On running—and saving me from a black hole

June 17, 2019

Trail-running in gorgeous Vermont, June 2018.

On a freezing, bright and snowy morning in Ottawa on February 2018, a handful of other colleagues and I were scheduled for a run around the city, before our work-conference began at 9.30am sharp. Incidentally, I had injured my knee quite badly rock-climbing the night before, and thus knowing perfectly well that it was a terrible idea to still go out for that run. Still, I wrapped and taped my knee with bandages very tightly to minimise the potential damage —needless to say that didn’t help much— and ran. We did 15km in great and charming company, but I was doing my absolute best not to limp despite the excruciating pain.

The aftermath shouldn’t be a surprise: unable to run for 3 weeks, and pain for so many other weeks to follow. I could barely climb stairs—my kneecap was busted. While 3 weeks doesn’t sound like a whole lot, they were enough for me to fall and hide, once again, right behind a deep, almost crippling depression. 

By now, anyone sensible enough is thinking “but who would put themselves through this? It’s stupid to go for a run when you’re injured so this is your fault” — and rightly so. But, as it usually goes, there’s more behind just the face of the story.

As I hit the 7000km mark on the pavement soon, this is my letter to you and my future self connecting some very personal dots between running and mental health. I could have never predicted how running would have a direct correlation with my emotional well-being, or how it got me right out of a black hole in my early days.

I’ve started running very casually in my early 20’s, back in 2012. I had just gone through a very traumatic event, a deep experience of loss that I had very little clue on how to cope with. Looking back, I see that no one ever could. It also happened that at the time, I was very ashamed of my inadequacy to cope with it. Running along the beautiful canals of Aveiro was a guaranteed way to keep me from going home too early in the evenings. It was mostly a way to keep myself busy, mind you: the goal was so I wouldn’t spend as much time alone with my thoughts back then. In those days, I never gave mental health any consideration—though I felt depressed, deep denial was my jam.

And oh, how I hated running. At least during those initial 15 minutes, where our bodies behave like an annoyed little French Bulldog being dragged through the pavement forcefully by the leash. In those first 15 minutes, I was too aware of how broken my body was, how my heart rate felt messy, and all those voices looking for excuses to get my back inside the house. But there is a weird kind of nonsensical magic which happens after those initial minutes, where your arms and your legs find their own rhythm ever so organically, and your elevated heart rate feels like pure adrenaline. The moment when walking suddenly becomes defeat.

But my plan was backfiring: you see, running is a highly, deeply contemplative activity, and your thoughts will blaze past through your head unattended. An argument you had at work, the desire to see an old friend; groceries; what to make for dinner. And also, this little voice that’s letting you know how you really feel. Things you should have said, things you wish had worked out differently. People you suddenly lost forever.

My ridiculously tiny inner ears meant that no earbuds would fit nicely in my ears during a run, so I could never throw a podcast or some groovy tunes at this meditative problem. In silence, the only thing I could do to shut that annoying, true-self inner voice, was to run faster.

Have you ever tried to worry about a problem while sprinting? It’s not possible. Your body is too aware of the discomfort, busy gauging how long it can keep it up for, and there’s no space for any emotional ping-pong your brain feels like playing with you. 

Without any running goals whatsoever, I began to run longer and faster because that was the only way to shut off that faucet connecting my brain and my heart.

A few months later, I packed and moved to rainy London. My very first stop after landing, still carrying 2 suitcases with me, was at Sports Direct in Piccadilly Circus, simply to buy a new pair of running shoes. On my second day, I ran across South London until there was no battery left on my phone; completely lost, I took a cab back home. 

As the years passed, a lot has changed, maybe too much. I moved out of London into Berlin for a few years, and then out of Berlin to Montreal. A few month-stints living in Southeast Asia, a few mini-lives here and there, too. Friends changed, jobs changed, priorities shuffled. Still haunted by that loss, only in different (and mostly unexpected) ways, my only constant was the presence of running shoes wherever I went. Visiting friends, weekend getaways, vacations.

Physical devastation trumping the emotional.

At some point during the process, I found myself highly enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes with racing. The preparation, the nutrition, the mind game, all of it was addicting. Other people started to become a part of all this too; friends would run with me, or compete in friendly ways. Coaches. I never asked for people; running was my solo game, but they showed up anyway and never left. I’m grateful for that.

Running on the slippery Mont-Royal, December 2018.

Fast-forward a bit to mid-2018, where I ran my fastest half-marathon in Montreal. The ~1h30 time I’d been chasing for years was finally on my racing sheet… and I couldn’t have been more miserable about it. Why? What went wrong there?

You see, there were many times when my best, fastest training sessions were fuelled not by ambition, but by a deep and profound sense of sadness that I wanted to escape from.

Running really fast became, in a way, almost like self-medication. The positive side effect was that, well, I was running pretty fast. But every compliment I would get on a “race well done” felt… void. Like it was missing a very critical piece. “If only you knew what it took”, I always wanted to say, but always let out a polite “thank you” instead. This is that missing piece. 

Just like my photographic style reflects my mood, quite often so does my running pace. Human beings look for validation in all sorts of situations — romantically, socially, intellectually. Nothing makes us more human than this call for attention, this necessity to be soothed somehow to prove us that we’re doing well after all. In times of pain, my heart seeks validation from my body: it needs validation that it’s still capable. 

The promise of a run when you need it the most is as good as anticipating a daydreaming session; maybe on a hustling city, maybe into the wilderness, it hardly matters how and where. The only problem I foresee, one that I haven’t yet found a way to make peace with yet, is that eventually my 50 year-old self will be slower; get injured more often; maybe even stop running entirely due to a fragile body. And what could I now say to that 50 year-old self that would make that okay? Not even Murakami could be of help here.

That morning in Ottawa, I knew exactly what I was getting into. Rationally, it was obvious that 70 minutes of running wouldn’t be worth several weeks without the ability to feel free again. But it stopped being about the numbers a very long time ago, and that morning, I needed to run.

I needed, to run.

The hardest lesson I’ve learned was that it’s due to loss, and even just the fear of loss, that truly keeps us craving for love, for life, so deeply and intensely. From my own experience of loss, setting my legs in motion, despite extremely less than optimal circumstances, is the best way I know on how to move forwards. It’s luckily not the only way, but a damn good one. Running is setting that intention.

Those 3 weeks recovering from my knee injury, which by the way never really completely healed, felt emotionally debilitating above anything else. I could walk, but couldn’t feel even remotely grateful about my own legs. Glimpsing at what my sans-running life would look like, I had allowed guilt, blame, and an old feeling of loss to wash all over me again. No longer armed to a battle I didn’t even know how to fight anyway.

Murakami speaks beautifully about running. One of my favourite passages from “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” speaks volumes about the art of running:

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.” — Murakami

And so today, I’m grateful for my body, and all that it has given me. Heart and all.

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Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.