Running and depression: A symbiotic relationship that can help ease the pain

As I’ve documented several times in the past, I suffer from the disease of depression. Unfortunately, the disease itself can be incredibly stigmatic in our society. However, I do feel that many more folks, who also suffer from the disease, are beginning to bring the subject into the light. Most recently, I came across NBA Basketball star Kevin Love’s honest and candid admission to his own personal struggles with mental health (Kevin Love on mental health).  Because of my pre-disposition to being an athletic enthusiast, it’s these stories that particularly catch my eye. For myself, running has been an integral part of my own coping methodology.

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Cruising down from Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, CO, during last years RunMindful camp hosted by Krista and Timothy Olson

Done in a responsible and sustainable way, running can be a terrific mechanism for getting through the dark times of a depressive episode. I especially find solace and comfort while running on the trails. The feeling of running step by step through a tranquil and lush forest can become meditative in nature, a state of mind that can be influential in keeping the dark thoughts at relative bay. One thing in particular that I took away from Timothy Olson’s RunMindful (Run Mindful Camps) camp last summer was the notion of focusing on one step at a time and tuning into the patter of your shoe on the soft ground. Akin to the simple act of breathing, a singular running step can bring the mind to a present state, a state that depression doesn’t necessarily like to thrive in, for me anyways.

Along with being featured in the riveting Netflix documentary, Finding Traction, fellow ultra-runner Nikki Kimball is also outspoken on her relationship with depression and how the sport of running has helped her cope. A recent March 2018 article gives great insight into how her running, amongst other things, can help with her own coping process (Nikki Kimball – Tips on navigating through depression). Check it out, there are several good nuggets of wisdom coming from someone who has a breadth of experience in the matter of depression.

So, why does running help curb depressive symptoms?  Several recent studies have shown that it’s not just the endorphins that help.  An emerging view suggests that running can actually facilitate long-term structural changes in the brain, which can promote states of mind such as elevated mood and overall cognition.  Is this a cure?  Of course not, but I’d take it when I’m feeling particularly down.  It seems to me that running can be a healthy antidote.

Perhaps my favorite method of temporary relief from the “gray,” as I call it, is running down a mountain. When I was living in Corvallis I used either McCullough Peak or Forest Peak to help center my mind. Descending on a tricky trail is the perfect way to become present and one with nature and one’s self. When descending at a quick pace there is no time to let the mind wander because pure focus and finesse are needed in every single step, especially on a rocky or rooted terrain. Otherwise, as I’ve done many times, a full-on face first spread-eagle can be likely. It’s like an intense dance of the feet between the terrain. Done at a high velocity, laser focus is needed, simply for safety. Being on the edge does not give you time to think about how effective depression can be on your mind and body. Running downhill is the perfect way for me to get present and out of my head.

During a month-long bought of depression that I experienced last fall it was running that helped save me in the short term. Even though I spent each day of that bout either in bed or on the trail, I believe I was able to manage the pain that I was feeling inside because of my passion for running. The routine that the sport lends itself during that time gave me the motivation to work around something, anything, during the day, rather than obsess about how lonely and broken I was (negative self-talk is something that I work on every day, whether I’m in a bought or not). At that point in my life I would do anything to keep running, which meant preparation by way of sleep, stretching, foam-rolling, and nutrition. That small routine helped navigate me each and every day through a very tough situation.

One mistake that I’ve made in the past is to solely rely on running. In my case, I suffered several injuries while training, which almost made the depression worse because of my inability to do what I love and rely on most. Today, I am able to approach this challenge with a better sense of balance, as I now incorporate writing into the mix of my coping strategies. Sometimes, just writing free-form helps get my mind out of a hole. Perhaps it’s the creativity that can jog my mind out of a dark place. It’s a new coping mechanism for depression and is also one that can be very effective in a time of great need.

Lastly, when I’m in a depressive state, lots of activity and noise can help irritate my senses even more. On the trail, other than the occasional passer-by, there is total peace and tranquility. The McDonald-Dunn forest in the Willamette Valley is a perfect example of a place that I was successful in implementing such protective methodology and was more than quiet. If you listened closely all you would hear was an occasional animal scurrying amongst the brush along with the trees swaying in the wind. Having this sense of quiet is amongst the best method of therapy that I could ever imagine.

So, the next time you are feeling the gray hit you, just try running or hiking on a quiet trail. It has done wonders for me and I hope that it can do the same for you.

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Alcoholism and addiction: How do you know you’ve hit bottom?

