You Can Run But You Can’t Hide: A Runner In Recovery

I've been enjoying the snow this year for more reasons than not.
I’ve been enjoying the snow a lot more this winter.

Hi Salties. It’s me, Ginger. I’ve been away for a while. Where did I go, you ask? Well, well. It’s been quite a journey!

I started running when I was sixteen. The summer going into my junior year of high school I began going for walks around my neighborhood, complete with my Sony Walkman. I’d leave the house for almost an hour at a time to enter my own little world, a world in which I had not a care. Eventually, I flirted with running and the rest is history.

Running provided an escape. But it would take more than ten years to discover that you can only try to escape for so long until life kindly greets you with your enemy.  And if you face up to your demons, eventually a frantic escape can relax into being a safe space once again.

I’m the product of a broken home. I grew up with a mother who tried her hardest to make the best life for my sister and I, even if it meant getting a second job at McDonald’s. I grew up with a father a thousand miles away from home, who I know longed for the days of the past. I grew up seeing my sister in pain, the kind you can’t see physically. I grew up thinking it was my role to protect, rescue, and remain strong.

No emotions allowed. Pain averted.

I turned to psychology.  It only made sense that I would enter a line of work where I was recreating the scenes of my past: constantly on guard, hyper-aware, attend to and fix. I fooled only myself in thinking that this was counseling. Giving all of yourself to others and nothing to yourself eventually lands you on the other side of the couch, and that’s where I’ve been.

After my Akron marathon DNF, I continued to experience an increase in panic attacks, a condition I have struggled with since 2006. A week later, I found myself in my friend’s bathroom, shaking and staring at myself in the mirror, barely recognizable. My gracious friends drove me to the hospital. I was ready to be admitted to the psychiatric floor.

The loss of my grandfather in June certainly contributed to an increase in my panic attacks and overall anxiety but I had been on an emotional demise for much longer. Underneath, I was empty. Inside was a black hole. As a people-pleaser, it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you are constantly getting built up by others. I was deeply depressed.

That Saturday night they didn’t admit me. However, that Monday I was referred to an Intensive Outpatient Program (or IOP) at the same hospital. IOP typically lasts anywhere between 5-10 weeks and takes place in a group setting. Most IOPs are for eating disorders or addictions but there are also IOPs for recovery from anxiety and depression. My program was such and occurred four days a week for three hours a day. Most patients use FMLA time to commit themselves to the recovery process, and I was no exception.

In the early stages of my treatment, I couldn’t have cared less about running. My days’ greatest achievements were getting up and getting dressed or brushing my teeth. My body was so physically worn down that I didn’t even notice I went ten days without coffee. By the third week, I had gotten some energy to buy a membership at a local FitWorks, but when James and I arrived for our first workout I just sat on a recumbent bike, occasionally pedaling but really just watching TV while he ran. Sounds depressing. It certainly was but the difference was that I was finally allowing myself to feel my emotions, the good and the bad.

My IOP lasted roughly 9 weeks. The primary method was a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). In DBT, a major focus is on the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being fully aware. For someone with high anxiety, the first place to start is in slowing down. Mindful activities such as word searches and word scrambles (my favorites!) help one learn how to attend to the moment and to take in how the activity feels, smells, sounds, tastes, and looks.

Making cookies was the perfect mindfulness exercise, especially slowing down to frost these puppies!
Making cookies was the perfect mindfulness exercise, especially slowing down to frost these puppies!

My treatment also included medication intervention. This was my first time using medication to address my anxiety and depression so I was a bit hesitant. The reluctance grew when I had to change medication halfway through my program, but the change was for the better and within three weeks of starting the new medication, I noticed significant improvements in my energy levels and overall well-being.

Roughly a month into treatment, I began running again, albeit very slow. I spent these very therapeutic slogs to reflect on how I previously used running to escape from my childhood pain, just as someone struggling with an addiction uses drugs to escape. At times in my life, running was the only thing I could count on. It made sense then that it was the last thing to go (see marathon DNF) before I shed the skin of my old self. It is often said that times of crisis and trauma are actually positive events for creating a new YOU; that increased anxiety is actually your body’s way of making room for potential growth. But in order to do so, one must let go.

Letting go is the hardest thing to do. This concept is an ongoing challenge in my recovery. I was previously running away but the feelings were still there, bottled up inside. My panic attacks are their way of trying to escape. Good ol’ Freud sums it up perfectly by stating that we have a natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When I felt pain running, I mistook it as strictly physical pain, when it was also the pain of self-doubt and judgement. I believe this is why I had been stuck running the same times and paces over the years.

Now my running feels better than ever. I don’t go in to runs trying to predict how I am going to feel. And when I do experience some physical discomfort, I try to stay with it, just as I try to stay with the discomfort of sadness, anger, and fear. The biggest takeaway from IOP is that recovery is a process, often better referred to as recovering. I am still recovering.

As I head into the new year, I remind myself daily that there’s no reason now to run away from any kind of pain, anymore. Thank you everyone for all of your support in the past, present, and future!

Happy. New. Year.


I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it took a lot of guts to write it and make it public. I’m glad you are getting the help you need, and I’m glad you are running again!

    PS: Walkman!!! It brought me back a little!

  2. Really inspired by your bravery in facing your anxiety and fears and taking action. And so glad to see you’ve made it to the other side of this tough period and have begun to truly heal and to enjoy running again. I also applaud you for the courage to write about it here, as your honesty and vulnerability in sharing these struggles will undoubtedly encourage those who are walking (or running!) down similar paths.

  3. Ginger, You are the epitome of a beautiful human being. I adore you for the honesty and strength you have in facing your difficult childhood years and going through the process of recovery. Thank you for sharing your emotions with the many friends who care and love you.