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For the final edition of my three-part series on mental health, I share the stories of three runners who have all overcome major challenges thanks in part to running. Through all of the stories that I have shared this month, I hope to combat some of the stigma and shame that often comes with conversations around mental health. Depression, anxiety, and trauma are not easy to manage and, in many cases, running is not enough. But physical exercise has been proven, scientifically and anecdotally, to help improve mood and mental health outcomes. If you connect with my story or any of those that I share, I recommend you visit nami.org for additional resources. And then head out for a run. You’ll be better for it.
Photo: Jonathan Martinez
Meet Marnie (@runstreet), running coach
I began running because I wanted to do a sport at school. Cross country had no tryouts and the highest team GPA, which fit me and my shy, bookish ways perfectly, so I signed up! From those early days on the cross country team, I have learned so much. Running helps me deal with stress, feel happier, stronger and more confident. It connects people to each other and the world around them. To me the mental benefits of running far outweigh the physical.
Running has helped me cope with so many obstacles in my life, from loss of family members to traumatic experiences and PTSD. Although I have run competitively most of my life, for me running has become much more than a time or race. Running is a lifelong way of being that helps me feel strong, appreciate being alive, connect with other people and the world around me and confront my demons through action. As a leader in the running community, I love helping people to enjoy running and connect with others and the beautiful world around us. Running is very social, and to have people come to my runs and meet new people, laugh together, and appreciate art makes me very happy.
Meet Raydime Polanco (@raydimep), Advocate, Afro-Latina Feminist, Marathoner, Artist and Captain/Pacer for Harlem Run.
I started running February 2014 after a snowstorm because that’s how desperate I was to find a way to cope with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Anxiety. At a very young age, I knew MY normal thoughts were very different from those around me and I was in and out of therapy since I was 14yo to treat my MDD. My last therapist encouraged me to take medication but I wanted to find other ways to cope. Personally, running is an accessible catharsis when I’ve felt overwhelmed and a constant self-esteem builder, a reminder that I can do so much more, on and off the pavement. Beyond myself, running has become a tool and a platform for change I use to normalize taboo topics like Mental Health and speak up for those who are marginalized. I am a leader in this community not because I run more or faster than anyone else, but because I take on the responsibility to build community by nurturing a safe space for people to be themselves—place where it’s okay to share our struggles and where we emphatically celebrate our triumphs, together, and that is its own reward.
Meet Natasha Alfaro (@tashaa_07), runner and single mother of two amazing boys
I started running back in 2013 when a friend encourages me to start running to help with my weight loss journey. I decided to run my first race in 2014 and, by 2015, I had already run my first marathon and discovered I had a new love for running.
Over the past three years, I have had learned many difficult life lessons—from losing my job of 13 years, to my dad’s escalating health problems and, to the one I never saw coming, my divorce and all that came with it. Falling into depression while trying to stay strong for my boys was the hardest battle I ever had to face in my life. My thoughts were always all over the place and my mind couldn’t understand why was this happening. I stopped running during this time because, to be honest, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. Until one day I decided to go back to my run family at Harlem Run. The welcome back and love I received from everyone was overwhelming but was exactly what I needed and, for the first time in a long time, I felt free. I started running again and with every mile I added I started to feel like myself again. Yes, it was hard and at times I would just stop, fall to my knees and cry in the middle of a run but I kept going.
Other than my sister and best friend, no one really knew what I was going through. So running became my therapy. I became one with my thoughts and although, talking about it helped, it wasn’t until I started believing in myself again that I was able to shift my whole way of thinking. I was back!
Today, I am beyond proud to be part of the movement with Harlem Run. As a leader in the movement, I have the opportunity to do what I love to do and that is help others, whether it is to reach their goals, push them past their limits, keep them safe or just give a simple hello. All of it brings me such joy to know that I am doing something positive to help the community—a place where strangers become family.