Running Through the Pain
Running Through the Pain: Five stories of runners who let running lead their journey
It just starts as an urge. A need to get out of your space, get out of your head. Just move your legs. It is minus 30⁰C outside but I don’t care. More layers. Hurry. Quick stretch then run. Running harder, lungs burning from the cold and after a little while from the effort of going as hard as I can. I push harder. Until I can’t go anymore. Then I stop, bending at the waist, sucking in the cold air hard, slowing my heart. And I try not to cry because I know the tears are going to my balaclava. I pull it together and proceed at a more reasonable pace. My heart aches with the pain of losing my beautiful sister-in-law at only 45 years old, but in this moment I am trying to focus on just moving my body through the snow than about how much I miss her and about how unfair life can be. And right now that is all I can manage, but it is enough.
I am in good company when it comes to using running to deal with emotional pain and depression. There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that regular physical activity can be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as medication. Physical activity is also often ‘prescribed’ along with medication in individuals with more severe forms of depression because of its effectiveness when used together.
Depression, illness, stress and grief cannot of course all be lumped into one category, though the emotions are often the same. We as runners know that running releases endorphins that lift our moods and can help us get through a variety of hard moments.
A group of kind runner friends were brave and open and shared with me their experiences with running and grief. I had originally planned to write a much more technical article, but I would rather let their experiences speak for themselves. My hope is that their stories show you that you aren’t alone, no matter what it is that you are going through. And that running is an amazing gift that can help us in a million ways. Months in, I’m continuing to put down the miles and process my own loss. Some days I am swept away by the beauty of spring and the joy of leaving a hard winter and sometimes I have to stop mid run because I am physically overwhelmed with loss. But there is always grace and gratitude, and another chance to let running transform who I am capable of being.
“My 17 year marriage suddenly ended in January of 2017. It was a complete and utter surprise to discover my husband had been cheating for years. I suddenly became a 100% custodial solo parent to five kids, as well as working outside the home. I suffered through a bout of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as well as trying to manage my grief, and be the parent my children needed…while working full time.
Running helped me keep my feet on the ground, and process my emotions away from the eyes of my children. My doctor also encouraged me to keep running, to help ward off the anxiety and depression that was creeping around the edges of my mental health. The routine of getting up, training, and going to work helped me keep moving. I can distinctly recall a 5am cold, wintery run: the stars were all out, it was a clear, dark morning. I didn’t remember any moments leading up to that point on my run, I couldn’t have told you how I even got there. I stopped, looking up at the constancy of the stars, and sobbed on the side of that road. Snot streaming down my face, heaving and crying. Those stars keep on shining, and watching. I decided at that moment that I needed a way to keep on shining, and by finding gratitude and beauty in all of runs, and my day to day life, I could survive this…Look for ways to thank the universe and feel blessed in the life you have. Health, grace, and hold your head up high. You don’t always have to be strong, it is ok to fall apart, and be vulnerable. But do it with kindness.”
“During my high school days, I competed in Track and Cross country running. My second child was born was Cystic Fibrosis and a congenital lung defect. The defect was diagnosed as three floppy bronchioles. The bronchioles would flop close with every cold, with wind, and every time he took in a quick breath of air. While he needed full time oxygen, and twenty -four hour daily care as a young infant, I was exhausted. I decided to hire a babysitter, because I wanted to go for a run. When I ran, I slept better at night. My son outgrew the floppy bronchiole condition, but had to be admitted for every cold and was in the intensive care for two weeks with a respiratory flu. With his many admission, I would go for what I call my mile run: my son’s name is Myles.
I never ran with another person or in a group setting, the therapy of running was to clear my head of any negative thoughts and to keep myself focused on how best to raise my son
The advice I would give someone coping is that without enough physical activity, your body cannot sleep. You are on “24 Hour Alert Duty”. Your body needs to produce its own melatonin, it needs to soak up vitamin D from the natural sun source, just go out and run for a mile. It made a big difference in my life. My son is presently 21 years old. It has been the most difficult job I have ever had. Breathing is so important. He is struggling to breath and requires a third double lung transplant. I keep walking and running as my therapy.
There is a long list of hospital admissions with lung exacerbation at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto where he received his first double lung transplant, the Toronto General Hospital where he received his second double lung transplant, and most recently an Ottawa General Hospital admission. Hopefully, he will receive someone’s good lungs. Keep running not only for your health, but someone else. There are a few people in this world that could really use a good set of lungs.”
