Photo courtesy of Melissa Ruse of SweetM Images
Running as therapy is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly an under-utilized method of healing. As someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, trail running has truly saved my life and enhanced it in ways I never could have imagined. Growing up I always felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I had grown accustomed to the feeling of not belonging and had zero confidence in myself. Anxiety became the norm, even around my friends and family members. After many years of personal anguish I had crumbled under the weight of myself and tried to take my own life at the tender age of twenty. Even after this I still refused to believe that I had a problem; I refused to admit that I had severe depression and quickly swept the incident under the rug. I continued to live my life in a state of personal oppression, going through the motions and putting on a happy face despite the fact that my spirit was dying a little more each day. Eventually an ex-boyfriend of mine suggested that I might have depression and recommended that I speak to someone about it. I was hurt and offended by this notion. Me, depressed? No. Depression was for people who couldn’t cope with life. Depression was for the weak, and I was NOT weak. I blew off his advice and returned to ignoring my inner turmoil. It wasn’t until four years later that I discovered running and it’s therapeutic values. It started as a way to exercise my two large dogs as well as myself as I had put on a few extra pounds over the years. As my mileage grew over time I began to experience that “runners high” that people spoke so highly of but before I knew it I had grown tired of running. I got bored with jogging the same loops around my neighborhood, I got shin splints and I no longer experienced that mental clarity that I once coveted. Hiking became my new refuge, but alas, I quickly grew tired of this as well until one day when I decided to pick up my pace and started running the flat parts of the trails. Once I confirmed that I had enough coordination to continue my newfound hobby, I began to tackle hills, gasping for air on my way up and flying on my way down, smiling from ear to ear the entire time. This was it, I was hooked. I felt alive for the first time in my life. I felt unstoppable. The ever changing nature of trail running is perfect for someone like me as it forces you to stay present and in the moment, which is a rare thing for a chronic overthinker. Trail running is the perfect metaphor for life – you struggle on the way up, you get tired, you get discouraged, you sometimes (or if you’re me, often) get lost, but as long as you keep pushing forward, no matter how slow, you get to the top of the mountain and embrace the view you worked so hard for. The beauty of nature is the ultimate reward, one that has to be worked for and one that not everyone gets to experience. John Muir once said, “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.
My hope in writing this article is to enlighten people who may be struggling with their mental health to the benefits of running and getting out into nature. Often times I have people tell me that they’re “too this” or “not enough of that” to pursue running but the truth is, anyone can do it. It’s simply putting one foot in front of the other at a quicker pace than walking. That’s it. There’s no need to overcomplicate it. Running is truly one of the most biologically natural things that we can do as it gives us an opportunity to take full advantage of our evolution to bipedalism. When we run in nature, we tap into our most primal instincts and unleash an often unknown level of euphoria that is hidden deep within us, yearning to be uncovered.
Trail running has become a monumental part of my life in the last two years especially, creating a myriad of experiences that have changed me for the better. The community alone makes this sport like none other. I have been fortunate in finding a tribe of like minded individuals in the Phoenix trail running organization, Aravaipa Running, where I have met some of my closest and most cherished friends, as well as a wonderful significant other who I get to share my love of running with. For me, the mental and physical benefits of running are only half of what makes it so therapeutic; the other half is the comradery that comes along with it. Jumping into a group that boasts 4,000+ runners, many of whom run 100 mile races, can be incredibly intimidating on the surface but once you are a part of it, you find that these are some of the most loving, accepting and open minded individual you will ever meet. Most recently I have been chosen to represent Dirtbag Runners as a 2018 ambassador, something I never would have expected to be selected for but am incredibly ecstatic to be a part of. I almost didn’t apply for this ambassadorship because as someone who struggles with low self esteem, I can often talk myself out of things I want with negative self talk. I was close to giving into my fears and negative thoughts that because I am not the fastest runner or an ultra runner (someone who runs distances higher than a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles) that I am not worthy of representing an organization like DBR but came across this quote, “There are people less qualified than you, doing the things you want to do, simply because they decide they believe in themselves. Period.” a week before applications were due and decided to go after it. Sure, I am not as well versed as other runners, there is no doubt about that, but that’s okay. My love of the sport and my enthusiasm for the trails shines bright and that is what matters the most. My wish for today is that just one person reading this draws some sort of inspiration for themselves and goes after something they thought was scary because often times I find that those are the most rewarding endeavors, truly.
I am launching a fun side project called Trail GangstAZ, a small business dedicated to all things trail running. Me and my two partners, Ruairi Moynihan and Miguel Moreno are making it our mission to bring people together and turn them on to trail running with silly videos, including our viral “That’s So Trail” rap parody music video that was featured on the Runner’s World website last year. Our latest video, “Running is my Therapy” is a little more serious as we share the hardships of life and how running has gotten us through the hardest of times, including the loss of friends and family members. Check out our YouTube channel and website for upcoming videos and merchandise like the Running is my Therapy tank top worn in my photo above!