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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

running - for my life.

I ran my first marathon at the age of thirty-three.  
It was honestly one of the most challenging and enriching experiences of my life.  The long hours of training on frigid winter Saturday mornings.  The amazing barrage of emotions and physical highs and lows your body goes through during the race.   

I laughed, I cried, I nearly danced at different points during those twenty-six miles.   

After running the marathon last May I decided I needed a break from running.  I’ve pushed my body pretty hard and it needs rest from running, I thought.  This is probably a normal response for a runner after completing such a huge run for the first time.

So I stopped running.  I kept working out, almost every day, but shifted my focus to group fitness classes and the elliptical.  Runs became few and far between.  

During this hiatus I easily lost the five pounds I gained during marathon training...you know, from eating everything in sight.  (Marathon training makes you very, very hungry - and makes you believe you deserve to eat anything you want!) I did a clean eating cleanse and kept up my healthy habits.  

Yet, despite losing those pounds, eating much more healthfully, and continuing to work out regularly...I became significantly depressed.

I’ve suffered chronic depression, on and off, my entire life.  I have accepted that it is a part of my unique psyche and something I can control, to a certain degree.  There are many things about my depression that I am actually thankful for.  However, that self-realization has taken many years, and is always a work-in-progress.  

When I was in my early teen years I had definitely hit a low point.  I had very low self-worth at that time in my life, and wasn't coping really well.  I know the teen years are angsty and hard for everyone to some degree, but this was definitely to an unhealthy level.

Then, out of nowhere, at age sixteen I discovered running! Up to that point I was a non-athlete.  Team sports involving balls and coordination made me anxious and I was pretty terrible at all the ones I attempted.  So besides the long walks I took everyday around our woods, musing over life and daydreaming about the future,  I didn’t get much exercise.  I never thought of joining track since I'd never excelled at track and field in elementary school, and my small high school did not have a cross-country team at that point.

Running was just not on my radar.  I'd barely gotten through the mile we were required to run in ninth grade gym class.  (Gym class...shudder.) 

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Then, the summer before my Senior year of high school, I decided that while I might never be an "athlete," at least I could look like one.  So I started changing those walks around our property into runs.  I would run my heart out.  No one was there to watch so I pushed it hard and when I became too tired to run, I walked until I had energy to run again.   Or I would throw off my t-shirt, lay it on the grass and do crunches in my sports bra -- then I would sprint some more. It felt awesome.

I immediately saw the changes in my body.  That was not surprising.  I went from very average to lean and muscular pretty quickly.  

But much more satisfying than the ab muscles that formed or the newfound physical strength I felt...was the mental change I underwent.  I finally had a positive outlet for negative mental energy.   I ran out my aggression and angst to a large degree.  I discovered something that gave me self-esteem and a sense of identity.  I was a runner!  

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God definitely showed me running.  He led me to it.  Out of love - to save my life.

So, recently, after years of consistent running,  I made a mistake : I stopped running.

I had forgotten how important this simple ritual of running was to my mind - to my entire life. 

And that absence took its toll.  

I thought my depression was worsening just because I didn’t have a big goal anymore.  Or maybe it was the age range that my two toddlers had reached -- both loud and kinda challenging in temperament.  Or perhaps I just wasn’t reaching my potential as a mother/woman?  Self-doubt started taking over my thoughts.  I contemplated the idea that I should start working again outside the home, or develop a side gig, as many of my mom friends had done recently.  

It was like I was fifteen again.  Who was I?  

Although I was functioning, I was not functioning the way I knew I should be.  I’m feisty in general, an analyzer and definitely an over-thinker...but suddenly I could not shake the negative feeling that I was spiraling downward in the dissatisfaction with myself.  My former delight in motherhood was waning, I felt constantly tired, and often hopeless.  I prayed night and day.  I called out to God.  I felt Him near me, but quiet.  I felt Satan attacking me with negative thoughts and whispers (sometimes shouts) of "You're not doing enough, Greta!" 

I even saw a psychiatrist for the first time ever.  I tried medication...and then something deep inside told me that wasn’t the answer for me.

One evening my husband and I were out at a restaurant having dinner with his boss, a co-worker and their wives.  I found myself chatting with the wife next to me.  She is a mother of four grown children, so I asked her how she got through those years, mentally, with so many little ones. I mean, I thought it was difficult with only two!

“It was hard.  My doctor told me either I needed to start running or I needed to go on anti-depressants.  So I started training for a marathon!”  She laughed casually at the memory, but her comment struck me.

In my head I was thinking - wow.  I know running isn’t the answer for every person suffering from depression, but her statement reverberated through my soul.  Running. Obviously.  I haven’t been running.  Why did I stop running?

Suddenly it was pretty clear.

I don’t just need to work out.  I need to run.  For my happiness.  

For my life. 

I recently began training again - this time for a half marathon in May.  As the mileage has crept up to five and six mile runs, my the cloud of depression has quickly faded.  Other things have helped as well -- reading God's word in the morning before checking any social media, seeing a therapist regularly to vent to and get new insights from, turning away from negative relationships and focusing on positive ones, joining (or starting) groups involving things I am passionate about...

...it's all a process, of course.  

But, for me, running has to be part of that process.

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As you look back on your life -- what have been your "lifesavers"?