Early on in sobriety, after going public with my struggles, I had several friends and acquaintances approach me to admit that they too thought that they may have a problem with alcoholism and addiction.  After they chronicled for me their stories of their own individual struggles, my reaction was to ask:  Where do you think your bottom is?

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This Crown Royal bag carried the last fifth of whiskey that I purchased more than four years ago.  Today, as a memento, I carry it with me as my Garmin/Heart Rate monitor bag.  It’s a constant reminder for me to respect the progress I’ve made since getting sober.

Many alcoholic/addicts have to reach their personal bottoms on their own.  Before I made the decision to get sober no one could have told me that I had a problem with drinking.  Even though I hid most of my addictive tendencies from family or friends, if someone had the instinct to call me out on drinking too much I, and my ego, would have simply said to “fuck off.”  I wouldn’t have been ready to hear it.

Today I see many people still flirting with the edge of making the “big mistake.”  By mistake I mean a range of things including a DUI, an overdose, killing someone else, or flat-out killing themselves.  Miraculously I was able to avoid these types of repercussions, which still doesn’t make sense considering how often I’d drink and drive or stay up for days on a cocaine binge.  My bottom, relative to other people’s bottoms, was pretty PG.  I simply locked myself into my apartment and drank Crown Royal and IPA’s for three straight days.  Luckily, it wasn’t worse, because it very well could have been.

My intention in asking others where they think their bottom might be is only out of love and care. Even though it’s largely out of my control I just hate to see bad things happen to good people, especially when they are struggling.  Perhaps the question is just a way to help my acquaintances understand the severity of alcoholism and addiction if it goes unchecked. In my four-plus years of sobriety I have heard countless stories about how people wish their bottom had come sooner, before the shit really hit the fan.  And for the folks I know who have 20-30+ (and beyond) years of sobriety?  They’ve got entire novels of these types of stories.  The “bottom” story is not unique, it may just look a little different from person to person.

So, what happened after my bottom came?  I was pretty confident that when I hit mine I immediately knew that I needed to seek help from others in recovery and beyond, I just couldn’t handle it on my own, even though my ego was telling me otherwise.  Do I think that was indeed my final bottom?  I don’t know, I’d like to think so, but the disease of alcoholism and addiction can come back to haunt you in an instant if you’re not careful.  The important part for me early on was that I had a very solid team behind me in Corvallis who could help me stay accountable.  Now that I’m back in Bend after a seven-year hiatus, I am simply adding to my accountability team.  Surprisingly, it turns out,  I actually have quite a few sober friends in Central Oregon.

The other bottom that exists, above and beyond drinking and drugs, is the emotional bottom.  This one is a little trickier to reconcile with, and many times, as it did for me, the emotional bottom coincides with the physical bottom.  When I quit drinking I realized that, developmentally as a person, I was sent back in time to when I was 18, right around the time I started drinking on a regular basis, to restart my own learning process to find out who I really was. In early sobriety, my friends who weren’t in recovery had a hard time understanding this idea, which is totally normal.  Because I spent so many years masking my fears, insecurities, and resentments with drugs and alcohol, when I got sober I was faced with the stark truth that I needed to revisit pieces of my own development that just didn’t happen because I was distracted in my addiction.

So, how DO you know if you’ve hit a bottom?  All I can speak to is from my own experience, as well as stories from other people in recovery. There’s really no way to predict it. For me, it was a gut feeling, knowing that I just couldn’t live in a completely unmanageable state for any longer.  For others, hitting bottom could be standing in front of a judge, going to jail, a DUI, or, heaven forbid, severely endangering another persons life.  Maybe the real question worth asking is:  Is it really worth it to even get to the point of realizing your bottom?  Maybe it is, but maybe not.  Everyone has their own individual path that they must take to figure this out.  I’d just hate to see someone reach their bottom after it’s too late.

 

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The Power of Mentors, Part 3: Ed Hamel

In 1991, cross-country skiing became my new athletic passion, eclipsing baseball.  When I began skiing I still played a little on the diamond, but the majority of my athletic focus switched to being on snow when I met a guy named Ed Hamel.

In the 1990’s cross-country skiing was in its heyday in Western Massachusetts.  The Bill Koch Youth Ski League, which operated out of Hickory Hill Ski Touring Center at the time, was just a few miles up the road from my home in Worthington.  Bill Koch was famous for being the first Olympic medalist in cross-country skiing, which is why the league was named after him (he now shares that distinction with Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall after they won the gold medal in the team sprint in Pyeongchang earlier this year).  After Matt Whitcomb, Matt Molyneux, and I formed our brotherly bond, they both convinced me, along with the help of one of my classmates, Jason Lemieux, to join the BKYSL group that met at Hickory Hill on Saturday afternoons.   The group I joined, donned the “fast group,” happened to be coached by Ed.  Little did I know how much of an impact our training group would have on me for decades to come.

