The Space Between

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by Mikel Haggadone, a runner and PhD candidate in immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Learn more about Mikel on his website. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Submit your work for consideration!]

Life is wondrously beautiful. It is beautiful in complexity and contradiction: the coexistence of joy and pain, love and indifference, fullness and emptiness. The separation between these states of being is notable in that it tunes the perception of our lived experiences. Emotions are relationally calibrated according to their polar opposites and the infinite expressions that connect them. Intuitively, I think we all, especially as endurance athletes, understand that you cannot only have one side of the coin. Knowing happiness necessarily requires overcoming hardship and discomfort. Why else would we push ourselves to confront our lowest lows in order to achieve what is deeply meaningful? This concept of polarity–the state of having opposite aspects–is fundamental to being human. In truth, molecular polarity is the very reason our DNA is helical in structure. It is, in essence, “written” inside of us. Manifested inside of me, however, is a form that most people could never fully understand.

Mikel Haggadone at the 2019 Ice Age Trail 50k in Wisconsin. Photo: Mile 90 Photography

Six years ago, I began my doctoral work with delusions of grandeur. My next chapter would be marked with scientific achievement, contribution, and recognition; of this I was certain. And it has been an incredibly meaningful period of my life, but not for any of the aforementioned reasons. Instead, this chapter has been about understanding and accepting who I am, warts and all. Because I am imperfect. And you are, too. We are imperfect, not only in emotional expression, but even in our very physiologic design. Humans are incredible organisms, but we are also vessels of evolutionary vestiges, a reminder that the universe is unconcerned with crafting a perfectly engineered species. We are complex beyond comprehension, our perceptions, thoughts, and expressions the product of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters communicated amongst billions of neurons in the brain. It is remarkable if you stop to think about it. So, of course we are imperfect. How could we not be?

If you can’t already tell, I am fascinated by abstraction and the unknown. I love nuance, creativity, and integrative exploration. This gives my life meaning and purpose, and in many ways, it is a gift. It is why I am a scientist. It, too, is why I am an ultrarunner. But there is also a darkness in my relationship with complexity, one that I do not fully understand, yet can feel with intensity and fluctuation. In one breath it manifests as an electrical rush inside of my head, thoughts of grandiosity and elation firing from one node to the next until there is nothing left but a firestorm to leave emptiness in its wake. And this emptiness is a chasm. I feel trapped in a viscous medium, watching the world move in front of me while I am statically confined to hopelessness. You can see it in my eyes, hear it in my voice, and sense it in my spirit. There is nothing left to feel, because I am numb. And yet, paradoxically, depression hurts.

Mikel running in Colorado. Photo: Kyle Fulmer

I have spent the better part of four years hiding these emotional oscillations from the world around me. Not because of shame, but for fear of the connotations associated with having bipolar disorder. I am scared by the possibility of rejection. I fear the prospect of being labeled “a manic.” I question whether I will truly ever be seen for who I am. And how could you blame me for this? Our cultural aperture permits the visibility of highly stigmatized representations of my condition–the aggressor, the unhinged artist, the impossible partner. But what about me? What of my tenderness and sensitivity, my passions and capacity to feel? There is greater depth to this discussion, because there is greater depth to me. And it exists in the space between my hypomania and depression, where there is stillness and love. There is love for those who see the very best in me. There is also love for those who don’t. There is peace with what I know to be true and with what I am still questioning. There is joy in happiness and in pain. And there is acceptance of who I am as an imperfect human, revealed in simplicity–the simplicity of movement.

I have spent countless hours attempting to answer the question of why it is that I run long distances. This is a reasonable question to ask. There is so much pain in injury, heartbreak in failure, suffering in self-doubt. And all for what? How can we collectively find so much meaning in something that is, by its very nature, entirely meaningless? I, of course, cannot provide the universal solution to this paradox. It is yours to consider just as much as it is mine. But with each passing day, I have come to know one thing for certain: that, similar to the pills prescribed to help reveal the very best of who I am, this sport brings me closer to love. It is not about philosophy or enlightenment. There is no wisdom unveiled in running that cannot already be obtained from other domains of life. I am not here to test my limits, to redefine what is possible, or to prove anything to anyone. No, this sport is about embracing who I am and who I’ve always been. It is about seeing and feeling without inhibition. Because in a world that perpetually burdens my mind with complexity, the simplicity of running is my center. One foot in front of the other. One breath at a time. Here, disorientation gives way to clarity. I am grounded, still, and yet fully alive.

In this transcendent space between, I see the one essential truth of my existence and yours: that we are enough. We are always enough.

Call for Comments

  • Do you also experience something of a “space between,” to use Mikel Haggadone’s phrase? What is there for you?
  • Does running sometimes offer mental stillness and calm?
  • And does running provide you with energy and momentum at other times?

Inspiring scenery atop Mount Sneffels in Colorado. Photo: Mikel Haggadone

There are 34 comments

  1. Carolyn Mahboubi

    I love this so much, and truly can’t imagine an ultrarunner who doesn’t relate to the author’s insights about how running long distances, often alone, but never alone because, nature, allows us to feel – truly deeply feel – enough.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. ursula carty

    WOW. This is hands down the best piece of writing that captures the heart and emotion of how running helps connect you to your emotions. Hats off to the writer who so eloquently describes the ying yang of it all. I was moved by the beauty of his feelings and how he conveyed it to those who, at first glance, might not understand. Please write more for us. You are so gifted and talented.

