2 & 10 x 26.2

by Michael G.

As I write this, it’s 11:30 PM, November 9 in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete. The days have blurred together and I really don’t understand how it’s Thursday night (Friday morning!?) already. One vacation of races and no sleep has bled into another with a bigger race and slightly more sleep. I’m awake, despite my friends and I getting to our hotel over 3 hours ago so we can make our very early flight to Athens. As it turns out, our hotel sits directly above a club. It is bouncin’. I'm tired and have no idea how coherent this will end up being, but also won't bother to proofread it before posting. I expect my friends will give the hotel a pretty negative review because even I, the easiest sleeper in the group, am unable to sleep consistently through the night–and I have seen them both get up tonight already to use the restroom much less well rested than I. I wish I could give them my ability to sleep, but I can’t. I wish I could give them respite from their irritation, the rest I can get that they can’t, or the previous rest I was able to accumulate on flights and in car rides that they weren’t also able to get–to give them what comfort I have that they don’t. But I can’t. Such is life.

The above isn’t really that important except to lay the atmosphere for when I’m writing this. It’s just over a week after the second anniversary of my first marathon. I should have written something last year. I wanted to and planned to, but was terribly unhappy with everything I produced. Such is life.

In just over 2 full days, I’ll be running my 10th full marathon–yes, 10 marathons in just over 2 years from my first. Getting obsessed with things is rather characteristic of me, to which anyone who knows me well can attest. 2 years of training, half a year of mistakenly thinking I was burning out on running despite not liking it any less (more on this in a bit), and 2 years of continuing to grow have all led to my 10th marathon being about as close to the origin of the sport as you can get: running the Marathon in Athens, Greece. I’m excited, but there’s so much more bouncing around in my head. Such is life.

My last marathon was just 3 weeks before the upcoming one. Being the Marine Corps Marathon, it was a beautiful race–easily my second favorite full marathon so far, decisively edging out the Chicago Marathon but not holding even a small candle to the bright light of the New York City Marathon (both the world’s largest and my first). The Marine Corps Marathon was beautiful, emotional, and an incredibly fun course–and personally filled with obstacles. I ran into some stomach issues I haven’t experienced for a race (couldn’t get fuel down and “bonked” as we say when referencing when a runner doesn’t have enough energy consumed and just runs out of energy). I struggled to get through the end portions not because of fitness, but because my stomach wouldn’t let me eat the fuel I’m used to. (As an aside, I increasingly think a good portion of this is my anxiety exhibiting itself in ways it hasn't before, not actually a stomach-related medical condition. Oh well.) It was frustrating, but it was also a friend’s first full marathon and that enthusiasm trumps absolutely any difficulty I might have had. (More on this sort of thing later, too.) Such is life.

This past weekend I was in Walt Disney World, in Florida. I loved it, as I always do. It was a race weekend: The 2017 Wine & Dine Half Marathon Weekend. I came into the weekend carrying the disappointment of having recently discovered Disney decided to cancel all of the 2018 Disneyland races in California. This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that over a year ago I had made the decision I would run every single runDisney race across the Disney parks in 2018. That means 9 race weekends (3 races each: a 5K, a 10K, and a Half Marathon) across 3 parks: 4 in Disney World, 4 in Disneyland, and 1 in Disneyland Paris–with one of the Disney World weekends (the first weekend of the year) including a 4th race, the Walt Disney World Marathon. I was so excited, had budgeted out the money and vacation time… and then the registration never opened for the Disneyland races. I waited. And waited. and waited. And then was disappointed to hear about the cancellation just a few weeks before this recent race weekend. And then, while I stood in costume in the front of the pack before the start of the 2017 Wine & Dine Half Marathon, Disney interviewed a guy who in 2016 did exactly what I had hoped to do–and will not be able to do due to reasons outside of my control–in 2018. I was actively sad, but also having a great time. I do every one of these races in a new and different costume. I had gotten attention in the pre-race festivities due to my costume and, it turns out, got included in the official runDisney Instagram post for the day! I knew I’d get over the disappointment of being unable to do the full suite of Disney races in 2018 and will keep an eye out for the first year it will be possible again. Besides, the whole weekend I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the first two Disney race weekends of 2018 will have friends coming with me–and I can’t wait! Excitement for the future trumps disappointment. Such is life.