Ed had a pretty straight forward and simple approach to coaching.  Work hard, have fun always, and keep an open mind when it comes to adventure.  He was also extremely impressionable to me because of his unrelenting care for the skiers he coached.  I felt as if I was an extension of his family, always keeping an open ear to any advice he might drop on the group.  Within just a couple of years of being a part of his training crew Ed became my first mentor.

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Ed coaching Jason Lemieux and I at the New England Junior 2 Championships in 1995 at Holderness Academy

Hard work, as it relates to athletics, was not a virtue that I was born with.  Before I started skiing I had no endurance engine to speak of.  As the work with Ed started to accumulate I began to come into my own amongst my peers.  Matt, Matt, and Jason were the fastest guys in our group, all of whom I deeply admired. However, within five years of training with Ed, I became ranked in the top ten in my age group in New England, a far cry from when I picked up my first pair of Fischer RCS skate skis in 1991.  The adventure, fun, and success I enjoyed during those years launched a love for endurance sports that, to this day, continues to persist.

One workout in particular that Ed put on, which set the bar for working hard, was his weekly Bust-Butt Wednesday sessions.  Never before these workouts did I understand what going hard meant.  Today, as I train with my coach Michael Larsen, I harken back to the days when I first puked going hard in a workout (Mike has a way of encouraging and pushing me to the point of total exhaustion on occasion).  It was also routine to fall down gasping for air after a hard interval set with Ed, seeing my heart rate skyrocket into the 190’s.  These workouts also taught me what it meant to pace myself, something that I continue to work on to this day, not just in sport, but in life.

I always felt Ed believed in me.  Being so green to the endurance world, with his guidance I was able to establish a new lifestyle.  In Peggy Shinn’s new book, World Class (Peggy Shinn’s World Class on Amazon), while describing the U.S. Ski Team World Cup Coach Matt Whitcomb’s development as a leader, she talks about an adventure that our group had after a BKYSL festival in Jackson, NH.  Ed led us on an expedition up the chairlift at Wildcat Mountain, only to plunge ourselves through endless trees and powder for what seemingly felt like hours.  Somehow, by my recollection, we ended back at our hotel in Jackson largely unscathed, except for a few broken skis and poles.  The adventure in and of itself marked a distinct change for my idea of venturing beyond the bounds of comfort to seek the treasure that was the unknown.

It’s safe to say that if I hadn’t been influenced so much by Ed in my early teens my life  today would look very different.  When I think about sobriety, it is, in a sense, an adventure that requires very hard work and persistence day in and day out.  It was Ed’s infectious sense of adventure that provoked Matt, Matt, and I to go on our own yearly great adventures, which ultimately led me to have the courage to get in a car in 1998 with my best friend to drive all of the way across the country, to a place I had never been, the little old mill town called Bend, OR, to set up a new life on the West Coast.  This sense of adventure has led me to experience so many countless memories, make friends abound, and thrive in a healthy lifestyle.

As I pursue my own athletic endeavors, some 25+ years after being introduced to the world of endurance sports, I often think back and give credit to the man who helped start this whole crazy lifestyle for me.  As an athlete, I continue to work my ass off to be the best that I can be, with the hopes of fulfilling a childhood dream.  Ed helped guide me early on to this point that I sit today.  I have an absolute love affair with endurance sports, which has led me to experience things that I would have never dreamed possible when I got on nordic skis for first time way back when.  Apart from my work ethic in sport, the skill of working hard, that I learned under Ed’s tutelage, has also carried me for years in business, sobriety, writing, and life.  I will be forever thankful for our relationship as mentor-coach / athlete.  Quite literally, Ed, with his relentless enthusiasm and charm, helped steer me to appreciate virtues that, as a kid, I never thought possible.  I’m honored to say that Ed was such a big influence on me.

Thank you Ed, for who you are and everything that you do and stand for.

Also, be sure to check out:

The Power of Mentors:  Michael Larsen – The Power of Mentors, Part 1: Michael Larsen

The Power of Mentors:  Davis Smith – The Power of Mentors, Part 2: Davis Smith

To purchase a copy of my memoir, Appetite for Addiction, please visit:  Appetite for Addiction on Amazon

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The “I Should” Game

Have you ever begun a sentence with “I should…”?  Yeah, I know, I’ve done it too.

