies running an ultramarathon when your body is begging you to stop because it’s 2 am and you SHOULD be in bed, but I wasn’t matching that physical pain with my own emotional pain, and vice versa. Sure, every step physically hurt at that point (not to mention, my knees and palms had hit the ground HARD more than once that evening in a handful of very ungraceful falls), but I had not let myself unconsciously slip into that place where I felt that I had to suffer, that I deserved to suffer, and that suffering was the only way to get through this.
I hadn’t once resorted to telling myself the same-old story about how “I’ve been through harder shit, I can get through this too”.
I hadn’t once turned my running into some sort of revenge in a way that had become second nature, the whole “you may have done horrible things to me, but look at what I can do, look how fucking strong I am now.”
I hadn’t once dwelled on how this particular course holds such tragic memories for me about the loss of my father, and how that grief has plagued me for the better part of the last three years. If EVER I should justifiably resort to those feelings during a race, it would most certainly and understandably be this one.
I was just genuinely happy. Truly living in that moment, and finding myself so damn content with being able to do what I love – with no strings attached – that I was skipping and singing, despite a gurgling stomach, sheer exhaustion, a bloody knee and palm, and rogue armadillos trying to trip me.
And in that moment I realized that for the first in a very, very long time, the reason I was still running so strong this late in the race when everything was working against me, wasn’t because I was using my hurt and anger to fuel my runs..one of the things I had convinced myself was a reason for my success, the reason “why” I could keep going when things got tough.
I was running because I love to run.
For once, it was nothing more than that.
And, friends, I’ve nearly forgotten what that feels like. Sure, I’ve never stopped loving this sport, but there has always, relentlessly, been an underlying theme to this chosen “suffering” for me. For so long, I didn’t remember that there was any other way.
In that moment on the trail I also VERY consciously realized that a major reason I was able find myself in this place is undoubtedly because I’ve finally given myself a healthy outlet to work on everything that has plagued me for SO LONG. A professional outlet that is calling my bluff, making me see the things I’ve been running from, and forcing me to feel without any outside influences to numb those feelings. And that outlet is working far, far better than running ever did.
Sorry running, my old friend, but it’s the harsh truth. You are fantastic in so many ways. You have brought, and continue to bring, so many positive things to my life. You have given me amazing experiences, and such incredible friendships over the last 15+ years. And you HAVE helped remind me that I am capable of doing big, scary things.
But for me, you aren’t therapy. And you shouldn’t be.
You can absolutely bring stress relief after a hard day, or be an outlet for some uninterrupted time to think through problems that may be plaguing me in that moment. But you aren’t – and never will be – the solution to the big things. And while I’m grateful for the outlet you provided in the past, I cannot even begin to express how awesome it is to not have to rely on you like that anymore.
And the idea that I get to potentially experience running in a whole new, healthier way? I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but that’s mind-blowing. I don’t even know where to begin.
With that huge, middle of the trail/middle of the night epiphany, I kept running. Another full loop after #7, and despite screaming legs, aching feet, and an increasingly tired mind, I emotionally felt nothing but carefree joy about the whole situation.
The type of running I had forgotten existed.
I went on to win the race, with 8 loops / 40 (ish) miles in about 9.5 hours. And while winning is always a kickass achievement, the biggest “win’ for me at the 2021 Revenge of Stede Bonnet was inadvertently getting back something that has always meant so much to me, in a capacity that I honestly hadn’t realized I lost…or missed so very much.
In the end, I didn’t keep running until I was the very last one left on the trail simply in order to win the race.
I kept running for no other reason than I was truly enjoying it, and I didn’t want it to end.
Please know: as long as my legs work, I’ll never NOT be a runner. I absolutely love this sport on a visceral level. I love participating as an athlete, I love the community, I love the science behind running, I love sharing my knowledge with others, and I love helping other runners reach their goals. I love almost everything about this damn sport.
And so I want to end this post by saying that your running is YOURS, and I’m certainly not here to tell you what that should look like. If running is indeed a healthy stress reliever for you, and is enough to keep your mind and heart on a healthy track, then that is awesome. You keep doing you, I am cheering for you!
(And of course, if you can completely separate mental health and running, as I’m sure many of you can successfully do, then kudos to you as well!)
That said, I’ve spent a decade in this space, spilling my guts, and preaching about how running has been my saving grace, my life preserver, my healer. So many have reached out to me over the years saying that you could relate.
And while running will ALWAYS be an important part of my life for a million other reasons, I am now recognizing that for many years, in many way, it was just another unhealthy coping mechanism for me. And so it’s only fair that I balance out my declarations of “best thing ever” with the reality that perhaps, running isn’t everything I or many others who are struggling want it to be, and there are better options out there if you are hurting.
Running may be cheaper than therapy, but it’s no substitution.
So, if you read this post and it hits too close to home, if you recognize that you too reach for running (or anything else) as a means to take the edge off of “life” but it’s not helping, if you wish that your running could bring you the same joy it used to, but it now seems to be tied up in so many other negative aspects in your life, or if you simply want to feel better but feel like you are grasping at straws with or without running…I highly encourage you to reach out for help.
It CAN and WILL get better. I promise.
“To allow yourself to reach out for help is a huge strength. To allow yourself to feel is to be truly alive.” – Anonymous
If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, there are ways to get help. Studies show that most people with mental health problems get better and many recover completely. For more information and immediate resources, please visit the “Get Help” page on MentalHealth.Gov