Oh, how I have loved to run. At a very young age, I fell in love with running, The grace, the freedom, the escape it provided. A pair of running shoes and a trail and I was all good. A day without running, while few and far between, and I was well — not me. Obsessive about it? Maybe. But I needed my running. Those around me knew it. No questions asked. I essentially couldn’t function properly without it. Maybe you have heard that story where I would run through the woods in Stevens Point pretending I was a horse? That was my time of discovery and of my experience with running at its very purest form. Those were my fondest running memories.
As time passed, my relationship with running changed. There came the realization that I was fast. With that came praise, rewards, and a source of self-worth. But also expectations & pressures I wasn’t ready for. Like just about anything, some good and some bad. But for some reason, I always tended to dwell on the bad. Silently. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t tell a soul.
I was one of those who tended to like training more than racing. I was plenty competitve, and sure as hell wanted to win all those races, but I was sometimes completely and silently overwhelmed by anxiety when I shouldn’t have been. I kept it all in and I lacked perspective. Some of it from the environment around me, but mostly self-imposed. I felt I had to be the provider of happiness and pride for some, my performance on the track essential to making that happen.
I experienced body shaming at a young age because I was made to feel my body did not live up to the standards of others for what a “runner’s body” should look like. Told my boobs were too big for a runner. I should have said, “fuck off” and moved on, but my brain has often not cooperated when it comes to doing what’s logical.
Responding to the appearance of successful runners around me, I had bouts with bulemia, primarily in high school and college. I wanted to be thin like them, but I liked food too much.
And later, I would experience the politics and corruption of the sport of track and field, whether it was via our governing body, a meet promoter or a shoe sponsor. I could go on forever about this, but all I can say is that the crap behind the scenes in professional track and field has the potential to wear you down mentally, especially when the brain is not entirely well in the first place.
I went through the mind fuck that is competing against others on an uneven playing field when it comes to PED’s. One competitor in particular who effected me greatly and took every chance she could to rub it in. Seemingly stealing championships without an ounce of shame or regret. It’s one thing to cheat, it’s another to do it with arrogance. All this wrecking havoc on my brain to the point where perspective was further compromised. The sport further tarnished in my mind.
When I silently vanished from the sport in 2005, not bothering with any press conference or announcement, I didn’t want anything to do with track and field. I was sickened by it, and overjoyed to be out. All the crap had ruined running for me. I had been hanging on for the happiness and expectations of others.
For a few years, I would dabble with my involvement in running at the grass roots level where things still felt pure, helping out where I could. But my experience with professional running had left me disenchanted. Always recalling the bad times, the pitfalls, the anxiety. Focusing on what I didn’t accomplish during my career as opposed to what I did. Focusing on all the bullshit.
But you know what happened? My world fell apart. Literally. I had difficulty with life in the real world after running. All my eggs had been placed in that one basket, and you know what? My world blew up with flying colors. First with some incredibly challenging years of suicidal depression, and then later some destructive coping mechanisms — well, you know that part of the story and we don’t need to get into it today.
What you do need to know is that through my difficult times and recovery, I was able to gain perspective and mental health. I realized the why’s and the how’s, and it took a weight off my shoulders. It’s freeing when you begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Realizing why you felt the way you felt, did the things you did. And I realized that while the sport of track and field is and will always be flawed, it’s still a beautiful sport. With perspective, I take the focus off of the flaws and place it on the many, many good people in the sport, the athleticism, the pure competiton and achievement. I enjoy watching friends of mine compete. I loved watching the Olympics (track & swimming) with my daughter. I don’t dwell on the other crap like I once did. I don’t blame it for my problems.
I choose to focus today on how the sport provided me with so much. It allowed me to meet so many fabulous people, and in many cases, brought some of my best friends into my life, including my very best friend. It allowed this smaller town girl to see the country, to see the world. To race against some of the very best in high school, then college, and finally, on the professional level. It allowed me to gain a free education, a bit of notoriety, a degree of influence, and a comfortable livelihood. Running has given me so much and today I am thankful for that. That’s my choice. To focus on the positive. Lose the bitterness.
In my recovery, I realized early on how much I missed running. Needed running. Running in it’s purest form. Running simply for the joy of it. For my mind. My doctors and I are totally convinced running at that intense elite level kept me mostly stable mentally for all those years until retirement. Kept things at bay. It was only once I retired from professional running and gave birth to my wonderful daughter that my mental health red flags began to really come to the fore. From then on, getting motivated to run or exercise became more difficult. Hell, getting out of bed became more difficult.
I realize now running also gave me the gift of toughness to fight when I needed to fight, and move forward when I needed to move forward in recovery. More specifically, all those countless painful training sessions, the running during those long Wisconsin winters, the dramatic triumphs and tribulations on the track. We runners are a rare breed who take on pain, who thrive on it. We need it to succeed in top level running. But looking back, I was accustomed to the pain. To the point where I liked the pain. I needed the pain. That relationship with the pain has made recovery easier for me, I have no doubt.
Today, I still run, but at 48, injuries and mileage have taken its toll, so my legs aren’t able to do what they once did. And I’m ok with that. I have no desire to compete. That being said, I have found my brain still craves the intensity of running I once gave it, but my broken down legs aren’t able to cooperate. So I have to supplement my running with other activities that are a little gentler, yet provide the needed intensity. Yoga, hiking, cycling. You may have noticed I have dove right in to them, and I do them full bore. These combined with running tend to do the job to keep me level for the most part. The motivation isn’t always there when I’m struggling, but if I can get myself out the door, I’m consistently better when I’m done. It’s all a big part of my individual recipe for mental health, and I’m grateful my love for them comes naturally.
I’ll always be thankful for my running. You might hear me gripe about the flaws of the sport of track and field here and there, as I now like to use my new found voice sometimes if anybody cares to listen. I feel that duty, and I do care about the sport. But running. Just plain running in it’s purest form. Running for the joy of it. The mental and physical health benefits it provides. The experiences and lifetime friendships it brings us. I’m eternally grateful for it and wish to pass on the positive message of the great sport of running wherever I go.
Thanks for listening as always, Suzy