The Art of Using Running to Combat Pain
A personal story of grief, running, and learning what it means to become a runner
Words by Tyler Hayes
Illustration by Liam Cobb
My mom died in June 2018 after being hit by an Amazon delivery van. There are no words to describe the pain of sudden, unexpected loss. But, after this last year, I guess it’s a pain too many people will be familiar with at a gut level. In spite of past emotional baggage, her death was by far the most traumatic event I had ever gone through.
In the months following her passing, I knew the trauma would take its toll so I tried to be prepared for it. I made an effort to get outside every day. I took walks to breathe fresh air and keep moving. I tried to stay ahead of the effects pain brings, but soon, and with little awareness, it came to consume me anyway.
I put in just over 200 running miles throughout 2019 as I tried to deal with the grief. I needed an escape from the pain and anxiety. I ran more in that year than I had in my whole life combined.
Running worked for the first few months. I was able to use exercise to exhaust myself and deplete my emotions. That wasn’t hard to do in the shape I was in. Slowly but surely the process of lacing up my shoes turned into a habit and the miles began to stack up. During this period I had time to seriously consider why I was actually running. In what ways was I expecting running to save me?
Somewhere between that first purposeful run in February 2019 and the present, I went from being someone who goes running to being a runner. That is, actually identifying as ‘a runner.’ It’s a small distinction, but one that has loomed large in my mind as I try to work out how the sport figures into my life.
As I ran more I became more interested in the different aspects of running. What type of clothing felt best? Why were there so many different types of shoes? Was there a certain way to run? And, of course, why do so many people choose to run? I took mental notes of my unscientific observations. I read about running. I talked to people who run. In a multitude of ways, it all said that we’re running to fix something. Whether it’s something physical we’re trying to improve or stave off; or whether it’s more mental and emotional, there seems to always be something nipping at our heels. More often than not, I’ve found it’s because of something hidden and unseen. If you ask someone why they run, in a moment of transparency and honesty, I think you might be surprised at what they say.
Even though I had consciously tried to preempt the pain from my mom’s death back in 2018, it still came for me. Social anxiety was present. My mind became dark and signs of depression were eventually so obvious that even I could see them. Anger became a quick and familiar emotional outlet. Too often sadness would become more than just a rational response. It turned into a feeling of being constricted and suffocated by the air around me. For those unaware of that feeling, it’s one that pulls you in and then drains any desire to leave its grasp. It’s often contradictory in feeling like pure evil, but also able to make you rapidly accept it. Depression is a brutally effective curse.
Looking at my health data in hindsight, everything peaked in January and February of 2019. My weight, body fat percentage, and resting heart rate were all higher than they had ever been.
Then, in February 2019, there was a specific night that remains lodged in my brain. The blood in my veins was vibrating. Something wasn’t right. It felt as though a combination of rage, uncertainty, and immense sadness was bubbling just beneath my skin. I was desperate to eradicate the sensation and so I grabbed the most athletic shoes I could find in the closet and headed out. I ran until I had to stop and walk and then I went home. In that moment I had found relief. I had escaped through running.
Running seems uniquely positioned to deal with a sudden release of emotions. Compared to other, more intimidating, exercises, it presents a sense of accessibility and ease that makes it tempting to newcomers. It gets chosen by a lot of people when circumstances are hard to bear, without much forethought. That’s why I immediately thought to put on shoes and just run.
In 2020 I ran over 1,000, mostly isolated, miles. The five fold increase over the year prior came largely because of COVID-19 and quarantine guidelines. But over the miles I contemplated, on and off, what it meant to be a runner. Was I a runner now? When could I claim that title? Through internal debate, I decided that being a runner is more than participating in the sport of running.
I also came to the conclusion that running won’t save me from my grief. No matter how good it feels sometimes. But if I’m only running because I’m trying to feel whole again, then I’m probably only delaying disappointment. It’s easy to miss, but I think there is a distinction in whether we are going running to try and be healed by it, or whether we’re running while healing.
Throughout 2020 I lost a meaningful amount of weight. I drastically improved my v02max capacity, as well as learned what v02max was! I accomplished personal records and then shaved whole minutes off my PR. I pushed further than I ever had before. The accomplishments felt substantial, but none of them seemed to be soothing my grief.
Instead, in carving out space to be a runner, it has afforded me the time and ability to breathe – mentally and physically. I’ve had time to more deeply consider how to handle the things still hanging over my head. Going running has been great for my mental and physical health, but becoming a runner has been instrumental in learning what things the sport can’t actually help to change. And which ones it can.
One evening in early 2020, before anyone had heard the name COVID-19, I knew I needed to go running to try and rid myself of a terrible day. My kids had been arguing and bickering for hours. A writing assignment had fallen through. I generally felt a heavy weight and bad attitude hanging over me. I was sure I could rid myself of these things if I just went out for a run. I silently told myself that I could exhaust myself and then I would be too tired to be bothered. These annoyances would fade away.
After three miles at a pace that was pressing my legs, I came home tired. The bickering hadn’t died down and with little warning, I instinctively still found myself exploding in anger. The exact place I didn’t want to be and had thought I could use running to avoid. Almost immediately it became clear that I couldn’t out run my faults and scars.
The relationship between running and grief is a delicate one. It’s a sport that bears a lot of weight as people try to unload their pain and grief on it. Even without a major traumatic event in your life, I think we’re all understanding pain in a new and unique way coming out of 2020. It was a year that pushed on all of our stresses in one way or another.
Whether you’re trying to out run something or not, be aware that there might be a heavier weight you’re carrying. And running might not fix it. There’s a beauty in loving something for what it is and not the illusion of it. For me, that’s the realization that I need to leave the sport out on the road and finish dealing with the other parts of pain and grief that running can’t help with.