Just over two years ago, I nervously went into the New York City Marathon… and I had a blast. My race pictures almost all contain me with a big stupid grin on my face. It’s difficult for me to explain the elation of that experience. I loved every minute, loved exploring the city, loved the crowd, had beautiful weather, and it was a life event I’ll never forget. I have no idea if running through Athens, Greece will feel similar, but that’s ok! If I never feel the same thing again, the memory will stick with me. And the things running does for me won’t be diminished. Running gives me time to think. It gives me time to process emotions, abstract thoughts, and… well… depression. That last one is a monster: one that doesn’t fade, doesn’t leave, and doesn’t get easier. It’s a strain on my life, on my relationships, on every single day, and on most thoughts with any sort of depth. Such is life.

My depression is not a thing I hide from people, but it’s also not a thing people tend to realize unless I tell them about it. To those who have it, it’s hard to describe. It’s difficult to pin down all the ways it drags down our ability to function in normal life. It’s difficult to describe how much it disconnects others from us without them realizing. By its very nature it fights our ability to do the very things we know we need to do to address it. It is ever present, insidious, and deep rooted. It doesn’t let go. It tells us we’re not worth loving. It tells us our desires are unworthy. It tells us there’s no point to trying at the things we want because we don’t deserve them. It tells us we should abandon the good things we have going for us because we’re wasting others’ time. It causes us to wake up with an impulse to quit jobs we love, and have loved for years, because we’re clearly terrible and don’t deserve what happiness we have. It tells us not to ask for others’ help because their attention is best spent elsewhere. And by its very nature, the people who love us and want to help us work against our own efforts to pull out of it and, unfortunately, make our stress in the moment worse. We love them and know they mean well, but without experiencing it themselves–or being taught by those who truly understand–the best meaning loved ones exacerbate both depression and that horrible beast cousin anxiety. Loved ones can listen, though. Sometimes the work lies on those of us who suffer, but sometimes they learn to ask others how to help us and learn that way. And it helps. It really, truly, helps. Knowing we’re loved always helps, regardless of whether or not particular actions do–and whether or not that help is enough for us at the time. Depression sucks. Love from those around us is good. That love isn’t enough sometimes, though. Such is life.

Very recently, I had the worst bout of depression I’ve had in a long, long time. The worst since my initial diagnosis… over eleven years ago. I didn’t understand at first. I just assumed I was having a hard time. After a while I realized the thought processes and approaches I’ve spent years honing just… weren’t working. I couldn’t get through a week without an especially dark moment any more. I decided I needed to go to my doctor… and then months went by. Because depression fights our impulses to resolve it. I eventually got to the point where every ounce of effort I had was spent just avoiding breaking down into tears going through my every day actions, without people around me knowing. The ideas of normal productivity and high level mental functions made sense to me but were so far removed from my momentary experiences that they weren’t worth any mental time. Due to an abundance of support, as I have always been blessed to have, I was eventually able (after far too long) to get a doctor appointment made, get a prescription, and medication has helped make some inroads. Thus far it hasn’t solved the problem, and I’m still struggling, but after a few weeks it was undeniable that I could very clearly tie my restored ability to function in society to medicine. Depression sucks. Love from those around us is good. That love isn’t enough sometimes, though. Sometimes love just helps us get to the solution we need. Such is life.

So here I sit, as club music is thumping beneath me, looking forward to landing in Athens, Greece for my 10th marathon at the home of the sport. As I sit here, I think of running. I think of my depression and all the people who get it as well as the people who don’t but help anyways. More so, I think of the love I feel for so many people who are nowhere near me right now. All the love for so many people who don’t–and probably won’t ever–really understand the love I feel for them. This isn’t some high-minded overvaluation of my ability to love compared to others, but rather a sadness of the limitations of how we communicate. Language is limited, and the same exact words that might describe our own meanings end up limited by the way others use those same words. When I tell people I love them, I know they don’t understand what I mean. When I get the opportunity to really sit down and explain, I can nudge people closer to that understanding, but it never quite gets there. People hear what we tell them through the filters of their own experiences and, without some major practice at not trying to relate everything heard to something directly knowingly felt or experienced, this inevitably translates to largely misunderstanding others’ feelings–whether in intensity, scope, or conditionality. Add in all the many people I’ve never explicitly told I love them because of the awkwardness that would entail given peoples’ expectations around words (if you’re reading this, chances are far better–nearly a guarantee–this includes you than doesn’t) and the problem threatens to be overwhelming. In the end, it matters more that we love people than that they know we love them or they understand that love. It matters more that we’re trustworthy than trusted. It matters more that we’ll look after them than they realize we are. There are two reasons we might want others to recognize our love for them. The first is so that they’re less likely to fight us on it and we can therefore help them more thoroughly and easily. The latter is, essentially, selfishness–a desire to be recognized and validated. Learning to wish for the latter but not require it is hard, but important and very rarely understood. This particular mix of a great deal of the former with very little of the latter is, as far as I can tell, rarely fully understood–and probably the single most helpful thing at my disposal outside of medication for working through the very worst moments of depression. If I can just keep moving forward, I can keep doing for those I love–whether they understand it or not. People don’t get it and won’t get it, but I don’t need them to. I just need to keep loving them as I do. Such is life.

