How Running for Mental Health Helped Me Through Grief and Depression
I can remember the evening like it was yesterday. The cool, yet warming September sun was
blazing into my bedroom window. Leaves not yet changed, but ready to gear up for the
cool weather ahead. I sat on my bed, right next to my window, enjoying the bright
rays of sunshine as I studied for my spelling test the next day.
My father came into my room and asked me if I wanted to go up to the high school track
with him and run. In my mind, I thought “run?” I’ve never seen my father run a day in his
life. He was active in other ways, coaching my sports teams, walking and hiking, and
skiing, but he never just went out for “a run”. Weird, but hey, it gets me out of studying. I
thought, "let’s do it".
We lived right down the road from Lenape Valley High School, so it was an easy walk up the hill to the track. That warming sun felt even better outside and the cool breeze was so familiar to the welcoming of early fall. When we arrived on the track he said, “Alright son, we are going to walk the straights and run the curves.” And so we did.
How My World Changed
That night, Monday, September 10, 2001, would be the last I would ever get to see my father. The very next morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was pulled out of my homeroom
classroom, and consoled by my teacher who wept and wept and kept saying “I’m so sorry”
over and over again. I had no idea what could have possibly happened. My mind raced
and raced, I knew something bad had happened but what? What was it?
As she escorted me to the main office, the walk down felt like an eternity. My body tensed up, chills took over me, and I felt scared. I was shaking uncontrollably. We rounded the corner and into the office where multiple teachers, staff, and administrative members stood. Trying to hold back their tears as they looked me in the eyes to tell me that two airplanes have flown into the World Trade Center.
I fell to my knees and cried. I felt like my whole life, my being, had just vanished. I went numb and blank. My father, Joseph Vilardo, worked in the North Tower on the 104th floor for Cantor Fitzgerald. That day, not only impacted me, my mother, and my sister, but all Americans. It was a day that I will never forget, and a day our nation will never forget.
Running for My Mental Health
As the years went on and I moved throughout High School, I could feel, quite plainly, nothing. I thought this feeling of nothingness was normal, I didn’t know any better. I played sports, had a lot of friends that I still have today, and even won Mr. Congeniality my senior year. This is odd to me, but in hindsight, I kept a facade of happiness and outgoingness, to mask the pain and darkness of my depression inside.
I started weightlifting which seemed to help significantly for a short period of the day. But it wasn’t until one night a year, after I graduated, which I like to refer to as my darkest internal intervention, that I hit rock bottom. I knew I needed to do something because I couldn’t do what I was doing anymore. I had two options. I chose the second, which was to lace up sneakers and go for a run and try to do something.
I don’t remember how far I went, but I do remember the feeling that I had when I got
finished. It was something I have never felt before and something I knew I needed
more of. Every day from there on out I would lace up, and go for a run. It's a trend I haven't stopped since.
Running has an amazing way of not only benefiting a person in a physical aspect, but in the
mental aspect as well. The science continues to prove running has anti-depressive and anxiolytic effects. What’s happening in your brain during exercise, and running in particular is nothing short of amazing. It’s not just the old phrase “runners high” but actual regeneration of new brain cells and increased BDNF (Miracle Grow for the brain) as author John Ratey puts it in his book Spark, which looks at all the neurological changes happening in the brain as you run.
I felt and still feel these effects each and every run. These weren’t understood to me then,
but during the darkest of days, I can easily say, something that many people say and
continue to say. Running saved my life. Now running is one of the strongest tools in my toolbox to help manage my depression and anxiety. It allows me to be the best father for my two children, Joseph (6), Emma (3), and an even stronger husband to my beautiful wife, Anastassia.
Bringing Running to the Community
My running journey has taken me all over the world and allowed me to meet some of the most amazing people and see the most beautiful places. The best part is that Sussex County, New Jersey has some of the most beautiful trails and roads to run and train. As a resident of Sparta and now back in Stanhope, in the house I grew up in, I knew our county and community needed a run/walk specialty shop that could help provide not only the gear and experience but also a sense of community and purpose.
Having to drive 40 minutes, sometimes even more in order to get running shoes and apparel was ok, and the other shops in the area are wonderful, but we lacked a true running community and camraderie close by. Those two components are the core of what a run/walk specialty shop brings to an area and Sparta, I knew, was the perfect place to bring this. So, after nine years waiting to be able to find a life path that could offer both purpose and profits, I decided, in 2020, during the pandemic, that it was time to bring Root Runners to life.
Root is an acronym I use that stands for Running Over Our Troubles. This includes daily stressors, life balances, work, family, mental illness etc. Running is used as an outlet by so many and I want to help individuals maintain their running routine and also help those that are jsut starting out with their running journey. I want to inspire people to become active through running and I want to educate on the benefits it has on mental illness.
When we break down the shop part of Root Runners, we carry major brands such as Brooks, New Balance, Saucony, ASICS, On Running, Altra, Mizuno, and more. Socks, nutrition, recovery, and apparel. We have it all to help everyone sustain and maintain or enter their journey. We have a 3D scanner that allows us to get accurate measurements of not only heal to toe and width, but arch height, instep, heal width, and more. We listen carefully to our customers and their needs. All of this combined helps us lead our customers in the right direction in choosing footwear or gear.
The Impact of Running on my Life
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five Americans will suffer from a mental illness during their lifetime. I view running as a strong, first-line treatment to many problems that we face today. In fact, in other countries, exercise is used as a first-line medical treatment as opposed to just prescribing a pill. And that’s not to say that there aren’t many, many circumstances that require more than just physical exercise, but if you can combine running into your treatment, the benefits will be amplified.
Being able to look back and see the incredible journey, of both the highs and lows, and how running has been able to help me become a better me is something I want to make sure I can share with everyone. I want everyone to know that it's okay to not be ok and that there are ways they can improve on themselves. After all the best investment you can make is in yourself.
I talk a lot about running and its impact on my life, and it has undoubtedly given me a way to manage my mental illness and life stressors, but without my foundation of support from my mother, wife, family, and friends, I would not have been able to pursue any of the opportunities that have come my way. I am blessed beyond belief to have them all in my life and forever grateful.
I’ll end on a very valuable lesson I constantly reflect on, but one that I have truly felt
embraced me during the King Salmon Marathon in Cordova, Alaska. As I ran through
some of the most picturesque glaciers and trails in what felt like a Discovery Channel
episode, hoping not to get attacked by a brown bear or moose (which apparently
happened in previous years, hence the escort of UTVS) I stopped midway. I glanced at
God’s most beautiful creation of land, took a breath, and remembered that being
mindful of our purpose, our emotions, and our abilities is the most precious gift when
it comes to becoming our best selves. We do not worry about the future or regret the
past, we do not play victim to events but instead flourish and take action. Being Mindful
Matt Vilardo is an entrepreneur, father, and mental health journeyman. He's also the owner of Root Runners in Sparta, NJ. The sport of running and its impact on our mental health is his sole focus throughout his profession and individual responsibilities. Being Mindful Matters.