A few months ago, I expected to spend this weekend running my second half-marathon. One of the first things I did after running my first was find the next date to aim for, and I was excited to spend my winter and early spring training for an improved race time. Instead, I’ve spent it in physical therapy. In November I noticed an increasing pain in my left hip after my runs, and then, the day after a rainy December 10K, I couldn’t lift my leg to go up a stair or tie my shoe.
Or, “holy shit, I finished the race.” By me, over at halfmarathons.net. Thanks to the lovely owner there for giving me a space to indulge in my post-race high.
Yesterday I ran my 136th mile this year, more than the 131 miles I ran in all of 2017. Then I spent a good chunk of a party talking to a marathon-running friend about energy gels, long runs, hydrating, and deep core exercises. I like this new identity.
Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.
— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
Of the many cruelties of depression, none is more insidious than its ability to take away all of your weapons against it. Almost by definition, depression is a self-feeding beast. It saps you of the energy, will, and desire to do the basic tasks to make you feel human: eating good food, getting good sleep, seeing good people, moving your body. Being out in the world.
I ran 130 miles this year. Broken down into numbers, it doesn’t look so big: only 57 runs in 365 days, my total workout hours adding up to just one turn of the Earth. But to me it feels huge, especially given that my first workout of the year looked like this:
While the traditional benefits of vigorous exercise — like prevention and treatment of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and osteoporosis — are well known and often reported, the most powerful benefit might be the lesson that my coach imparted to me: In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering.
Stulberg is focusing here—I think—on physical suffering, but the article resonated with a lot of what I’ve learned in dealing with emotional pain as well. Emotions avoided become amplified; emotions confronted fade away. “I try to feel and sit with the pain,” one cyclist told Stulberg. If she ever needs a second career, she could double as a cognitive-behavioral therapist: sitting with emotions you don’t like until you are used to them is one of its central tenants.
Most literature on clinical anxiety will tell you that fear does not become a disorder until you fail to heed FDR and become afraid of the fear itself. Panic attacks are extremely uncomfortable, and someone afflicted with them will (ahem) go to life-altering, sometimes absurd extents to avoid them. But if you learn to move into the feeling, and find yourself whole upon emerging to the other side, a strange thing happens: the fear itself fades away. Panic loses its power once you decide not to panic. It just takes some intentional controlled suffering, and maybe steal the mantra of Stulberg’s Olympic marathoner: “calm, calm, calm; relax, relax, relax.”