How Ultra Marathon Running Saved my Life:
It was 2014 and I was at a time in my life where there was so much change and chaos occurring. I had just moved back to Tennessee and had finished graduate school and was in between jobs. I also was amid a divorce after an almost ten-year relationship with someone I truly cared about and loved. For the first time in my adult life, I had no idea how I was going to survive.
My 3rd Marathon in Nashville, TN
I was depressed, anxious, and seriously unsure if I was going to be okay. I was living in my ex’s hometown without much support. I was left with debt from graduate school and debt from the marriage and divorce. I had not received a job offer and was temporarily working on a grant at a non-profit that was filled with ethical dilemmas, toxic leadership, and co-workers who were cold and unkind. I lost a ton of weight from the stress and crying was a daily occurrence.
I had ran my first marathon in the fall of 2013 and was slowly integrating running into my life as a way of coping with stress and this new found free time I had post graduate school. In this new place I was living, I had learned of a trail running group and decided to give it a try out of an attempt to feel less lonely and to distract myself from the sadness I was feeling. I started going to the runs and was inspired by how many of the members were ultra-marathon runners and they were so gritty, unfiltered, and seemed… Free.
The group let me know of an ultra-stage race that was going to be happening close to us and I decided to look up the website that night. They were having a drawing for a free entry, and I entered not thinking I would get in- with all the bad going on around me, I didn’t think luck would make an appearance in my life. I had a spring marathon coming up (my second marathon distance ever) so I used that to train for my first ultra.
Lessons were definitely learned-- training for a road marathon does not necessarily make you prepared for technical trails, elevation gain (for this race there were steep mountains that left me winded and bear crawling to get up the hills), or the amount of calories that are required to be running for more than 8 hours at a time! I didn’t pack enough food or drink enough that first race and became sick from the heat!
This race broke me down. I was not prepared at all, but I was determined to finish. The other runners around me would not let me quit and another woman offered to run with me since we kept ending up at the aid stations at the same time. Her kindness was something that I had never experienced in a road race or even road running group run. To sacrifice a possible faster finish time to make sure I was okay was so selfless. I knew at the moment, that I was finding my tribe and this community is where I was meant to be at that moment in my life.
My first 50K Finish at Norris Dam 50K
I finished my first ultra with scrapes, bruises, dehydrated, exhausted, so sore I could barely walk, and with toenails falling off. Despite feeling physically broken down, emotionally and internally I felt proud, determined, relieved, and like a huge weight and burden had been lifted from my soul. By refusing to quit and give up, I knew that I needed to do the hard things and that I could accomplish them if I worked hard enough and refused to give up. That willingness to fight translated to my daily life from that day on.
I started using trail running to empower myself to become independent, accomplish my other life/career goals, and to learn who I was as a person in a stage of change. I would run with others, but I also liked to run alone. Those early mornings, watching the sun rise on top of my favorite hill in Haw Ridge Park left me crying and elated at the same time. I was finding beauty despite the pain that I was feeling. I was able to process my darkest thoughts and let them go out there in the wilderness. I was leaving the negativity, fear, and anger behind the more I ran.
Even though the divorce and period of transition was the catalyst for this newfound passion, running also allowed me to process years of trauma that I had suppressed. Being alone with my thoughts finally gave me time to bring up years of memories that I had pushed down and ignored by constantly making myself busy (Hello, workaholism). Running was the thing that I could control in a world where so much happens that we can’t control. Running allowed me to take charge of my emotions and gave me the power to change the direction my future was heading.
Today, I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t start trail and ultra-running. As a social worker, I often see clients who have turned to self-harm or alcohol and drug dependency to cope with the things, that I too, have been through. I won’t lie, there were times in those early days that I questioned living and thought the world would be better off without me in it. I am thankful that I found a way to cope with those dark feelings that has given me so much power and inspiration in life.
Tired and exhausted after my first 100 mile finish in 2017
For the past 8 years now, trail and ultra-running has been my strongest coping skill in life. Everywhere I have lived I found that the best friends I have made have been in this community. Exploring new trails and doing the hard runs has allowed me to release so much energy that would otherwise become toxic. I work hard to never take it for granted, because I know one day it could be taken away via health deterioration and age. I also try to be that person, like the woman in my race, who can recognize the importance of kindness and giving encouragement to someone else. I hope that my story will someday be someone else’s survival guide.
If I could offer any advice to someone who is starting their running journey in a time of distress is to just keep going, even when it gets hard. The best lesson of all is to endure. Just focus on taking one more step at a time and don't look back, keep looking forward.