The Healing Power of Running Very Long Distances

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Anthony Aycock
7-9 minutes

Some of my strongest childhood memories involve running. This may not surprise those who know me as a guy who runs five kilometers each day, competes in marathons, and is hoping to make the leap into the ultra-running world this year. But if you knew me as a child beset by severe asthma, you may be wondering how I got here.

In 1983, as a six-year-old attending Deep Cove Elementary School in North Saanich, British Columbia, I participated in the school’s “Kilometre Club.” I received special permission from my teacher to run it in stages — my asthma prevented me from doing it all at once. But I distinctly remember being one of only three kids at school who completed the challenge and stood on stage to receive a certificate and ribbon.

The run was exhilarating. From a very young age I was considered fragile, an unathletic child due to my health issues — and in this instance I tapped into a special sort of determination, one borne of an early tetchiness over the stigma of being a non-athlete. Though my mother was nervous, I was single-mindedly determined to defy the limits of my health condition.

But then I dropped the thread. Several asthma attacks requiring hospitalization all but killed any prospects I may have had as a track and field standout, and it would be nearly two decades until I’d actually run for the joy of it. I all but accepted my destiny as a non-athlete and spent the next few decades living almost exclusively inside my brain, focusing on artistic and academic pursuits. My legs were relegated to a form of transportation that got me from class to class, from band practice to drama classes to friends’ houses to get high and watch movies.

My non-athletic self-image was further compounded by a car accident at age 17. I was left with a bad ankle fracture. While rehab was relatively straightforward, and the recovery time probably contributed to my excellent marks in Grade 12 (I wasn’t getting out much), it all but galvanized my new self-image: all-brain, no body. I was an egghead, and there was nothing to do but push forward with intellectual pursuits.

Ibriefly rekindled my love for running as a graduate student in my mid-twenties, but it never took off and I more or less abandoned the pursuit by my 30s. Then, at 37, something drove me to take it up again.

I think it was the panic attacks.

Anyone who’s suffered from panic attacks knows the feeling of not being able to breathe, of hyperventilating, of drowning on dry land. Everything goes kind of blurry. You’re gasping for air. I’ve never undergone waterboarding and hopefully never will, but it sounds like the worst panic attack imaginable. I first experienced panic attacks in junior high school, and they’ve reoccurred at various times throughout adulthood. They reached a fever pitch in 2014, when I found myself out of a job and mired in the worst depression of my life.

But even before the onset of anxiety in seventh grade, I knew what it was like to lose my breath. As an asthmatic child, I was well acquainted with the feeling. For some, asphyxiation is a fetish. For me it is pure, unsexy, unadulterated fear. Asthmatics have no safe word, and neither do those of us being crushed by debilitating anxiety.

Actually, there was a safe word of sorts. Run.

It started out with little two-kilometer jogs around the neighborhood. Whenever the black clouds came, usually by late morning, I knew it was time to run. At the worst of my 2014 depression and anxiety attacks, running seemed to be the only thing that would break the cloud cover. Marathons could not have been further from my mind. My objective was survival, from one day to the next. Doing what I needed to ensure basic human functionality.

It wasn’t until 2016 that I truly began to realize the healing power of running very long distances. I’d quit drinking, was struggling to stay sober, and had recently lost my job — and these forces seemed intent on dragging me back into the abyss of depression. I began to focus my running. Gradually, and without really intending to, I increased my distances. And then, on a random sunny spring weekday, I went for my usual run and just kept going. It was only after I’d gotten home that, out of curiosity, I calculated my distance on Google Maps. I’d just run a half-marathon.

It was then that I decided to register for the 2016 Edmonton Marathon — my first ever competitive road race. I knew I needed to accomplish something tangible that year. With my professional future feeling nebulous and uncertain, my own two legs seemed like the best things I had going for me at the time. Besides, I was 39 and felt a profound need to do something ambitious at the onset of my forties.

I finished the 2016 Edmonton Marathon in just a hair over four hours. I finished the 2017 race in just over three hours and 45 minutes. This year I’m hoping to crush that time, and I’m eyeing the ultra-running scene. I want to go further than a marathon. Given that I appear to get stronger by the year, I see no reason why I shouldn’t.

Of course, not everybody should take up long-distance running. Suffice it to say, everybody’s body is different and many of us are not well suited to this type of physical exercise. That said, I do think there’s an argument to be made for combatting mental illness with some form of physical exertion. The head is inseparable from the rest of the human body, and what’s good for the body is invariably good for the head.

In my experience, no medication even comes close to strenuous physical exercise when it comes to fostering psychological equanimity. Were I to stop taking my antidepressants tomorrow and keep running, I have no doubt there would be challenges, but I’m reasonably confident I would be fine. But keep me from running for more than two days and I’m a considerably crankier person, even with the benefit of drugs. Clearly, the most powerful medicine lives within me.

I also truly believe there’s power to be found in picking up a dropped thread from childhood. For me, it was an early love of running that lay dormant for decades. We’ve all let threads drop over the course of our lives. To recover one of them and just run with it as far as we can is a powerful act of compassion and self-love. In fact, I can think of no more powerful act of kindness toward oneself.

For me, that Kilometre Club certificate from 1983 served as a powerful reminder that if my six-year-old self could muster enough resolve to battle through asthma and run long distances, there was no reason my asthma-free 39-year-old self couldn’t do the same. I’m sure we all have something like that amid the piles of family mementos most of us have stashed away someplace. Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most overlooked corners of our lives.

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written by
Ben Freeland

Writer. Teacher. Distance runner. Historian in the wilderness. (www.benfreeland.ca)