From Anxiety to a Half Marathon

Looking back on my life, I’ve always suffered from anxiety from one degree to another. Without a doubt, there were times when it would flare up more than others and it took me years and decades to understand why. I could probably list one hundred reasons, but after many years of varying degrees, I am choosing to focus on the solution.

Defining Anxiety

First I want to define the word anxiety. The word is thrown around so much nowadays, that I think it’s important to understand the actual meaning:

A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. A desire to do something, typically accompanies by unease. A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessiveness uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior and panic attacks.

Around 2010, I had reached a point with my anxiety where I always had some Xanax on hand. I wasn’t taking it regularly and I wasn’t addicted to it, however, I was dependent. The pills were my answer to coping with the “nervous” feelings I would experience. Doctors treated the symptoms and never recommended a lifestyle change of improved diet and exercise.

“Growth begins when we start to accept our own weakness.” 
~Jean Vanier

What Happened

During the winter of 2011-2012, after several years of intense anxiety and panic attacks — the type of attacks where you think you’re having a heart attack and are convinced you’re going to die  —  I was tired, worn out and fed up. I didn’t want to rely on medication for the way I was feeling, but I also didn’t want to feel the way I was feeling either.

I finally said F-it! I grabbed the prescription and flushed it down the toilet and went to the gym! I told myself (and my anxiety) that I was done with allowing “it” to control my life. {Note: I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone. If you’re taking a prescription, please see your doctor before making any changes.} This was a major turning point for me.

At the time, Planet Fitness cost just $10 a month. That’s $2.50 a week. Less than I was spending on one latte at Starbucks. I got on the treadmill. I started running, then felt like I was going to throw up, so I walked, then I walked faster, then I ran for a few minutes, then I walked again. This went on for 30 minutes, which is what I committed to that day. I did it! I finished 30 minutes of self-inflicted torture, but I did it!

I went back again two days later and did the same thing, only each time I returned for another session, I ran longer and longer. After the first week of going to the gym four times, I signed up for the Cooper River Bridge Run, the annual 10K race in Charleston. I’m goal oriented, so this helped me focus. I now had less than three months to “learn” how to run about 6 miles. Ha!

“When you accept and love parts of yourself that you deem unacceptable, a strange thing happens. Those parts start working with you instead of against you.” -Anonymous

This wasn’t an easy process. Sometimes it felt like a moment-to-moment struggle. At first, all I could do was tell my anxiety to shut up. Eventually, I learned that what I needed to do was make friends with “it” because it wasn’t going away entirely. There are some days where (let’s use the pronoun “she” for anxiety) she’s okay and content, but there are other days when I’ve had too much coffee or too many things on the calendar and she gets irritated and annoyed and, momentarily, she is in charge. May sound a little weird to those who don’t experience anxiety or not enough to see it as an issue, but for anyone who has or does experience anxiety, or has experienced a panic attack, probably understands what I mean.

Shifting Mindset

So, back to the running. I had always told myself “I couldn’t run,” this along with many other things I had been telling myself. The truth was that I could run!

Other runners would likely understand too that the experience of running is, at times, a mind game. Sometimes it’s just setting these small goals in your head like I’m going to make it to the next street corner, or I’ll keep going for another two minutes, then I’ll stop. Then you run two more minutes and realize that you can keep on going. When you do this repeatedly, that’s where the strength and confidence building. It’s very gratifying!

After only a month, I began feeling better, actually I began to feel well. I was stronger, less anxious. Less than three months after I started running, I finished the Cooper River Bridge Run in 1:06:58. The night before the race, I felt like it was the night before the first day of school. I had my new clothes set out and my alarm clock set to get up at o-dark-thirty. I was exhilarated and excited. I was also anxious, but having a track record of a few months of running behind me, I was also confident and knew I would finish.

That spring, the universe brought me a running partner. This was unexpected and helped me take running to another level. Susie showed up at the bus stop one day when we were both picking up our daughters. She had running clothes on and after a brief conversation we had scheduled a time to run later that week. Up until then, I had been running at the gym on a treadmill. With the exception of the 10K, I was a treadmill runner. Susie, on the other hand, was a street and trail runner who, I later came to find out, had been running for 25 years, completing eight marathons during that time. Talk about being anxious.

Support & Accountability

Susie was great! She was patient and encouraging. We were running together twice a week for about seven months when one day she called to see if I’d be interested in running a Half Marathon in Jacksonville, Florida. Oh, and by the way, it’s just six weeks away, she told me. “What?” Up until that point, the farthest I had run was a 10k. After wrapping my brain around what would be involved to even consider this feat, I said yes.

For the next six weeks, I upped my game, running at least five times a week (4 to 5 miles each run) and each weekend upping the long run, which meant the Saturday before the half marathon I ran 10 miles in preparation, which was the longest run I had ever accomplished in one session.

On February 17, 2013, I finished the half marathon in 2:09:07. Susie finished in 1:47. I could write a full chapter on my Half Marathon experience, but I’ll save that for my next book.

Susie and I continued to run together until she moved to Colorado in 2013. We still stay in touch and the last time she visited, we did go for a run. Earlier this year, however, I transitioned from running to yoga, which is working for me now, but I’m eternally grateful for the running experiences I had and for Susie’s support during that time. What I learned most from that period of time is that I am so much more capable than my anxiety gives me credit for. The movement of the body and the release of endorphins and the subsequent effects is the best medicine. That combined with good food, supportive and healthy relationships, and a true understanding of oneself, are the best gifts you can give yourself to be joyful and content.

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