Running and Our Mental Health

There’s an ongoing joke in my family that goes something like this: I get home from work in the evening […]

By on August 9, 2013 | Comments

AJWs TaproomThere’s an ongoing joke in my family that goes something like this:

I get home from work in the evening and after traipsing grumpily around the house for about five minutes, the general consensus emerges from my wife and kids that I need to go for a run. Usually, it’s my wife, Shelly, who has the duty of confronting me.

“Andy, it seems like you had a rough day. Before this gets any worse, how about you go for a run?”

And, of course, as any good husband/father would do, I quickly oblige, lace ’em up, and return 30 to 45 minutes later ready for a do-over. It pretty much always works and the rest of the evening proceeds as if we’re living in a 1950s sitcom.

Now, I don’t intend to get too scientific or introspective here because, after all, it’s August and nobody wants that. But in recent weeks, I have been thinking quite a bit about running and what it does for my mental health. And, by association, what it does for all of our mental health. In a very simple and poignant way, for those of us who’ve embraced it, running keeps us stable.

As someone who has been around the sport for 20 years, I have made a few observations about the folks who’ve found their way into ultrarunning. And, while many are normal, average Janes and Joes, there are more than a few among us that always seem to have a story to tell. Those folks who make you wonder, “Is he running to something or from something?” We all know these people. We love and embrace them but they also make us question, curiously and without judgement, what exactly is going on with that guy?

Of course, most people in the outside world, even if they have read Born To Run, bought a pair of Hokas, and seen Unbreakable, think we’re totally nuts. But on the inside, where it matters, in that happy place where all our troubles slip away and we contentedly just put one foot in front of the other, we’re all just a bunch of people doing what we love. And, for the most part, in fact, almost always, that’s true.

But, I am left with a few nagging questions. Is there something about running that keeps us level? Is there something about this sport that attracts and sustains those on the fringe? And, perhaps most importantly, is there something about running long distances that allows us to become whole, to find that thing, whatever it is, that might be missing in the rest of our lives?

The answers to these questions I am sure can be found in a scientific analysis of our brains or our nervous systems. Perhaps, over a couple hundred hours of interviews, some psychologist could figure out what it is that makes us tick. In fact, I bet with enough analysis, a competent professional could figure us all out and we could save a heck of a lot of money on shoes. But, alas, I really have no interest in learning about any of that.

Instead, what I love to know is that, in spite of our incessant quirkiness, this whole thing works. For whatever reason, running makes us feel better. For almost all of us, a day with a run is better than a day without a run and even a bad day running is better than a good day at work. And, while I have a fleeting interest in the physiological reasons behind the endorphin rush I get after finishing a run, the real reason I love it so much is that it makes me feel alive. My daily run makes me feel more human and involved than just about anything else in my life and along the way it helps me stay balanced and focused in a world that is increasingly out of balance and distracted.

In the end, what I am interested in more than anything is the knowledge and the understanding that this thing we long to do every day, this thing that brings us so much joy and pain and heartache, this thing that makes us understand who we are and why we are here, this thing that makes us fit and happy and whole. That this thing, this running thing, is really such a simple, graceful, and democratic thing that we want everyone to share in our euphoria every time we lace up our shoes and head out the door. And yet, they can’t. Because, you see, this thing is ours, in whatever way we wish to define it. And that, ultimately, is why we do it.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Cigar City Jai Alai IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida. I’ve been trying to get my hands on their Jai Alai IPA for a couple months and finally found some last week and it did not disappoint. Served in colorful throwback cans, this 70IBU, 7.5% IPA is balanced, fruity, and fun. Just like everything else in Florida!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How does running keep you on the, shall we say, correct side of the road?
  • It’s clearly human nature to use outlets for relaxation and recovery when life gets busy and stressful. Besides running, what other outlets do you employ for emotional relief?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.