Running to Survive


A few months ago, I put out a call on Help a Reporter Out asking if there were any combat veterans who had used running to help with their transition back to civilian life. A number of veterans responded, but there was one whose story stood out to me.

“I used to call running ‘my happy place,'” he wrote to me. “It was where I could collect my thoughts and bring clarity to my life…to get ‘centered.'”

He started running in the Army and found it a useful tool to combat stress as he transitioned back to civilian life.

“It became more poignant,” he continued, “when my wife initiated a divorce shortly after my transition. At that point I did all I could to stay busy throughout the day with work and other activities. However, the evenings right before bed and the mornings right after waking up were the worst. That’s when you don’t have the defenses of activity to distract you and all the emotion catches up to you. Those are the times you can’t hide from it.”

It was during those times that running began taking on a new meaning in his life.

“I began to run at 9, 10, 11 pm at night. In those times when the quiet caught up with me, running was my drug to make the bad emotion go away.”

For years, studies have shown that running almost instantly improves mood and is beneficial to those suffering with depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

“Exercise brings about a mood change almost immediately,” says Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University and co-author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety. “Within five to 10 minutes after exercising, people notice, ‘Wow, I really do feel better.’”

The veteran who contacted me chose to run at night. He also chose to run a peculiar route.

“The route I chose,” he wrote me, “took me through a graveyard.”

“I remember many early mornings a fog settling in the graveyard,” he continued, “and how my pace quickened for that 1/2 mile. I called it ‘running scared.'”

The route also took him down a secluded dead-end street. Instead of turning back, however, he chose to scale a 12-foot high fence–“which felt a little like an Army obstacle course”–at the end of the street.

“Looking back, the dark roads, the graveyard, the dead-end street, and the fence were symbolic for me. I overcame those obstacles just like I overcame my stress.”

“I was showing myself on a daily basis that I would come out of the adversity and survive.”