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How Running Used to Be My Escape, but It’s Now My Therapy

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

For eating disorders, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Running and I have a complicated history. It started when I was struggling with anorexia nervosa, where I did everything from tracking every calorie I took in, to watching my step count and calorie deficit each day. I was consumed with my body image and weight; I would work out on the elliptical in my dorm room at 5 a.m. in the morning, walk the extra-long way to class to get my steps in, then run around campus in the afternoon. When I got tired of the elliptical, I started running on the treadmill in the morning and then continuing my afternoon runs. At some point, running became my way of eliminating the few calories that I had taken in.

Running was my vice. It was my drug. I did it as an escape from reality, from a time when I could not think about how school was going, how my part-time job was stressing me out, and how my mental illness was affecting my daily functioning. Over the course of four years in college, running became the way I let out all my frustrations and anxieties. It was by no means healthy, but it was my way of escaping the world and entering my own little fantasy.

The fall that I started graduate school is when running and I started to change our relationship. A dear friend and mentor asked what I did for fun. I told her that I ran to help ease my stressors and anxieties. I wasn’t completely honest about how running was my escape from the world, though, and with the little knowledge she had, she suggested I use running as a time to not escape rather clear my mind and gain more clarity into my emotions. She suggested I start running with my rescue pup too. When things were going well and I was managing my daily life, I found running to be not an escape anymore but a time to think and clear my mind. It was a time I reflected on therapy sessions, where I planned out my day, and where I thought about what to write and my next homework assignment. When things went south with my mental health, I would shy away from running. I barely had the energy to muster to get out of bed and walk my dog, let alone think about running.

After my second hospital stay following the third or fourth suicide attempt I had, my friend suggested I try running with a purpose. I didn’t understand initially. She asked if I had ever thought about running distance, about participating in a race. I hadn’t but I began to look for programs around me. I stumbled across Team in Training and the opportunity to participate in the Soldier Field 10 miler on Memorial Day weekend 2015. I signed up. I started fundraising. I started sharing my mental illness journey and how running would be a way for me to heal and channel my self-destructive ways into something more productive.

photo of the contributor running across the Golden Gate Bridge during the San Francisco marathon in 2018, smiling and waving fo the camera

Running in the San Francisco Marathon, 2018.

Little did I know, I ended up in residential treatment two months before the race, putting a halt to all my running and training. When I was discharged, I had three weekends to get up to race distance — 10 miles. After running two miles one weekend, then three the next, and finally four the weekend before the race, I set foot on the starting line. With my friend waiting for me at mile 7, I set out on the course. I didn’t believe in myself initially and yet I knew that I had to make it to the finish line. With my friend by my side, I finished my first-ever distance race.

As my health declined, I was able to turn to running for comfort and solace. Running became my best friend in times of need. Running used to be my escape from my reality and now is my therapy, my way of sorting out the convoluted thoughts in my head. I run with invisible disability and have learned to take precautions while I run. I cannot run faster than a 10:30 minute-per-mile pace, for example. I can run faster, as I have proven to myself, but time and time again, when I push my pace beyond 10 minutes per mile, for more than 6 or 7 miles, I end up with no feeling in my legs and passing out. My body just can’t keep up at a faster pace. I run with a 2-liter water pack and energy chews to keep me fueled and hydrated. I also run with a phone tracker app with GPS function so my friends and safety net can know if I’ve stopped running and call for help if necessary.

I learned running isn’t about the time it takes me to finish 26.2 miles. It is about pushing my body to its limits and showing the world that nothing can stop me. I had signed up for three marathons before even running my first one, as I was determined to prove to myself, more than anybody else, that I am strong and I am capable. I run with Achilles International and they provide me a guide when I run, who helps manage my pace and provides me with physical supports when my body is about to give out. I run for all the times that I thought I couldn’t, that I was about to give up on my life, for all the times that I should have failed — expected to fail — and somehow pulled through.

I run for all the times the little girl in me was told she couldn’t. I run for all the times I was called selfish. I run for all the times I was told I am a failure and will never succeed. Most importantly, I run because I am better for it, after a run, when I can think clearly and process my emotions in a healthier way. I run for the sake of running, not as an escape anymore. And, of course, I run for the medal.

Image via contributor

Originally published: February 26, 2021
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