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What Running a Marathon Taught Me About Battling Depression

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A few years ago, I ran my first and only marathon. During six months of training, we ran 4-5 days per week. Friday nights meant early bedtimes so we could wake up at 4:30 Saturday morning for long runs around the lake. I kept the training schedule on my refrigerator, and the first thing I’d do after returning from a run was check off that day’s mileage. It was daunting to see how many miles were left to run, but it was such a feeling of accomplishment to track how far we’d come. For someone as Type B as I am, it was the most in control I’d ever felt in my life. And I was addicted to that feeling.

Still, it was a taxing schedule, and I counted the days to the final three weeks of training season… the taper weeks.

During taper weeks, you intentionally cut back on your mileage. You suddenly have more free time than you know what to do with. And you slowly begin to carbo load. Finally, a reward! Taper weeks sounded glorious!

Nope. They don’t call it “taper madness” for nothing.

I’d always heard that running a marathon was as much a mental challenge as it was a physical one, but I never knew that also applied to the training.

Those taper weeks terrified me, turning me into a shell of myself. I could no longer outrun my worries and anxieties about the race before me. I was forced to take time and rest. Be still. Where were the endorphins I’d grown so accustomed/addicted to? How would I make it through a day without them? I’d been eating to fuel my body, but now I was just stress eating for sport. My biggest fear was that I was losing ground during the most crucial week before the race and that all the work we’d done to that point would be wasted.

In my mind, there was no way I could succeed if every step wasn’t one that was moving me forward, increasing my mileage.

As someone who’s battled depression for half her life, I was surprised how similar those taper weeks were to my own depressive episodes.

What marathon training taught me about battling depression:

Nothing new on race day

Race day is not the time to try new things. No new shoes, socks, clothes, or foods. Your body is about to be put to the test. Let that be enough – do not add another challenge! Likewise, be kind on your body during depressive episodes. Your job is to simply survive that season. No need for big life changes. (Big hair changes? Sure. Get bangs if you want! You do you!)

Your coaches and fellow runners are your lifeline

Running a marathon is a solo sport, but the training doesn’t have to be. We ran in a group with people who were willing to keep the same pace, and we’d chat about our weeks and lives. Some Saturday mornings, you could just tell that a fellow runner was struggling physically or emotionally to complete the mileage. So we’d just run silently beside them, letting them know we were there. Nothing has helped me through my depression more than those friends who run beside me, ready to either listen or just silently let me know they’re there.

The training is the reward

I cherish my finish line picture, face red from crying and exhaustion. But more than that I miss the months of training. Our coaches taught us how to honor our schedules, waking up at horrendous hours, as long as our bodies would allow. But when we were sick or injured, they taught us to listen to our bodies and take time to heal ourselves. When I’m depressed, getting out of bed at the first alarm (or at all) is a victory. The daily habits and routines become more and more comforting and important to my self-esteem.

Run your own race

At mile 22, I was in a world of hurt and more or less in a blackout rage. I was running as fast as I could when a runner nearby starting chatting with me, trying to encourage me. It took me a few minutes to realize she was smiling and walking at a normal pace next to me as I was “running.” It was all I could do not to compare my speed (or lack thereof) to hers. I had to remember that while we were participating in the same marathon, we were each running our own race.

It’s really &%#&ing hard

There’s really no way to sugarcoat it. Marathons are an out-of-body experience, while at the same time being very aware of the pain your body is in. Hands down the hardest thing I’ve physically accomplished. But truly, nothing compares to the accomplishment of battling half a lifetime of depressive episodes and staying around to fight another day.

My biggest fears during those taper weeks were, “What if I can’t finish this race? What if I start running and I just can’t do it anymore.”

My biggest fears during a depressive episode are the same.  “What if I can’t finish this race?” “What if I start running and I just can’t do it anymore?

That’s when I think back to the coaches and fellow runners who had been there before, sharing their own stories and letting us know we were strong enough to make it through the worst of it. We wouldn’t celebrate at the finish line in spite of the pain, but because of it. We’d run through our pain and fears and doubts, and we’d be victorious because of them.

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Thinkstock illustration by Purestock

Originally published: November 23, 2016
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