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Wow, Ursula, this comment literally made my year. I’m so honored and moved by your words, and I appreciate you taking the time to read. Thank you – so much – for this, and for being you. <3

  3. Lauren C.

    Really beautifully written. With everything going on right now, it’s great to read something that’s so uplifting and honest.

  4. Kevin Yang

    Thank you for sharing this incredible story! Really motivated by your triumph in accepting who you are. Best of luck with everything in the future!

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Kevin, this comment means so much to me – thank you for reading and affirming! Wishing you all the very best. You are awesome!

  5. Tommy Byrne

    My life is better having crossed paths with yours! Your words always speak so much truth and shine so much light into this world. Thank you for sharing your heart with the rest of us.

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      You are a gift to this world, Tommy Byrne. I am so incredibly appreciative of you and all the love you’ve brought into my life. The journey is just getting started, my friend. <3

  6. Mark Manion

    Mikel – Wonderful words of your reflection, thoughts, ideas, meanings and experiences. Your sharing helps shine light for all to embrace who they are and be who they are meant to be. Your contributions and support of others is huge difference maker not only for Bigger Than The Trail but for all especially those who run. You’ve demonstrated bravery and genuineness which all can admire and appreciate!

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Thank you so very much for this, Mark. I’m so honored to call you a friend and fellow advocate for mental health. You are such a shining light in this world, and I appreciate you so much!

  7. Laura

    As someone who struggles to put words to why running means so much to me, this article does it beyond ways I knew were possible. I will come back to this again and again. And every time I believe I will find something new that strikes a chord. Thank you for being open and vulnerable with your words and who you are. This essay is such a gift.

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Laura, this comment just means the world to me. Thank you so much for reading and sharing this – I will always hold your words close to my heart. Sending you so much love and light. YOU are a gift!

  8. Kristine

    Thank you so much for this contribution. The spirituality invoked is something I almost only find in the rooms of AA or out running. I had a lot of shame when it came to my alcoholism, with fear, rejection, unworthiness all mixed in. Even six year sober I still have a twinge of self-consciousness. I started running after a got sober. I had never ran more than 3 or 4 miles at a time in my life when a coworker convinced me I could do a half marathon, and I did. I never thought I’d do more than a half though, until last year when a friend convinced me to do a full marathon with her and her partner. Now we’re looking at doing our first 50k together this May. Running, to me, has been the only place I can find my higher power when everything else around me is falling apart. It’s helped me find a place where my head could be quiet and all I have to “think” about is breathing and moving. As the miles have increased so it seems has my connection with everything around me. Hearing your experience reminds me why AA has been successful for me, for it is a fellowship of like minded individuals, perfectly imperfect, sharing and validating our experiences, trudging the road of happy destiny. My sponsor and I often say “good enough” because it’s easy for me to forget my place among the star dust.

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Kristine, this is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing more about your story! “Good enough” is a wonderful affirmation. You are so great!

  9. John Leland Cogburn

    “…this sport is about embracing who I am and who I’ve always been. It is about seeing and feeling without inhibition. Because in a world that perpetually burdens my mind with complexity, the simplicity of running is my center. One foot in front of the other. One breath at a time. Here, disorientation gives way to clarity. I am grounded, still, and yet fully alive.” Amen, brother. This is why I participate in this sport too. Thanks for putting all this into words.

  10. Adam Dillon Hughes

    This was an awesome read Mike, thank you for being willing to share with such vulnerability. I look up to you for your ability and courage to be yourself and share it with the world everyday. That is something I struggle with so it’s refreshing to see you craft with such honesty. See you on the trails soon brother!

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      I appreciate you so much, brother! Even in our short time running together, I can’t help but appreciate how authentic and genuine you are! Can’t wait for the miles ahead, my friend! You freaking rock!

  11. Ty

    Thanks for sharing your story. It’s beautifully written. Knowing there are others that struggle is incredibly powerful. My struggles with depression and anxiety have been greatly improved since I started running in 2016. Running lowers the volume and intensity of the anxiety and the depression surrenders to the sense of achievement. The negative thoughts have less fuel to burn and my body craves for movement. The why to it all is sometimes lost but deep down I know that diet, exercise and spirt are the pillars I stand on.

    Movement is life

  12. Quigley

    Dear Mikel, Thank you so much for sharing your powerful story. Similar to many in the community, I run ultras and I struggle with many issue. I only ever compete against myself, and in the past, I have been an incredibly self-destructive competitor. I am not sure whether ultras cause depression and anxiety in some people, or if people with depression and anxiety are drawn to ultras but there is definitely some connection. I recently re-read the Sports Gene and was struck by the story and quotes from Pam Reed’s book: ‘”Running for three hour every day might put some people in the hospital,” Reed write in her book, while noting that she finds peace of mind in extreme activity. “I am certain that not running for three hours every day would very quickly make me ill …. While nobody’s forcing me to do this, it’s not really a choice either.” I was struck by the line in your piece: ” that, similar to the pills prescribed to help reveal the very best of who I am, this sport brings me closer to love.” I think that ultras can help many of us find the very best of who we are, but that ultras, like drugs can be incredibly destructive and debilitating. I wish that I could figure out a better way to dose both my medications and ultras.

  13. Hueman

    Thank you so much for writing this down. I am fascinated by abstraction and the unknown too and I could relate so much to what you wrote. Your article was too real and that touched my heart. Sending you love and light, Sir. May you keep inspiring and pushing us all… Take care. ❤️

    1. Mikel Haggadone

      Thank you so much for these words, Hueman — they really mean a lot to me. Sending love and light right back to you, friend!

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