It’s hella cold in San Diego right now. 42 degrees, to be exact. I’m curled up in a blanket on my couch with a mug of tulsi tea in my hand and a dog at my feet. I couldn’t feel more content with my life at this moment, which is a far cry from how I felt this morning.
As someone with severe bipolar depression, every day is a crapshoot when it comes to my mood. Even with medication, I still wake up every morning with a cloud over my head, and it’s even worse when there are literal clouds outside like there have been almost every day lately.
Exercise Is My Most Effective Antidepressant for Bipolar Depression
I have one guarantee when it comes to depression–that 30+ minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise WILL make me feel better. That doesn’t mean I’m always able to work out when I’m feeling blue. Sometimes I can’t muster up the energy to put on my Altras or drive to the gym. But it’s comforting to know that there is something that can “cure” my illness, even if only for an hour or so.
I first learned about the antidepressant power of exercise in 2005, when I walked the Camino de Santiago as a college student. We averaged 16 miles of hiking a day for about five weeks. I’ve never felt more joyful in my life, and that’s saying a lot for someone who also deals with hypomania.
When I came home that summer, I fell into a terrible depression that didn’t let up for about a year. I grieved for my life on the Camino. I was only 19 years old, but I thought I had already experienced defining achievement of my life. What more was there to live for? That sentiment has lessened over the years, but it has never left me entirely. Until now.
Joining a Community Running Program for Health
In 2018, I joined a group of three coaches and 13 athletes known as the Lucky 13. Together, we trained for and competed in the Carlsbad Half Marathon on January 20, 2019. You can read more about the origin of the program in my previous post here.
To be honest, the program wasn’t that challenging for me physically. I ran/walked a half marathon in March 2018, and I’ve been doing fairly rigorous strength training for several years.
But mentally, Lucky 13 challenged me in ways I never expected. And it opened up new doors, causing me to believe, for the first time since 2005, that the best is actually yet to come.
Finding a Sympathetic Running Coach
One of the best parts about being in Lucky 13 was having a running coach who also has bipolar disorder. Coach Paul gets me like few others do. Multiple times I texted Paul before a workout, and his encouragement got me off my butt and to the gym in spite of my depression.
I also really appreciated that he knew when not to push me–like the nights I couldn’t sleep before a long run, and I chose to sleep in instead of meet the team in order to prevent a hypomanic episode.
I always made those missed runs up later, and it was rather encouraging to realize that I could log 10 miles by myself. While I still struggle with motivation, I definitely have a greater sense of self-efficacy and find myself pushing through the depression more often than I used to. Hopefully, I continue to improve in this area!
My Unofficial Sports Psychologist
The hardest part of Lucky 13 was the weeks leading up to the race. I was wiped out by a respiratory infection at Christmas and missed three weeks of training, including our longest run of the season. Then I started looking at my stats from my first half marathon and realized that I was likely to run the Carlsbad Half about 15 minutes slower.
It was a bit of a blow to my ego, to be honest. I was proud that I could run 13.1 miles without stopping (remember, my first half was run/walk), but I felt so stinkin’ slow averaging a 12:30 pace during long runs.
I brought up my dilemma in therapy, of all places. Cognitive behavioral therapy is all about debunking false beliefs, known as cognitive distortions. It’s premised on the idea that if you can correct these distortions, your emotional state will improve and your behavior will follow.
My therapist and I spent a whole session on the cognitive distortion: “If I don’t PR, I’m a failure.” I realized that I had in fact achieved what I set out to do with Lucky 13. I had trained my body to run a half marathon without walking and improved my form significantly, avoiding injury as a result. I had also become way more consistent with my exercise routine–not a small feat even for those not dealing with bipolar.
Despite feeling like a failure, I was actually an incredible success!
Race Day Was Glorious
Equipped with a new way of thinking, I went into race week feeling solid mentally and physically. The race went off without a hitch. The weather was incredible–high 50s warming up to the 60s. I relished running along the coastline in Carlsbad and the energy from all the people cheering us on.
I had a big group of friends and family just before the finish, plus two Lucky 13 teammates who couldn’t race due to health issues. My favorite part was running by them with less than ¼ mile to go and giving everyone high fives. I felt so strong and empowered at that moment–even though I had just completed 13 miles!
I crossed the finish line with a time of 2:45:16, exactly what I expected. Even more exciting, everyone on my team who started the race, finished. For a group of people who are all struggling with health challenges, including prior hip replacement surgery, knee issues, and more, it couldn’t have gone better.
What’s Next? NYC Marathon, Baby!
Now I’m looking to the future, excited to continue building on the foundation that I established with Lucky 13. On November 3, 2019, I will toe the line at the TCS NYC Marathon with my Uncle Dave from Long Island. We’ve talked about running this marathon together for the last couple of years, and I’m so excited to make it happen.
I’m actually using the race to raise $3,500 for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, an organization that funds research and advocacy for inflammatory bowel disease. I have colitis as well as bipolar, so this is a cause that is near and dear to my heart.
Now that I’ve gained some mental strength, I’m really excited to push my body and see what it is capable of. Coach Paul has graciously agreed to coach me for the marathon and says he’s going to go way harder on me this time around. In the meantime, I’m planning on running two more half marathons to keep working on speed, cadence, and overall consistency.
If you have any questions for me or would like to donate to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, please visit my Facebook fundraising page at https://www.facebook.com/donate/350931279072537/. If you have IBD, DM me through Facebook; I would love to include your name on my race bib and run in your honor.
Christine Anderson lives in Vista, California, with her husband, dog, cat, and frog. She spends most of her time working out (she loves strength training even more than running) and vacuuming the fur left behind by her two long-haired pets.