Embracing Depression Through Trail Running

Depression is an illness I have lived with for more than 20 years.  It is an illness that has kept me from becoming who I wanted to become.  It feels like chains constricting me, holding me back from my dreams and aspirations.  It isolates me and at times creates a cage that prevents me from connecting with those around me.

About 12 years ago when I discovered running, I realized that exercise plays a strong role in helping me manage the highs and lows, leveling out the roller coaster.  For many years, I ran on roads, completing several marathons and many other shorter distances. And whenever I was running regularly, my depression became more manageable.  But it was never enough to keep those dark clouds away.

The sun peaking through the clouds. PC: Carrie Powers

All the while, I read about trail runners and watched with fascination as athletes like Nikki Kimball and Catra Corbett accomplished extraordinary feats.  I admired them and I longed to be like them. Something about trails were calling to me, but my fears kept me away. I was afraid of being a woman alone on the trails.  I was afraid of the stalking mountain lion, of the waiting rattlesnake, of the wrong turn.

Regardless, The longing remained.  I didn’t know at the time that trails would teach me how to embrace my depression.  Eventually, I took those first steps and started trail running. As I started down the trail, I felt at peace and at home.   When on the trails and in nature, pushing my body to the limits, getting dirty, the part of my brain that says “you are not enough” quiets down.  The wonder of the world around me and the strength of my physical self serve to strengthen my delicate self.

Desert Sunset PC: Carrie Powers

Over the last several years, trail running has taught me how to embrace my depression and no longer see it as a barrier, but rather a challenge that was brought into my life to make me stronger.   

Lessons Trail Running Has Taught Me

  • The highs are always waiting beyond the lows.   While running on the trails, there are times when I feel like I am floating on air.  Times when the air I breath and the sounds I hear are near magical. Times when I splash through a creek like a child or laugh at the odd shape of a saguaro’s arms.  And then, I hit a low and I feel I can barely go on. Each boulder feels like a mountain and every stick looks like a snake. My feet ache and I wonder if I can possibly go on.  But with each step I move closer back to the highs, because the highs are always waiting. Trail running has taught me that when the lows of my depression overwhelm me, if I focus on taking one step forward at a time, I will find the highs once again.
  • Perseverance and Patience grow stronger with practice.  Trail running requires perseverance when the going gets tough.  The trail never stays smooth and easy like the road. It curves and twists and throws surprises my way.  Just when I get into a groove, the trail changes it up and I have to adjust. These adjustments require patience and perseverance to keep going.  My patience and perseverance are stronger as a result of trail running which directly benefits my depression. Each time I feel caught in its grasp and wonder how I will ever get free, I patiently breath deep and focus on the moment.  My perseverance eventually pays off and I lift through the fog to find the light again.
  • The hardest climb yields the most beautiful view.  When I started trail running, the difficult climbs left me literally breathless.  I would avoid them when possible, seeking the flatter trails. As time passed and I became more daring, I began to realize that the most difficult climbs yield the most awe inspiring views.  Vast sweeping expanses, rising above the world, feeling like I have been dropped on the steps of heaven. I learned that my struggle with depression has yielded the same blessing. The beautiful moments are found in the rising sun and the smell of the desert after a rain.  They are found in the splashing of my kids in the pool and the warm snuggles of my puppy while I read a book and the loving kisses of my husband. I would not have learned to appreciate these with such intensity if I had not also experienced the drowning depths of despair.
Greeting the sun. PC: Carrie Powers

Trail running has become a gift in my life that I will never take for granted.  It has taught me how to persevere in life when the going gets tough and how to rejoice in the simple beauty that makes it all worth living.

Once I thought that my life would be consumed for all eternity by my depression.  Trail running has given me freedom. And while I will no doubt struggle with depression for the rest of my life, I can face it with the confidence that I have the been given, the skills to not only survive, but to embrace this most delicate part of my being.

Desert trails in the morning. PC: Carrie Powers

I am not alone and neither are you.  The World Health Organization reports that more than 300 million people are affected by depression and women are more likely to suffer from this mental illness than men. This is an illness that hides in the shadows and causes its suffers to hide in the shadows.  Through trail running, I have learned that above every layer of clouds, the sky remains blue and it is here that I have found my peace.


Emily Fife

Emily Fife

Emily is a wife and mother, an ultrarunner, a natural resource conservationist, and an all around dream chaser. She lives in Phoenix, AZ with her ultrarunning husband and two crazy cool boys. She has also suffered from major depression since she was a teenager. Trail running has given her the strength to dominate her depression. Now she strives to share that gift with others who share the same struggles. She is a woman and a warrior and will not be held back from her dreams. Website: http://embracedelicategetdirty.com

Read More

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!


9 thoughts on “Embracing Depression Through Trail Running”

  1. Thank you so much for writing and sharing, Emily. Just today I was trying to remind myself of the lessons my trail running has taught me, such as, as you say so well, that “Each time I feel caught in its grasp and wonder how I will ever get free, I patiently breath deep and focus on the moment. My perseverance eventually pays off and I lift through the fog to find the light again.”

    I’ve felt stuck and heavy the past few weeks, and my brain tells me that this is it, and it will be like this forever. I find myself thinking of the miles in my last ultra where I was in pain and flat out, and could not imagine getting through to the end of the race. But I did — and then there was pizza and beer, and I looked back and it didn’t feel so bad. It’s so powerful to have those moments to anchor on during bad brain days.

    Thank you for sharing. We’re not alone. <3

    • Thanks Kate! When we keep moving forward there is always pizza and beer (or something else equally wonderful) waiting around the corner!

  2. Wow. Thank you for this reminder to continue – even when my brain goes into the old grooves of shame and self-condemnation. When I run, when I hit the trails, when I don’t give in to the old body hatred thinking grooves, my thinking patterns are often transformed!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this… It resonated with me on every level… THank you Trail Sisters Newsie for this awesome community of women.

  4. Thanks for writing this, Emily. The sentence Kate highlighted above is the same one that grabbed me. As you pointed out, Catra and I have done some cool things on the trail. Those accomplishments appear in print, film and other media. What media cannot truly show are the times when I wonder, “how I will ever get free.” There are so many times between adventures in which I stare at the wall for days; times I am unable to do any good for myself or others. These times don’t make good fodder for media. I need to exercise daily in order to simply function, and that facilitated any accomplishments I have. Depression gave me exercise as my life sentence. Exercise gave me the power to fight depression. I look forward to a day in which all people with depression can thrive. This can only happen through both medical and societal advances. In writing about your experience, you advance social understanding of the disease. Never doubt the power you have to make another’s life a bit less painful.

    • Thank you Nikki for your kind words! You are an inspiration to me as I know you have your share of struggles. To see your courage and ability to overcome gave me hope a few years ago when I really really needed it. I love your comment that “Depression gave me exercise as a life sentence.” I too share that life sentence and it is one I am eternally grateful for since exercise has given me back so much more than depression has ever taken away.

  5. Thanks! I have secretly struggled for years with depression but never wanted to admit it. Trail running brought me a sense of peace. Something about embracing the suffer….I have my first 50 k in three months. Scared and excited.


Leave a Comment

Free Educational Courses


Projects & Grants

Childcare Grant

presented by: The North Face

Join Us!

Support Trail Sisters



Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email