Running in the Dark: A Division I Runner's Struggle With Depression

Running in the Dark: A Division I Runner's Struggle With Depression

By an anonymous former NCAA Division I runner:It was the final interval of a long track workout the week before my last collegiate race. The feelings were a

May 24, 2016 by FloTrack Staff
Running in the Dark: A Division I Runner's Struggle With Depression
By an anonymous former NCAA Division I runner:

It was the final interval of a long track workout the week before my last collegiate race. The feelings were all too familiar and unwelcome: heavy legs, burning arms, and disappointment with my inability to run a pace that was once easy.

I moved out to lane two as my teammates blew by me on the track running their own workouts. Like time and time before, I choked back tears as I finished the interval with embarrassment. I cooled down alone, crying.

After every workout, the same string of thoughts ran through my mind: I suck at running… where did my talent go… I'm not tough anymore… I'm such a disappointment to my coach… I don't want to race and embarrass myself… I can't do this anymore.

It's not that I didn't care or wasn't trying. I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I would never be good again. I was so mentally defeated for so long that nothing was possible anymore.

I spent that night as I spent most other nights that school year: in my room, crying and trying to figure out what was wrong with me. My grades were sacrificed. I was valedictorian of my high school class, but now accepted Cs and Ds. It was impossible to focus on school when running was going so horribly. I was consumed by failure.

In high school, I was the typical Division I track/cross country recruit. I had good grades, and was an All-American, state champion, and multiple-course-record holder. In college, I was immersed in a sea of Division I student-athletes with the same credentials. I was no longer special.

It was a struggle. The pressures of performing at a high level in a discouraging, cutthroat environment are hard for some athletes to handle. There are many ways to handle it, but what do you do if you can't?

Depression is a real problem in collegiate running that is often ignored by both coaches and athletes. When a program's reputation and scholarships are on the line, mental health takes a backseat to performance. In certain programs, you either score points, or you're swept under the rug. When athletes are put in the position where they must sacrifice their health, something must be done. And it isn't all caused by running--grades, relationships, and pressures to succeed all feed into it.

But for many in this sport, if running is going well, life is going well. And if running is not going well, the rest of life suffers, too.

What is it like to be a collegiate athlete with depression? It is often mistaken as mere sadness. When people say, "I'm depressed today," they often feel temporarily sad.

Depression is not sadness. It is weeks, months, years of inescapable darkness. It is worthlessness. It is restlessness and exhaustion at the same time. It is isolation from the world, a suffocating weight, sleepless nights, mental games, and inexplicable, constant tears. It is suicidal thoughts, because what could be more unbearable than this horrible feeling? It is incomprehensible unless you've seen and felt it. And to those who haven't, it's just sadness.

I walked to class with tears streaming down my face for no other reason than not being able to bear the weight of being a student-athlete any longer, even though I loved it. I sat at my desk looking down to avoid being embarrassed by my tears. An entire class would go by, and I wouldn't hear a thing. My mind was too busy racing with anxiety and fear and anger and disappointment.

The pressure of a scholarship dangled in front of my face day in and day out was sickening. Progress destroyed due to injury was unbearable. And nobody knew. Nobody would understand. I felt helpless. I decided to reach out to school counseling for depression, but that quickly became a nagging session of "you runners are too skinny; we need to monitor your eating habits." 

So that was my first--and last--cry for help. As an athlete, I suffered alone because, if I said anything, I was "making excuses" for my lacking performance. People will say that depression isn't a real reason to underperform--it's an excuse; it's weakness. It's something you should be able to overcome if you are a tough athlete.

But that is not the case. Depression is not a weakness, and sharing your feelings with others and reaching out for help shows strength.

Four years of running were darkened by painful shadows. But I saw graduation as the light. I made it to that final meet of my collegiate career, overwhelmed with sadness before the gun even went off because I knew I was going to fail. My mind was unable to think in any other way. I crossed the finish line nearly in last place, ran to my parents, and ripped off my singlet. I was overwhelmed with relief. It was over. Never had I felt so exhilarated to leave behind something I once held so close to my heart.

Nearly a year later, when I look back at my collegiate experience, I still feel regretful, upset, and confused. 

But I also learned things that would have helped me get through those dark times: 

1. Being an athlete does not define you. Growing up, I was always identified as "the runner." That is how people knew me, and when that was gone, I felt like I was nothing. While it certainly feels like that at the time, there is so much more. I am a sister, a daughter, and a friend. I am working toward a career. I hope to one day be a wife and a mother. When running is not going well, remember you are more than a runner.

2. Mental health is always more valuable than a race, or a time, or points. It is more valuable than a scholarship. Athletes need to know that, and coaches need to preach that. When running is not going well, remember that life is much bigger. It is not worth sacrificing.

3. There are many athletes who are suffering and need to be intercepted by support. Never feel like you are the only one, and never feel embarrassed to tell someone you trust. People want to help, but are unaware of how you feel. And if their response is "snap out of it" or "nothing is wrong," find someone else who truly cares. You cannot simply snap out of depression, and those who tell you that do not understand.

4. More help needs to be available. Athletes need to know exactly where they can go and who they can trust with these issues at school, and coaches need to encourage their athletes to seek help whenever it is needed.

Despite competition, runners are a family and need to protect one another. It is important to recognize and address depression in collegiate running to protect our family and create a healthier sport.

My life after college: Almost exactly a year after graduation, things have settled down. It's difficult when you're lost in the vortex of college life to clear your head and let go of the negativity. After graduation, I moved south to begin a three-year graduate program in a completely new place. I contemplated running my fifth year in grad school, but I just needed a break.

Being in a new environment helped me separate myself from the bad experiences and rediscover the things I love in life. I took a couple months off from running. I wanted to love running again, and needed time to be a normal person and let my body crave it again. I am now training normally, and getting back into pretty good shape. In high school, I reached 70-mile weeks, so I'm slowly working back up to that again.

I've been out of the competitive scene for quite a while, but I'd love to nudge my way back in when I'm ready and really give it a go. I look at professional runners and realize I still have a good 10 more years to see what these legs can do.