Editor’s Note: This article may be triggering for some readers.
I started dabbling in trail running in my mid-40’s. At age 50 I ran my first 50K and I was hooked. I started with 50Ks, progressed to 50 milers, then 100Ks, and my first official 100 miler at age 59! Trail running has truly changed my life for the better. It has given me confidence, helped with my depression and anxiety, and filled me with gratitude. My story is about surviving a mental health challenge and thriving to live a quality life. The information is this article should not be used as medical advice.
As a child I was always moving–dancing, singing, swimming, ice skating, water skiing, and playing outside. I’ve always loved being in nature, was athletic and joyful, and loved trying new things. I loved being social with other kids as well as adults. As a singer and dancer, I was always performing for anyone that would be an audience. I was confident and very outgoing.
As early as third grade I remember having times where I felt sad and hollow for no reason. I remember having days where I felt jazzed and excited for no reason. During my middle school and high school years these feelings intensified. I attributed it to being a creative soul.
Freshman year of high school I put on a few pounds because I stopped growing. I started running a mile and half a day, doing some calisthenics, and cutting calories. Over the summer I easily dropped about 10 pounds. This was in the early 1970’s when thin was in and thinner was even better. I kept restricting my food, over-exercising and dropping weight. One more pound, oh, one more pound until it was apparent that I had gone too far.
Back in 1975 therapy was not as readily available and was seen as a weakness. I played the game and got my eating back to borderline normal, but there was trouble brewing beneath the surface. I didn’t know it then, but my bipolar disorder, diagnosed many years later, was the root cause of the disordered eating.
I went to college in 1978 at 110 pounds and left college in 1982 at 160 pounds on my 5’3” frame. Yes, I was still running. I ran consistently all four years outside in the “North Country” of upstate NY. Even though I was running, I had started binge eating. After all the years of restricting, once I started eating the carbs and sugary food at college I could not stop. I went to college for music education as a voice major. My depression and anxiety became a roaring beast with the pressure of performing and studying music. On the outside I seemed happy, my grades were good, but it was a huge effort to stay afloat.
After college I got my job as a music teacher in the mid-Hudson valley region of NY. I ran a little, but it was difficult with the demands of a new job. The depression increased as well as the binging. The summer after my first year of teaching I got back into a consistent running schedule, managed to get the binging under control and dropped about 30 pounds. Somehow the depression subsided on its own.
I met my first husband during my second year of teaching. We got engaged. The depression seemed gone or in remission. I was doing lots of road running, doing aerobics, eating in moderation, and very happy about my life. I completed my master’s degree, got married, bought a house, and ran my one and only road marathon–NYC. Checking all the boxes for life goals.
I had my daughter in 1989. A fabulous, healthy pregnancy. I ran until eight and half months, then walked an hour a day. When my daughter was a baby, we did lots of hiking with her in the backpack, I ran with her in a baby jogger until she was five, and outdoor movement was a regular part of our family fun.
About a year after my daughter was born, I was having difficulties. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I was sad and very agitated. I kept getting thinner. I was getting up at 3am to run before my husband went to work. I was over-exercising, under-eating, and having a hard time managing my life. Finally, things came to a head, and I had to seek medical treatment.
A very long and frustrating two years followed. Incorrect diagnosis, lots of very strong meds that didn’t help, doctors that weren’t listening, and no progress. Fortunately, I had a good medical plan and I finally found a female psychiatrist that diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. She put me on lithium and saved my life.
Once I got on the lithium my recovery was almost instantaneous. For me lithium was the magic cure. I was able to go back to raising my child, my job, my marriage, my life. I went back to running and did lots of hiking. I started performing again as a singer. I wasn’t just living, I was thriving.
As my recovery kept improving, along with therapy, I was able to slowly reduce my lithium dosage. Eventually I was able to completely come off the medication under a doctor’s supervision.
During this time, along with road running and hiking, I connected with a local running group. I started running on a local rail trail. I very much enjoyed running on the dirt. After 20 years in the same town, I was delighted to discover some local trails by the Hudson River only a mile from my house!
In the summer of 2005, my daughter joined the cross-country team at school. Since I had to drive her to practice, I would stay and run the cross-country trails while the team was doing the workout. Short distances, but I felt safe. I remember feeling calm and alive at the same time when running in the woods. I never, ever felt afraid.
I became more active in my local running club. We had a summer cross country series that showcased some fabulous trail systems in the Catskills and Mid-Hudson Valley of NY. This is where I fell in love with the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park in New Paltz, NY. Several years later I would be there for miles and miles of training, and eventually I would become an ambassador for the Rock the Ridge 50 miler, which I completed four times.
For the next several years my trail running miles increased and my road running miles decreased. As this was occurring, I was rediscovering myself. I was reconnecting with my love for nature and movement. I wasn’t changing. I was coming back to my authentic self.
After completing my first 50K at age 50, I was invited to join a local winter training group. This group got me ready for many trail 50Ks and 50 milers, and eventually a 100K. We took road trips for events and camped in the summer for grassroots ultras in Ithaca, NY and other East Coast venues. Every time I participated in an ultra, I felt at home. I connected with the ultra community. I loved the inclusiveness. I was always a back of the packer but felt supported and respected. I loved being on the trails all day! I also did a great deal of volunteering at many backwoods events.
Though my depression and anxiety are manageable, they are not completely gone. I like to say I’m in remission. I have many tools that keep me well. I sing, I dance, I run trails and I eat whole foods. I also choose not to drink alcohol now because it doesn’t make me feel good. One of my best tools for wellness is my trail running. If I’m ever feeling off, I push myself to just get out the door and onto a trail, and within a short period of time I usually come around.
There are so many people that deal with depression and anxiety. Everyone’s story is different. Different things work for different people. Movement outdoors is often healing and helpful for many. I love my music and I love my trail running. They are both vitally important to my well-being and my identity.
I am currently a co-leader for our local Trail Sisters Tucson group! I’m so grateful that I can give back to the trail running community and help empower other women to get out on trails!! My advice to anyone that wants to start trail running is just get out on those trails! Walk, hike, jog, move!! Don’t worry about pace. Let the trails be your friend. And of course–join your local Trail Sisters community to find support!!