The Walker makes us think
We called him “The Walker.” His real name was Steve. And he walked everywhere he went, and thensome. Local legend had it that a doctor had told him that walking would help cure his “problem,” so he took the doctor at his word.
We knew The Walker covered a lot of ground because our high school cross country team would encounter him in all parts of town, even other towns. And that, as a matter of team introspection, both amazed and creeped us out. “Maybe we’re actually the crazy ones,” someone finally blurted.
We knew The Walker was not crazy. A few of us had stopped to talk with him at times. He was quiet, but conversant, offering interesting observations about life in town. As an icon of what we considered abnormal behavior, however, he was the object of jokes from our tightly knit clan of distance runners, who only poorly knew the possible cause of his wanderings.
The Walker still moves about town even today, though not as prodigiously as he once did. His footwear evolved through the years from the worn out high-tops with which he began his never-ending journey to sets of official running shoes.
The words mental illness and mental health never crossed our lips in those days. We just knew him as The Walker. Secretly many of us seemed to harbor a bit of compassion for his apparent lot. He seemed to live in his own universe or a mythic parallel like one of the characters from a Greek tragedy we’d read about in literature. Odysseus or Ulysses. In some ways that we perhaps cared not to admit, we could see ourselves in the wandering “hero.”
In truth none of us dared dig too deeply into the history of The Walker. His very physical allegory of having been told to walk, then taking those directions to absurd extremes was too close for comfort as a parallel to our own situation as distance runners. We––who were told to run––and did so.
As runners, we had to admit that our own classmates thought we were a bit out there. In many ways, they were right. Which goes to prove that viewpoints about mental health are often a matter of perspective. So who is to judge?
Talent and torment sometimes go together
Our next team encounter with mental illness involved a competitor from a nearby town. He was a conference champion in cross country and track, several times over. None of us could beat him at any distance between a mile and three miles.
Then some strange things happened. He showed up on our high school campus with a bagged loaf of Wonder Bread asking to see members of our cross country team. He just happened to find me walking down the hallway and looked both happy and frantic to find someone to help him with his cause, which was to join him in feeding the foxes on the bridge across the river downtown. “Those foxes are made of bronze,” I told him. But that fact did not seem to deter him from his mission. I could see he was agitated, yet his demeanor was almost always sweet, even naive. So I accompanied him to our school office and the staff made calls to have someone from home pick him up.
The next year that same runner went on to compete for a leading Midwest Division III cross country program, helping to lead the college to a national championship. During the season he logged several 250-mile training weeks. That divides into an average of 35 miles a day, far more mileage than your typical elite college distance runner who runs 15 miles a day in a 100 mile week. The 250mpw training program did deliver him to an All-American status, placing in the Top 25 in the country. It also scared the hell out of everyone else on his team.
The baseline mental illness affecting my friend caught up with him eventually. His family enrolled him in treatment but the medications never entirely worked. He compensated for his lack of running with prodigious eating (mostly pizza, he informed me) that ballooned his weight to over 300 lbs. He could still talk running with the best of them, recalling former battles with rivals and great races. He knew these were figments of the past, but his present was clearly too ambiguous to examine.
Examples to grow by
These true stories are not shared to exploit or ridicule the sufferings of the mentally ill. They do show that the extremes of mental illness often start in small, simple ways. They also illustrate how a too simplistic approach to treating mental illness can exaggerate or worsen the prognosis for people with mental disorders.
An elite challenge in mental health
Following graduation from college, I met yet another competitor who struggled with emotional challenges. Upon first meeting him, it was far from obvious that one day he would face severe problems with mental illness. He had graduated from a leading Christian college and was signed up to run for a shoe company, competing throughout the Midwest with a personal record of 29:20 for the 10k. His girlfriend and wife-to-be was a stunningly beautiful woman who was also an elite distance runner.
Their personal faith was one of the hallmarks of their relationship. Often they’d share and discuss their relationship with God with other runners. They were scheduled to be married, possibly wearing the running gear they loved.
But as time went by my friend, who we’ll call “Mike,” showed signs of acute depression. His running tailed off. His relationships stalled. He became despondent and seemed to be searching all the time for new answers to questions he’d once answered through his personal faith. Then one day he parked his car in a remote lot, doused himself with flammable liquids and lit himself on fire. Fortunately he did not die from the effort because his plan involved locking himself in a car trunk, and the flames went out. But the attempt made clear than he needed help coping with a serious mental illness.
These examples show the extreme challenges of managing mental health for some people. Mental illness is a widespread problem in America, with literally millions of people coping with degrees of anxiety, depression, stress and other mental health challenges. Fortunately increased awareness and improved treatments for these challenges has resulted in major shifts in thinking about mental health, including many tangible ways for people to normalize their mental health and outlook. But it all starts with personal awareness that can lead to simple, organic ways to create better mental health in each individual.