In January, as I was ramping up my mileage in preparation for my first full marathons (both Manitoba and Fargo), I found a lump, which led to a biopsy. I ran 30K the next day, as felt strong, and running is how I tend to manage anxiety. Two days later, I was diagnosed with cancer. Through leaving work, a blur of appointments and scans, and needing to be being present for my two strong and scrappy kiddos, running continues to be my anchor as I prepare for surgery and treatment. When I run, I am myself, and who I want to be. No matter the speed or distance, and despite my diagnosis, I continue to be a runner.
Practically, I am grateful that I am still able to structure my days around my runs, however brief and slow they may be. When I run, I feel less fatigued and my appetite is increased. On a more existential level, running helps me be mindful, reminds me of my own strengths, and that I am able to persist through obstacles. I love our indoor track in Regina and ‘running around the lake’. Not glamourous, but offers a tangible reminder to me that I am part of a community of runners and am who I was before my diagnosis. When I need to dig into the grit that we all have, I think of my diagnosis in terms of a trail run—pit stop to pit stop, slogging through the difficult terrain with my head up. I plan to run right until my surgery—up to the doors of the OR, perhaps brandishing trekking poles.
Running continues to be my safe place and space, and evidence that I have control over my response to my diagnosis.
Trust yourself. Trust that training as a runner is not solely physical, but just as mental and spiritual. As well as a mother and a runner, I am a social worker who works with the Ranch Ehrlo Society, an incredible organization that works with children, youth, and families. I see the resilience of the human spirit every day at work—whether through youth or the staff who work with them. I mention this as we all have it—grit, spirit, guts. When we are thrust into a situation that we did not choose, we all have strengths that we discover.
I have a quote posted on a magnet on my fridge which I especially love at the moment, attributed to Christian Larson: “Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”
“I was training with a running group for the first time and my goal was to run a marathon. I loved what running gave me – fitness, socialization and I just felt so good when I ran! My eldest daughter was also a runner and during this time developed an eating disorder – as she became smaller she became faster – quite fast. She was doing very well in Track and Field with awards and scholarship offers but her weight continued to deteriorate and so did her happiness. She was wasting away and it was terrifying to watch. Through all of the frequent travel for medical appointments and counselling, and the daily emotional toll her illness impacted on our close knit family, I became overwhelmed with trying to do it all. I was training many kilometers per week, working full time and trying to care for all of my children as well as caring for a child with anorexia.
One day I told myself that I really should stop training – maybe it was too much? Instead, I fit it in in the early morning hours or at night and I knew that it was helping me cope with my daughter’s illness emotionally. I enjoyed running with my friends and I needed the solitude of the solo runs – it was something that I just had to do but I don’t think I really knew why at the time. I felt guilty as I was taking time that I perceived would be better spent caring for my family in crisis. What I did not realize at the time was how I needed to be cared for too and my running provided just that. So much of what we do as females often involves caring for others and we forget that we also need self-care.
It was during the marathon that I finally realized what running had given me. At the 27 kilometer mark I realized that I was going to finish the marathon! I felt great and proud of my hard work. Then, I became emotional as I realized what the marathon really meant to me. I knew at that very moment that if I could train and run a marathon, then I could cope much easier with what life would likely throw at me. I cried for a bit as I ran then smiled knowing that I had been given a gift.
This was over 10 years ago and my daughter gradually improved over several years and I am happy to say is doing very well now.
I still remember that moment in time at the 27 km mark and it gives me strength almost every day.
I still run.
“In 2014, I suffered miscarriages in May and late September/early October. They were both around the 8 week mark, and I was later diagnosed with a progesterone imbalance. Prior to the miscarriages, I had my son. That pregnancy, aside from being sick for 40 weeks, was uneventful. I ran while pregnant with him, and continued running each subsequent time I found out I was pregnant. By that point, running was part of my daily routine and was something I leaned into during that time because it helped me feel “normal”. I wasn’t very open about my first miscarriage, so I dealt with most of the feelings by myself. My body felt capable of running; at a time where I was frustrated with the things it seemed incapable of doing – growing a baby, even though it had already grown one before.
I live just outside of the city, so I would run by myself. The solitude helped in the sense that I kept my first miscarriage very private at the time (I am very open about both of them now). When I got pregnant again after my second miscarriage, at the 8 week mark I had a bit of a scare and thought I was losing that pregnancy as well. Things stabilized and my daughter was born in the later part of 2015.
During that time, I went on a trip to Boston and ran part of the Boston Marathon course. I had been a runner for about 9 or 10 years at that point, but had never run a marathon before. The trip planted the seed for my next running goal. After my daughter was born, I trained for a marathon while on maternity leave. I used training as a way to remind myself that I was strong and that I could do hard things. The miscarriages had left me feeling very broken, and served as the motivating force behind my desire to qualify for Boston. In May 2016 at the Ottawa Marathon, I finished with a Boston Qualifying time.