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What Running a 5K Taught Me About Depression

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I started running five months ago mainly to help with my mental health. I have had depressive episodes for 21 years and have found running to be more of a mental challenge than I expected.

I always thought running was purely physical. Now that I am a runner, I see the hardest work as I pound the pavements is happening in my mind. With each run, I am running against the thoughts in my head.

Since I began, I have been aiming to run 5K. It is the “Holy Grail” for many newbie runners. Due to life setbacks and depression-related issues it has taken me longer to get there than I anticipated, but I finally have.

It was not easy and I went through a myriad of emotions throughout. It was not unlike having depression. I learned a lot about how I deal with depression from that run.

1. The beginning is scary

I began my run declaring that I would crack 5K this time. As soon as the words were said, I wanted to take them back. I had said them openly to my husband who was running with me. It felt like I could not change my mind because of the pressure from my inner critic.

I just wanted to do this run and feel good. Self-doubt dictated I would never be able to do it.

In life I just want to live it and make it good. Depression dictated I would never be able to have that.

I started the run and it was hard. I had already set myself up to fail in my head. Depression does that too. We aim for even the most routine of tasks, such as brushing our teeth, and the effort feels like too much.

2. Self-care is important

As I began to run, I decided I would take the pressure off. I told myself that today I may not complete 5K but that this did not mean I would fail. That is a hard lesson to learn for a previous perfectionist, but it is perfectionism that burns me out.

Taking away the pressure of a goal I must hit gave me peace. I wanted it to be the day I finally ran 5K, but I knew that just being able to get out and running was enough. The run became smoother once I gave myself permission to run and see where it took me.

3. Know when to “go it alone” or get help from others

I started running with my husband. I needed him alongside me due to anxiety issues. I applauded myself the first time I ran alone and how after that I was able to run solo. On this particular run, we decided to run together. I am glad we did.

It is true that there is a lot of strength to be gained in facing challenges alone. We should celebrate them, particularly when we are depressed. Equally there is no shame in asking others to walk, or run alongside you. This run was a time when I needed the support.

I needed someone who loves me alongside to keep me motivated. I needed someone to be my cheerleader and to guide me forwards at the moments when I wanted to quit. I needed to hear I was doing great and I could make it.

I have heard these words and received these actions from my husband both when I am depressed and on this run. I know I am blessed to have his support.

4. It’s a roller coaster of feelings and emotions

For me, that 5K run was a metaphor of a depressive episode.

I began feeling scared and unsure of my ability to cope. I moved on to gaining some strength and considering that I might just be able to make it through. I was coasting along and doing well until the thought bumps hit.

The negative thoughts would gain traction, spiraling from, “You will never do this,” to torturing me about bad choices I made when I was 15 years old, a depressive’s head is a playground for decades’ old recriminations.

Each negative thought took its toll. My running slowed and I wanted to stop. I looked around and thought that people were looking at me and finding me wanting.

Then the old fighter in me, the one I discovered in depression, came back. She shouted that I could and would keep running. I had made it through before and now was not the time to quit.

I am not judging anyone. I have come to a halt in depressive episodes too. I have taken to my bed for days and not seen a single person. I have even tried to end my life because I wanted a permanent end. I am glad that strength I never knew I had shone through to see me beyond a temporary blip.

5. The darkest times often come before the light

I have not been running at night before. On this particular run, we ran along the beach front at night and it felt alien. Along the front were brightly lit patches juxtaposed against darker areas.

In the light spaces I felt confident about putting my feet upon ground I could see. It was like better mental health days when I can see clearly, out of the depression haze and I negotiate the world more boldly.

In the darker patches, I slowed down and ran with trepidation. I did not like the feeling of not being able to see who was coming towards me or what potential hazards were on the ground to potentially trip me up. I was scared of falling. The feeling was akin to descending into depression.

With each depressive episode, I can see and feel it coming. Still, there is nothing I can do to stop the darkness from creeping in. I fear where it will take me because each episode is different. I fear the darker days to come.

On the darkest part of the beach, my husband took my arm and guided me to turn around and run back towards the light. Now there’s a metaphor for loving care and recovery for you.

6. Sometimes reinforcements are needed

The run was tough on the way back. I was tired not only physically but mentally. Battling the negative thoughts monster is exhausting. My husband could see that I was flailing. So he called in reinforcements.

He phoned my brother who was at the other end of the beach, asking him run in with us to the finish. Having loved ones on both sides of me helped me to get there.

When I am depressed and the loneliness kicks in, knowing I have others around me, even if I cannot not speak to them, is enough. The sense of presence keeps me going.

7. The end eventually comes int0 sight

Many runners will tell you that when you are near to the end, that is when you want to quit. Your mind plays games with you.

I have been through depression and started to recover only to find suicidal thoughts creeping in. I now understand that it is because my mind has come out of numbness and is feeling pain intensely. I have ridden this through with medical and personal support.

On this run, I made it through because of my husband and brother believing in me. More importantly, I told myself I could do it. I gave it everything I had left.

I fought against the instinct to quit and I think that tired me out more than my wobbly legs. But I did it.

8. There may be doubts when it’s over

When I come out of depression there is never a definitive moment where I feel that it is over. This is where finishing a run is different.

You can mark the end and the feel an immediate sense of achievement. However for a run where you hit a milestone like 5K you also have residual thoughts and feelings that creep in, especially for a depressed runner.

I felt elation. I was proud of myself and the praises of my husband and brother rang in my ears. I basked in the glow of glory for a while and then self-doubt crept in.

I told myself I should have run faster, been stronger and fitter. I assessed myself as lacking even in the face of such an achievement.

I challenged the thoughts. I have not come this far to see my wins made into losses.

I am a woman who has fought depression multiple times and won. I am not a quitter. I will not have each time I came out of depression belittled as nothing.

I will not have competing this 5K made to be nothing. It was and is so much more to me than that.

I deserve to celebrate this and I will because tomorrow the “Badness” may creep back in and I will need this in my treasured achievements memory box to draw upon. For now I will be content that mental illness lost this time and I won.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Unsplash photo via Hunter Johnson

Originally published: October 14, 2017
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