With the various stresses of depression, and love for others, I don’t take well to our society’s (to me) insane obsession with competition. I don’t accept my advancement at others’ expense and don’t much respect much in the way of personal aspiration the way it’s most commonly exhibited and celebrated. From our legal system, to our economy, to our sports, so much of our society is very clearly unhealthily obsessed with a might-makes-right mentality: a weird obsessive and clearly demonstrably false idea that pitting people against one another not only always produces the best outcome, but should be encouraged to the degree that clearly distasteful behavior should be shrugged off when done in the name of victory as merely being an inevitable byproduct of an inherently (somehow) virtuous system. When people very clearly take advantage of others, we too often hear excuses about someone being “a good businessman” as justification where it very obviously is not justification to anyone with an ounce of moral honesty. Sports fans get weirdly agitated and angry when referees/officials make judgement calls against their preferred team–despite those calls very obviously being the correct ones according to both letter and intent of the rules. Thousands of people are wrongly convicted in legal systems, while obviously guilty parties go free, and people shrug it off because lawyers on both sides were simply doing their jobs in a system that values victory over truth. I’m not going to pretend to know the solution to any of these, but the society-wide justification of these clear issues is troublesome. This society-wide obsession with competition infects so much thinking about relationships, love, and how we treat others. Instead of focusing on the many ways this negatively presents itself in the advice people give one another about relationships (of all kinds), it’s worth noting how much distance running culture is like a personal antidote: highly cooperative, encouraging, and minimally competitive. One person’s success almost never comes at the expense of another’s. Completion is completion. A faster time is a faster time. The pool of truly competitive runners is so minuscule that in my experience runners just help each other work towards their next goals and little else is so equitable. If I’m attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon, it’s highly unlikely that helping even 10 other people toward the same goal is going to have any influence at all on whether or not I make it. I ran a 10K (The Peachtree Road Race) with over 50 thousand others that also served as the 2017 United States national championship for the 10K. I ran the same course as world class athletes and started mere seconds after them. (I finished much more than mere seconds after them…) Coincidentally, this past Sunday’s Walt Disney World Wine & Dine Half Marathon was also the first race at which a woman (Giovanna Martins of Brazil) became the first ever woman to win a major (10,000 men + women participants) half marathon (http://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/fitness/os-sp-2017-disney-wine-dine-half-marathon-20171105-story.html). I was there and started mere inches from her! (In fact, I’m actually in that article’s photo gallery–taken from the runDisney instagram account–both in a single from-behind finisher photo dancing in my Chef Mickey costume and in the zoomed-out start line shot.) On the very same day my good friend ran her second marathon, her first New York City Marathon, while Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman to win the NYC Marathon since 1977. With this equitably, this alignment of elites with normal people, and the incredibly encouragement that happens upward and downward, running becomes a more selfless, friendly sport than the many others corrupted by a desire to win over a desire to witness the beauty of human achievement and performance. Cooperation toward independent individual improvement vastly trumps competition both in sport and in helping work through mental and emotional struggles. Alas, unhealthy competitive attitudes remain far more common. Such is life.

I could probably write forever and should stop at some point, so I suppose I’ll leave it at just over 2 hours (it's past 1:30 AM now) and this: a brief beginning of a journey into how distance running, love, and depression intermingle–the latter largely helped by the former two. Running, or something like it, is likely to be ever present in my life moving forward as a way to work through my depression and to learn how to better articulate and act on my love for others. Two years and 10 marathons are just the beginning.