Why Running a Half Marathon Was About My Brain, Not My Body

Mental health and half marathon

I’ve been running for 12 years. It was never anything serious and mainly just a way to maintain some semblance of health and wellness in my life. I wore subpar sports bras, my shoes were often past their expiration date and when I’d see my reflection in a storefront I was often reminded that my form was more T-Rex than gazelle.

I never ran long enough to catch a robust runner’s high, but my short runs certainly improved my mood and helped combat bouts of depression.

So in 2016, while coping with a few disappointments in other parts of my life, I made running a serious endeavor. While some people sign up for half marathons to get in shape, I dropped $115 on a registration fee as a way to maintain my mental health during a particularly trying year. It was about proving to myself that despite being kicked in the teeth a few times, I could still succeed and take control of my happiness.

Brain Training

It was up to me to train for this race and eventually cross that finish line.  My husband was also participating but even with a running partner, it was still up to each of us to get out there and put one foot in front of the other.

Half marathon training starts out innocent enough. If you’ve been running at all, which I had, the first few weeks are a piece of cake. You do some three and four-mile runs. You feel confident, you gleefully exclaim, “THIS IS SO EASY.”

Then, the first long run happens. For me, that was an 8-miler. This would be the longest distance I have ever run.

While it was tempting to blow it off, I had already told anyone who would listen that I was running a half marathon. So, I had to get into the right headspace.  My run was scheduled for a Saturday, so I went to bed early the night before, ate a healthy dinner and mentally prepared.

Real talk: After 5 miles, I hated this life choice. Who does this to themselves? However, I was in too deep now. I had three miles to go and I’d done that plenty of times!

But my shins were sore. I overdressed for the weather. I was chafing. Yet I powered through because I spent the next three miles entrenched in my thoughts. I began thinking about all kinds of things: Work, my plans that night, the dead rat I almost just stepped on. I started using the long runs to sort out my thoughts.

For the next several weeks, the mileage for my long runs creeped up to 9 miles, 11 miles and eventually 12 miles. Every single time was a physical challenge – I cried on the 12-miler day – but my mental wellbeing had improved exponentially. The longer the run, the more time to think about stuff that would normally weigh me down throughout the rest of the day. Although running was monotonous at times, it allowed me to tap into my creativity and explore some ideas I had.

Spoiler Alert: I Crossed the Finish Line

Cue Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”

I finished the half marathon in 2 hours and 24 minutes. Although walking proved difficult the next day, I felt an immediate and enduring boost to my mental health post-race.

I was reminded that I do have energy and stamina to push through tough situations and the overall feeling of accomplishment can’t be understated.

I didn’t lose any weight from training (apparently you can’t eat all the pizza you want despite running 12 miles) but physically, I did feel better. My sleep was more regular and I felt fitter. So even though I didn’t race for the physical benefits, they actually made me feel better mentally.

The race gave me the confidence I was lacking this year. It was a reminder that when I take positive steps toward things in my control, I ultimately feel better.

Jen Jope

Jen Jope

Jen is founder and editor-in-chief of Depression Defined.
Jen Jope

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