Hello! In case you don’t know me, my name is Sergent. I am the outgoing webmaster and incoming VP of Racing. I have been with Running Club my entire college career and it’s a big part of my life. When I first joined club, there was something called “Running Stories” where different club members would write about their running experience and then share it with the world. Before I hand over my webmaster position to Matt Polatas (an excellent human, by the way) I wanted to try and revive Running Stories. I have written one before, and it was okay, but that was almost 2 years ago. There’s so much more I have wanted to say since then.
So, here’s my running story. I won’t be retelling my entire history, or focusing on the times I came close to a goal but couldn’t quite get there, or waxing poetically about whatever peace I might find in the miles.
No, my running story is about struggling with mental health.
At the beginning of February 2018, I ran my fastest ever 3K. I crossed Youngstown’s 300m track’s finish line at 9 minutes and 3 seconds. My long runs were getting faster, as were my workouts, and I was lifting 3 times a week as well as doing core every day. I was feeling good. I was feeling fit.
Two days after Youngstown, I was leaving my Monday shift at my on-campus job, when I started to feel strange. I hadn’t slept much the night before, so I chalked it up to that at first. As the day went on, I felt worse and worse. When I woke up Tuesday morning, I knew I was at the start of a depressive episode.
“No big deal”, I thought to myself. I’ve probably been going through minor depressive episodes since I was 16 and I knew that it would lift eventually. The more major depressive episodes I had experienced in 2017 and 2015 were not fun, but I managed to fumble through them and come out on the other side. I thought that some more sleep and better food would make the low period brief and mild.
On Wednesday, I had a panic attack trying to park my car on Indianola in the snow. I slept well the night before, I ate relatively okay, and I had already cut-back on my coffee consumption. Nothing was working though. I kept sliding downwards after the panic attack. Later that day, I went to Chipotle to try and cheer myself up with decent food, but all I could think about was how empty and agitated I felt.
There’s always this weird moment when you’re in the middle of a bad depressive episode where you’re aware that something is very wrong and you want to go back to feeling normal. The moment came to me in between bites of a burrito. It’s odd to sit in a Chipotle, surrounded by dozens of people, when your inner monologue is all self-hate and profound sadness because the situation feels surreal. I was having one of the worst moments in my life while the couple across from me chats about upcoming assignments.
Later that day, I broke down even further. I went to my last class which runs from 3:55 P.M. to 6:40 P.M. and was immediately asked by a friend who read my face and could tell I was not okay, if I was okay. If you know anything about me, you know that I am very good at pretending to be okay, so that’s what I did. I tried to make my face show nothing more than blankness, but after class, I asked to meet up with her and talk. I knew I couldn’t pretend to be okay much longer. I tried to pretend I could make it through this new low by myself, but she directed me towards OSU’s Counseling Services and insisted that I try and get an appointment through them. I went home after that and couldn’t run once I was there because I couldn’t force myself out of the house.
The next day, I scheduled an in-person screening. The 15-minute screening turned into a 55-minute-long counseling session. The therapist who directed my screening took me into her schedule because she was worried I would not come back for another session if she didn’t. I have the tendency to pretend to be okay so I can avoid confronting harder truths, like admitting that I need help managing my anxiety and depression. She thought it was likely I would talk myself out of getting help if she didn’t take me on.
During this week of downward sliding, I had to take a lot of time off running and training. I went from running almost 75 miles a week with a full workout and lifting schedule, to 43 miles on the week with no workouts or lifting. Every run that week felt like I was controlling my own body like a marionette. Nothing felt close to me, including myself. I felt like I lost control of myself and damaged my relationship with running.
In the months since that week, I have been working hard to improve my mental health. A lot of that process involves me reevaluating my relationship with running. I love running more than everything but coffee, but it can also be stressful for me. I have terrible race and workout anxiety. Every time I toe the line for a hard workout, especially if it’s on the track, it feels like I am melting down inside. If you’ve ever watched me before a workout, I pace because it’s all I can do to keep myself calm.
The feelings I get to experience during race day are far more intense than the feelings I have before a workout. However, some races are more stressful than others. Cross country and road races give me more anxiety than workouts do, but it’s very manageable. I do not scratch out of cross country or road races because I never feel bad enough too. I can always find a reason that’s good enough to get on the line and give it my best.
Track is a different story. Indoor track races are hard for me. Something about racing on the track makes the anxiety so much more intense. Often, on race day, I will wake up and feel like the world is trying to crush me. It’s hard to get out of bed and once I am out of bed, I can’t relax the rest of the day. At Illinois this year, I had to lay on the ground with my hood over my head to block out light and sound while I did breathing exercises to keep myself together before racing.
Outdoor track is impossible for me. I have hated outdoor track since I was in 10th grade, and apart from my freshman year of college, I have hated it more each year. This year, the hatred for outdoor track has metastasized into something awful. The first outdoor meet of this year, Muskingum, I was signed up to run the 5K. I woke up the morning of the meet and wanted to not exist anymore. I felt fine the night before, but that morning was unbearable. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to shower, I didn’t want to move from my bedroom. The feeling only got worse as the day went on. By the time I got to Muskingum, I was in such a bad place that I started secluding myself from everyone and I retreated inside myself.
Eventually, I put two and two together to get four and realized that I was so wound up about racing that it had brought out some depression symptoms. I scratched from the 5K after talking to a few people about what was going on with me, and I started to feel better. I warmed up with my roommate Ryan Heckman and fellow club member Ellis Farson, both of which were still running the 5K, and felt nothing but relief that I wasn’t racing. While they put on spikes and did plyos, I ran aimlessly around campus. Color started coming back into the world. Everything felt better.
Part of the process of getting to a better place is realizing what to expend your emotional energy on. I hate racing on a track. I don’t really know why I do, but it’s clear that it impacts me in a very negative way. Recognizing that racing track makes me miserable was an important step forward towards managing my performance anxiety and being an overall happier runner. I decided to stop investing my emotional energy into track until I can get myself to a better place.
I think I let myself so worked up because I was afraid that hating track makes me less of a runner. It makes me feel weak to not be able to just hop on the track and race like my friends can. Anxiety and depression can be very isolating because they can make everything else seem so distant. It can be hard to see reality for what it is when everything feels useless and/or terrifying. It’s hard to be an effective runner when running itself is what’s making you miserable.
Improving my relationship with running the past two months has been exhausting and rewarding. I have invested more and more time into preparing for the Cleveland Marathon, a race that I am actually looking forward too. Working out for the marathon is still stressful, but I find the stress is worth the reward. My relationship with running has begun to improve again after a season that felt like nothing but backsliding.
I am still in counseling and plan on staying in counseling for the foreseeable future. In general, I am feeling better, but some days are still difficult. I work hard every day to understand what my anxiety triggers are and what things I should expend my emotional energy on. I always leave a little bit of energy to care about running though, so even on the worst days, I can at least get an easy run in.
When struggling with mental health, everything feels impossible. The world dims and shrinks. Reaching out for help when your own personal reality feels like hell on Earth is hard, but you might find some sort of peace in the process of self-improvement. The only way to eliminate the social stigma that prevents us from having a society-wide conversation about mental health is to be honest and open when things get hard. Everyone needs help sometimes, and that’s okay.
I will keep working hard to improve myself and my mental health. I will keep running miles and workouts and races into old age, hopefully. I know I will always need to make time for myself to work on my mental health if I want to life to remain livable. I want to make the pursuit of a better me, and a healthier relationship with running, a lifelong journey. There’s still so many miles ahead.
Originally posted by Evan Sergent on April 9, 2018.