How my experience with running went toxic and then made me healthy again
Last year, Topo Elite Zac Marion had an emotional reckoning after losing two of the most important people in his life. In reflection of Mental Health Awareness Month and Global Running Day, Zac shares with us how that experience forced him to take a hard look at the way he coped with his pain via running and how he was able to reclaim joy from the sport after taking a healthy hiatus from professional racing.
Medicine, particularly in Western cultures, is thought of as mostly pharmaceuticals and other exogenous mediums. As a physical therapist, I’ve understood medicine to be physiological and come in the form of movement. But medicine is simply anything that can be used as a treatment for or preventative measure against any illness – even mental illness. Most of us, as runners, have found a daily dose of miles to be healing in so many ways.
We often hear the phrase: “running is my therapy.” There’s no doubt about the hormone-regulating affects and mental clarity even a short run can bring. But, as with any medicine, there can be too much of a good thing. Reflecting on a month of campaigning “Mental Health Awareness Month” in May, which often promotes physical activity as a well-founded way to support mental health, I also wanted to share my experience when that kind of medicine started making me sick.
My personal running journey has evolved over the years. What began as a means to lose weight quickly spiraled into a way of life after I found myself feeling more mentally regulated than I ever had. I had truly found a medicine that helped free me from years of depression and mental health struggles. As the years passed, I found myself slowly slipping into a habit of overdosing on this “wonder drug,” which led to a destructive pattern where the medicine was actually making me sick.
The first sign that running stepped away from being healthy was when sponsorships came and pressure/focus mounted to performance. I stopped running for myself. I measured myself no longer in terms of growth, but singular runs and race results. Running was no longer my safe haven, rather it became a space filled with less joy and more pressure to train harder with an end goal that was no longer mine. I started choosing races not out of inspiration or excitement, but more out of obligation. Add on top of that, the social media pressures of platforms like Strava that expose every run to being judged through metrics that shouldn’t define your runs or your workouts. I lost sight of what running was for me and the intrinsic joy that kicked off this whole decade-long journey.
As the years went on and my joy for running faded, so did the space it created for regulating and helping with my mental and emotional health. The very thing that had kept my depression regulated was now becoming the catalyst for a whole new version of a mental health crises. Weekly mileage and consistency dwindled. This spiraled up until the point I lost both my brother and grandma in the same month. I finally broke down.
I needed my medicine then more than ever, but I also needed to bring it back to a place where it could be therapeutic again. Balance was needed. It didn’t happen overnight, but focusing on a few principles allowed me to get back to the basics and find the healing in each run.
1 – JOY
Regardless of what reasons started your journey, most of us became enamored with running because, ultimately, it was fun. If you’ve stopped having fun, you’ve essentially lost your ability to find joy in the daily process.
Fun should be a cornerstone intention of your running program. It can be found in so many different ways: group runs, friendly competition, ripping down a good downhill, grinding a steep incline, or simply being able to explore new places on foot. Make certain that at least a couple runs a week are anchored solely in this intention.
2 – COMMUNITY
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the running community is one of the best in all sports. From your local running group to the worldwide reach through social media, running is its own brand of crazy and we love to support each other. Find your place in the community and become a part of it rather than just an outside passenger. Show up to group runs, reach out to your local running store and check out their events, or start a regular run route/time and invite the whole city out. Doing this together is where we can draw strength and accountability. Each of us is somewhere along the journey’s path and we can help one another.
3 – EXPLORE
Use your fitness for something more than racing. Pick an adventurous route or city that you want to explore. Two of my favorite runs ever were a self-directed 15-mile tour around the streets of Paris with PLENTY of stops at local patisseries for yummy aid station food and running Zion National Park from one end to the other.
4 – BE PRESENT
Delete your Strava app for a while. Or, better yet, ditch the watch. I did both and I couldn’t tell you how much freer I felt on my runs. They were truly mine again and I never once got lost in metrics, or judgement, or comparison. No one could see what I was doing, and I love it. Running had once again become my respite from the world and an opportunity to be completely present in my own body, to find my flow state and dive into my own thoughts. I could live in the moment of each stride with as few distractions (other than the beautiful scenery) as possible.
5 – Treat Yourself!
I’m so grateful for the opportunity and excuse to maintain running so that I can test new, top-secret products from brands like Topo that have continued to sponsor and support me throughout my self-exploration journey. Secretly, testing new shoes is what kept me consistent when I was feeling like running was the last thing I wanted to do. Not only did it hype me up, but it also gave me purpose. Now while we can’t all get super top-secret shoes to run in, we can get new gear for ourselves. A cool running jersey, new shorts, zippy kicks…heck, even a new fuel flavor to test and play with can make you a little more excited to get out the door for fun.
One of the most beautiful things about running is that it can become whatever you want it to be. If you are ever lost and need some help with creating meaning or intention with your runs, try a couple of these things I mentioned. They helped me through the hardest year of my life and allowed me to get back to a place of falling in love with running again. Even more importantly, my daily dose of miles has now helped me return to the happiest and best version of myself that I get to share with the rest of the world.
Zac Marion is a professional runner with a degree in physical therapy. As an iFit trainer, Zac travels all over the world to record running videos on some of the world’s most awe-inspiring running paths. He also coaches both individual and group athletes. You can follow his journey and more inspirational insights via his Instagram @zac_marion.