Running and riding to cope
Of course not all mental health issues are profound or disabling. Millions of people cope with disorders that simply make it difficult to function in day-to-day life. These include mood disorders but also functional challenges such as ADD and ADHD. It is acknowledgement of these disorders and practical treatment measures that is leading our health care system to recognize the importance of mental health as an integrated treatment priority rather than an isolated or “set-aside” issue to be dealt with randomly.
Running and riding to mental health
In recent years it has also become evident that endurance sports like running and riding and regular exercise can be helpful tools in coping with mental illness and creating better mental health.
For starters, there is considerable evidence that regular exercise can help reduce stress. That is good news, because negative stress is a factor that can set off other mental responses, producing deeper or more profound anxiety in some individuals, and leading to outright depression in others. Thus stress is one of the “trigger” causes of poor mental health. Learning to manage stress and finding health physical or creative outlets for stress is considering one of the first steps toward better mental health.
People with a predisposition to anxiety and depression need to pay particular attention to how their body and mind responds to stress. Also the ability to manage thought patterns is an important tool in preventing runaway anxiety or negative thought processes that get people into emotional trouble.
Engaging in a regular running or riding program can help. A disciplined walking program is also considered a great ways to give the mind time to process life events and deal with stress perceptions.
Combined with other stress and emotional management techniques, regular exercise can put you in better control of your thought processes and prevent emotional flareups including anger, jealousy, fear, intolerance and ambiguity that can affect your relationships at home and in the workplace.
America embraces the “road” to mental health
This may create a bit of a sore spot in the minds of some, but there is a chance that the growing popularity of distance running and cycling in America is the result of a massive, collective need to cope with the pressing anxiety of modern life. It might be hypothesized that the millions of people now participating in endurance sports are drawn to them not only in response to the need for better physical health, but to create opportunities for better mental health as well. Some classic literature suggests as much, with figures such as the lead character in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner trying to come to grips with his individuality and independence. For it is an almost existential cliche that distance running (and riding your bike) a long ways will clarify the mind and purify the soul. But the cliche is real, and women in particular have been discovering this truth for themselves, taking to the streets by the millions to create better physical and mental health for themselves.
No coincidence: battling an insane world with sane acts
This is no coincidence. Coping with a world that exhibits apparently insane behaviors in politics, religion and economics can make you feel like you’re the one going crazy. It can sometimes take a lot of running and riding to convince yourself that you’re the one that is actually sane, and get back to being who you want to be, not who the world says you should be.
Fortunately, it generally doesn’t take much commitment to experience the benefits of exercise and better mental health. Even 30 minutes of running or riding a day is often enough to create a bridge between your stress points and your baseline framework of mental health. Multiple studies have shown that the simple release of brain chemical like endorphins through exercise can improve mood.
It’s all about brain chemistry
For people diagnosed with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression or other emotional challenges, it is also desirable in many cases to effectively treat emotional disorders with controlled dosages of highly effective drugs designed to balance the chemical response of the human brain without wiping out a person’s personality or causing addiction. One of America’s leading distance runners, Alberto Salazar discovered in early middle age that he was susceptible to depression. In his case Prozac proved to be an effective relief strategy. He has gone on to coach the #1 and #2 finishers in the 2012 London Olympics 10,000 meters.
The best way to engage in your own analytical process of emotional balance once you’ve begun an exercise program is to identify a doctor qualified to work with you on the appropriate drugs for your specific degree of anxiety, depression or other emotional disorder. But don’t just expect your family doctor to know all about brain drugs. Some do, and some don’t.
A good starting point is to ask about your family history in using psychiatric drugs. Sometimes drugs from the wrong groups of medicines can cause adverse reactions in some patients, and you don’t want to go there.
If your doctor recommends treatment
The ideal way to start is to find a doctor willing to work with you on a mild program of adding drugs to compliment organic treatments such as talk therapy and your own exercise program. The ideal first step is to simple “put some air in the tires” with prescription medications designed to dampen the effects of a mood disorder such as depression. One common drug for depression, for example, is Citalopram, whose volume can readily be controlled to determine how much you really need to feel improved emotional health. Lorazepam is another simple drug used to reduce anxiety.
Have a discussion with your physician to let them know what steps you might be taking to treat emotional pain and disorders and you’ll likely find that you can ease your way into better mental health.
Reducing stigmas. Raising awareness. Promoting cures.
It is important to recognize that millions of people in the world live with mental health challenges every day. Some may never conquer the nature of their illness and accept that their condition can only be moderated, not cured entirely. If you are interested in mental health information for yourself, your family or friends, there is a non-profit organization with chapters throughout the United States called NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) that provides mental health services and advocacy at the community level nationwide. Our own little chapter in Illinois has raised an average of $20K per year with the NAMI 5K held in Batavia, October 6, 2012.
But millions more can improve their lives with the right combination of self-knowledge, regular exercise, good mental health habits and a well-designed prescription that can reduce the difficulty of achieving good mental health.
Then you can run and ride for the joy of it, as well as the therapy it brings.