“Should” is a funny word.  Here are some recent examples of how I’ve used the word over the last several of years and where the “should” thinking landed me.

– In reference to drinking: “I should be able to handle just one cocktail.”  Right.  Time and time again I would flirt with this “should” and ultimately end up drunk.  It’s no secret that, with time, this experiment ended with a complete emotional breakdown and the decision that I just couldn’t handle alcohol any longer without massive repercussion.  By figuring out this simple equation  I am, indeed, grateful.    

– In reference to ultra-running/racing: “I should be training as much as Bob did when in 2014 he won Pine to Palm 100.  So, if I train like Bob, I should be able to do well at Pine to Palm in 2017.”  I followed this “should” thread, trained well above my means at the time, got obsessed with STRAVA data, and ultimately experienced a severe bout of over-training and burnout, almost compromising my love for a ridiculously fun sport.  

– In reference to “living the dream”:  “I should get married, buy a house, and work seventy hour work weeks, so I can make a ton of money and get my piece of the American dream.”  Really, is this the American dream?  Who is saying that if I were to achieve all of these things then I would be living the dream?  Well, because I relentlessly chased this “should” thread at whatever the cost, I ended up with a dysfunctional relationship, a house that I couldn’t afford, cars that I couldn’t afford, and a lifestyle that ultimately led to me losing everything financially, physically, and mentally.

– In reference to body weight: “After reading Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Racing Weight, given my height I should be below 150lbs.”  This experiment went to hell, as, after several months of obsessing about food and my weight I ultimately got down to 149lbs (I’m close to 6’2″).  At first I took pride in being this light, until, I started to look emaciated and my body started to break down with injuries.  No disrespect to Matt’s book as I know it has helped many folks.  For me, at the time I read it, I was firmly steeped in transferring my addictions, so it didn’t really help me.  

– On being 38 without a steady paycheck: “I should be making $X because all of my friends are making lots of money, contributing to their 401k’s, buying houses, investing in the stock market, etc.”  When I get into this mindset I quickly lose the momentum that I am riding in pursuing my own individual passions. In reality, my current pursuits require long-term processes.  If I put my heart into every fabric of my pursuits the universe might just happen to conspire to make my dreams become a reality. 

So, who is telling me that I should be doing all of these things.  Is someone else putting these ideas into my head?  Are Facebook and Instagram making me compare myself to others which provoke the should mentality? Is someone else creating expectations for me to meet?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Ultimately, I have the power to control my own reality.  So, why would I continue to let someone else dictate how I should feel?  The answer is, I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

I wonder how many people have made life-altering decisions based on a simple “I should” thread that started out innocently and grew into a monster.  When I was so focused on living the dream and making money, which I based on someone else’s definition of living the dream, I became hell-bent on turning that “should” into a reality.  I ended up sacrificing everything to say that I got my piece of the dream, just so I could match up to some of my friends who had already achieved that notion. 

Currently, I am in a prime place to play the “should” game once again.  Luckily, I have fought against the temptation.   With the release of Appetite of Addiction I could very well have started comparing myself to other authors.  One of the ultimate benchmarks for success in self-publishing is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.  In a previous world I would have dared to compare myself to the immense success that E.L.’s book has experienced.  Today it’s just not even a conversation I need to have with myself because it really doesn’t matter.  My mission in writing AFA wasn’t to sell millions of copies.  It was to write a book that people, who are experiencing their own struggles, can relate with and know, that whatever the demon, they are not alone.  

So, what are the drivers that help me fall into the “should” mindset?: 

One – Lack of self-confidence.   

Two – Ego. 

Three – Lack of mindfulness and appreciation of where I’m at, right here, right now.  

I’ve especially noticed the effect of mindfulness piece lately.  It seems that when I have a consistent practice of meditation the urge to play the “should” game dissipates.  In fact, there’s a very clear shift in my mentality when mindfulness sinks in.  Curiously, I focus less on the past as well as the future.  In reality, I have no idea where this new life of mine is going to take me.  So why bother stressing about what could or could not happen based on very little factual information.

I know I’m in a good place with the “should” game when I hear others say the word and I immediately cue in to if I am also in the “should” mindset.  

I’m curious, how have you been affected by playing the should game?  Have you followed a thread of “shoulds” that led to something more immense than you could have possibly imagined? 

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