“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anaïs Nin
The first time I went for a run, I was 24 (1975). I had not intended to run, I was compelled. Walking my dog, Max, I discovered a sweet pocket park, not far from where I lived in Capital Hill (Denver) called Alamo Placito. One day, while walking around the park, I started to run. And I kept running. After I ran around the park 20 times, I stopped; fell on the grass, breathing heavily, staring at the clouds, I felt alive, awake. Max came over and licked my face. A heaviness I had unknowingly been carrying for years was lifted. I didn’t have running shoes or what would become expensive, proper running gear (sports bra, anyone?). I was blissfully unaware of looking cool. In those early days, the popularity of running was just beginning to take off. Frank Shorter, notwithstanding, the commercialization of the sport was in its infancy.
I eventually found other trails and paths close by. For my remaining time in Denver, my favorite trail was the Cherry Creek bike path, which I discovered when it was still partially dirt. I became stronger, liked how I felt in my body and loved the freedom of running. Gradually running became the medicine I needed to function. I didn’t know that my brain chemistry was being altered, that running released hormones (serotonin*, endorphins, dopamine) that flooded my brain, creating a euphoric high. I quickly became addicted.
* Serotonin – “runner’s high” – less anxiety and a diminished ability to feel pain.”
Running competitively never interested me. It was always about running solo – me and my thoughts. I worked out problems, had conversations with those whom I needed to talk with but couldn’t, wrote Haikus in my head, started stories, replayed broken relationships, tried to figure out where I was going in life, ran off stress. When my sister died in 1981, I fell into a dark hole of depression. I sobbed while running, tears streaming down my face, not caring what passers-by thought. Running lifted me and helped me find a way out. I processed the loss and grief with my feet pounding miles of pavement and dirt over the next few years. I would push myself until it hurt. And that felt good.
Over the years, I’ve kept running – more or less. I ran 5Ks and the Bolder Boulder 10K several times. My daughter and I ran a few 5 and 10Ks together. (She was/is more a natural runner than I ever was.) I fell in love with a beautiful, elite runner, who changed my life completely and forever. I never got tired of watching him run – he was a natural athlete, a gifted runner – gazelle-like, his feet seemingly never touching the ground. After many years of training at a high level, competitively, his body turned on him. His hamstrings were so injured he was unable to run. While in physical therapy, trying to heal, weeks without running turned into months. He would limp out to run and come back within half an hour defeated, depressed and in pain. After months of not running, the chemicals in his brain changed. Serotonin levels dropped, a genetic marker for depression was no longer controlled by endorphins, and he plummeted into darkness, and eventual psychosis. After almost a year to the injury date, he took his life, forever free of the pain that had taken over his mind and body.
I’ve read many articles about how healthy running is, how it changes brain chemistry, the “high”, the Zen of running, how running keeps you fit and sane. I’ve not read any cautionary articles about what can possibly happen to a runner’s brain, who has trained at a high level for many years, when the runner is forced to stop running, for whatever reason. My theory is that my boyfriend had a genetic marker for depression and mental illness (confirmed by his family) and because he ran and trained at a high level for many years, he was unknowingly self-medicating, keeping his depression at bay. Once he stopped running, the chemicals that were keeping him mentally healthy dropped precipitously and because they were not replaced (artificially) with SSRIs, a pathway was paved for the genetics of mental illness to take over. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but this is what I sense happened, in retrospect, over the course of that fateful year.
After I turned 60, my body changed. I’ve kept running but it’s harder because of weight gain, worn out parts and injury (plantar fasciitis, knee, joints). I’m 66 now and I’m learning to appreciate walking. But honestly, when I get out on the path, all my body wants to do is run. I use to see older (in their 60s-70s) runners out on the path jogging, with a hitch in their giddy-up and I’d think, “Good for them! That won’t be me!” Well, guess what? It is me. And just like those older runners, I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’m out and I’m moving. It ain’t pretty baby, but it’s all I’ve got.
I do miss running. I think the main reason I ran was to mitigate stress and depression. Getting outside and running in every season, in all types of weather, was good for my soul on so many levels. I can still get about half of that high walking and enjoying, albeit a bit more slowly, what is going on in nature, being in the moment and moving to the beat of my own drummer.