By Lucas Werger
As more and more people, including myself, acknowledge their mental health struggles, the need for positive coping strategies has become critical. One such strategy that is gaining more credit as a unique mental health therapy is the action of running. Studies have proven and recorded the benefits of running and its ability to aid in the process of rewiring the brain and creating new healthy pathways. And therapists and medical practitioners are now beginning to help guide people into mental health rehabilitation using this method.
I am a person who has spent most of my life involved in sports, and have never been unfit. Yet it wasn’t until I began to embrace the act of running as its own entity that I discovered its power in improving my mental health. In the past year I have taken on running as therapy and it is changing my life.
I suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. It’s a debilitating mental health condition that causes me to have an excessive preoccupation with non-existent or slight defects in my appearance. My mind creates a skewed visual perception of myself. I see deformities throughout my face and body, and constantly focus on my physical features that I deem to be incorrect. My mind has also created an over heightened sensory system in relation to my visual cues. So I regularly feel physical discomfort which seems to validate what I am seeing. This condition creates intense anxiety and times of depression. It has made it difficult, sometimes impossible to attend my schooling, fulfil my work responsibilities, or interact in social events. Many times I’ve been unable to leave the house, and when I do, it’s rare that I do so at the anticipated or necessary time. Being late or absent has been my trademark. And throughout the years these struggles have been kept very hidden.
As with most mental health disorders, it is extremely difficult to speak about it. Fear of being labelled, looked at differently or negatively, or rejected and made fun of can keep a mental health sufferer, such as myself, quiet. And for me, I felt embarrassed by it. I would withhold or lie about everything that I was or going through, even at the cost of making myself seem like an uncaring, lazy, or vain individual. And this only created anger and misunderstandings, contributing more to my personal pain and frustrations. Even now, as I am gaining more courage to speak out about it, trying to come up with the words for what I am experiencing is never easy.
My major problems began in high school, and since then I have had manageable times and not so manageable times. Moments of hope and moments of despair. I hit a very low point last year where my daily anxiety was so much so that it would keep me up all hours of the night crying, wishing and wanting to take my own life. Sadly, attempted suicides for individuals suffering from BDD may be as high as 25%, but fortunately for me, my strong family bond and personal willpower kept me fighting.
One terrible, no good, very bad night, while my anxiety began to elevate towards a full panic attack I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, laced up my shoes and ran out the door. This was not a planned workout like I had done so many times in the past when training for athletics, this was much different. I was running to escape the monster that was hijacking my mind. The alternative to not running out the door that night was not good, so I just went. This was no immediate cure, and I remember returning to the same obsessive and vulnerable state upon returning from that run. But I realized that during that time that I was out that night, I felt free from my burden. I could in fact run away from the monster at least for a short time.
Slowly my runs became more frequent and progressively longer. And I slowly began to notice more “happy times” post run. As well, the hours of this so-called “happy time” began increasing as my running schedule increased. And the wonderful thing about all of this was that it was an immediate and spontaneous action. There was no planning necessary for me, it could be done anywhere, anytime, and only at the cost of a pair of shoes. Furthermore, I did not have to interact with anyone along the way, which was normally a major concern for me. My mind could just detach and simply connect with nature around me.
After trying many different failed medications over the years, I finally was able to find one that has been relatively successful in decreasing my anxiety symptoms. Together with my running therapy I feel as though I am beginning to rewire my mind and make new positive pathways. Although I still struggle from my mental health disorder, and I know that I may never totally rid myself of it, I can now look at each new day without fear, and I am starting to imagine a successful and positive future.
At the beginning of this past spring I decided to set a year end goal of running an ultra marathon. Maybe a regular marathon would be enough (and I know for a fact that the mental health benefits of running kick in at much shorter distances), but I felt that with my athletic background and my seemingly severe condition I needed a bigger mountain to climb. And I knew the perfect one.
Enter Haleakala Volcano, Maui, Hawaii. Home to the posthumous “Run to the Sun” Ultra Marathon.
In 1977, two Maui teachers and cross country coaches challenged each other to run 60 km from sea to summit as a friendly bet. Upon succeeding in their gruelling challenge, the annual ultra marathon was born. And so was I. I came into this world on September 27, 1977.
Although the annual event is no longer held, I will be replicating the run with my own challenge. At 6:00 am on December 03rd, 2018 I will step into the Pacific Ocean at Ho’okipa Beach, Maui, harness the power of the sea within me and begin my journey of running to the summit of Haleakala at 10, 023 ft. (3,055 m) above sea level.
After leaving Ho’okipa Beach on the North Shore of Maui, I will briefly run West on the Hana Hwy before turning South down Holomua Road, immediately beginning my ascent to the quaint cowboy town of Makawao (Aid Station #1 @ 12.4 km (7.7mi).
From there I will continue South on Olinda Road from Makawao. I will then turn onto Hanamu Road before connecting to the #377 Haleakala Hwy. Once on the Hwy I will follow it South to the #377/ #378 Haleakala Hwy junction (Aid Station #2 @ 24.3 km (15.1 mi).
At the point I will turn East and begin my journey up the many steep switchbacks of the #378 hwy to the Haleakala National Park Summit Entrance (Aid Station #3 @ 34.6km (21.5mi).
The next section will continue along the road and consist of three longer switchbacks taking me to the Halemau’u Trailhead. (Aid Station #4 @ 41.7 km (25.9 mi).
At this point I will veer off the main route to the summit, and instead take the Halemau’u Trail heading East. This trailhead is located at 7, 990 ft. (2,435 m) and will take me towards a winding descent of approximately 1,394 feet (425 m) on rough technical terrain. Upon making my way down this cliff side I will then be running through the largest dormant volcanic crater in the world, and making my way through the lunar landscape of volcanic cinders and boulders made from Haleakala’s last summit eruptions. And I will continue along following the Halemau’u Trail to the Kapaloao Cabin on the South East edge of the crater (Aid Station #5 @ 53.6 km (33.3mi).
The final leg of my ultra run will send me West along the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) Trail. This last stage will be a test of my will as the trail steeply ascends approximately 3,000 ft. (914 m) over 10.1 km (6.6 mi). With crumbling stones underfoot, and a thinning oxygen level, a sprint to the finish will be highly unlikely. Puu Ulaula (Red Hill), the highest point on Haleakala will be my final destination of this run, where I will reach my final, and much needed Aid Station at 10, 023 ft. (3, 055 m).
Total distance covered will be 64.7 km (40.2 mi)
Total cumulative elevation gain will be approximately 11, 417 ft (3,480 m)