Running & Coming Back to Life.

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Sophia free as a bird in the Nelson mountains. In her happy place! Photo by Paul Petch.

Sophia free as a bird in the Nelson mountains. In her happy place! Photo by Paul Petch.

The relationship between running and mental health has been thoroughly written about, widely discussed and thankfully taken out of the dark confines of the Taboo. All I can add to the conversation is my own experience – my journey through the confusing darkness of depression and eventually back toward a healthier happier place.

When I was at university, I was miserable. Really miserable. I’d started out full of life, passion, hope and positivity. Growing up, I loved learning, challenging myself, and had good relationships with my friends and family. I thrived on adventure and had capital-B big plans for myself.

But slowly slowly that light in me dimmed until I woke up three years later to find myself thirty pounds heavier, lost in a grey cloud of confusion, scared of the world around me and thrashing between apathy and misguided rebellion. I saw a psychologist and was diagnosed with depression. I went on antidepressants. I waited to feel better and didn’t. I finally decided (well, ‘decided’ is probably the wrong word, as I felt out of options) to leave university and moved from Portland, Oregon to New Zealand with my sister and parents.

Slowly slowly I started to feel better until one day I woke up to find myself back to a healthy weight, using my body and exploring the world around me, cautiously nurturing big plans for myself. I decided to give my final year at university a shot. I had a pit in my stomach when I thought about returning to a life that didn’t bring me happiness, but there was a staunch part of me that needed to at least attempt finishing what I’d begun. So I moved back to Portland and started arranging my life around the goal of an academic path once more.

That leap into the unknown left me with a couple scrapes and bruises, but it it was the beginning of a journey that opened me up to what I really needed and wanted for myself.

But not all of me was on board. Just before enrolment, a close friend in Portland asked about my plans and saw straight through the party line. “You don’t want to do that,” he said, and it felt like he’d punctured a balloon of building pressure. All of me seemed to exhale with a relief so profound it was like an earthquake that permanently shifted the tectonic arrangement of my life. It shook me into seeing a desperately needed alternative, an escape hatch that didn’t need explaining. I could just leave academia altogether. It didn’t have to be “sensible” to be right for me.

Two weeks later the two of us embarked on a road trip through the American West. We explored the big wilderness of the North Cascades, the canyons of Utah, the high country in Colorado, and the deserts of the Southwest. We camped and lived out of a car, getting out to beautiful places for the golden hour every sunrise and sunset. I started running, climbing, and learning about photography. I came to life in a way I hadn’t known before.

That leap into the unknown left me with a couple scrapes and bruises, but it it was the beginning of a journey that opened me up to what I really needed and wanted for myself. It led me eventually to a rewarding career in Clinical Pilates, a rich relationship with running and the running community, to my best friends, to a deep love of the outdoors, and back to my family in New Zealand. It took several years to fully shake myself free from depression and understand how it had affected me and my relationships, but for me it did always seem to come down to a moment of trusting my gut and moving toward what was right for me, toward what filled me with life.

Then slowly slowly, the rituals and rewards of running began to give me a deep well of joy, a reserve of strength, and a wealth of priceless experiences.

Then slowly slowly, the rituals and rewards of running began to give me a deep well of joy, a reserve of strength, and a wealth of priceless experiences. I found the most strength and fulfilment in running’s small quiet moments: falling into step with a loved and trusted running partner, the smell of wood smoke and crisp mountain air, the squish of soft single track underfoot, the relief and thrill of gravity on a downhill, golden light filtering through trees, waves crashing over rocks, birds swooping and legs churning. I found the feeling of coming back to life.

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Sophia Walker
Mountain runner and Clinical Pilates Instructor. Loves adventuring, writing and taking pictures. Based in Nelson, NZ.
Sophia Walker

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