Beacon of Hope 5k: A Story of Triumph

I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2007. The diagnosis wasn't at all a shock; it came at age 19 after battling those feelings for most of my teen years. It's been 8 years since I sat in that psychiatrist's office, my long-time suspicions finally confirmed, and depression has now been something I've lived with for half my life. Sometimes it lingers in the background, other times it pushes its way to the forefront, without warning and with a take-no-prisoners force. It's something I've struggled with for almost as long as I can remember, and something I know I'll live with forever. Over the years I've seen therapists, taken medication, tried yoga and meditation, but nothing has helped me as much as becoming a runner 4 years ago. I know, I know. What a cliche, right? Any number of Google searches related to tips for dealing with depression would show "Develop a regular exercise routine" at the top of the list. I didn't start running as a way to battle my depression, but it's turned out to be my best weapon against it.

Four years ago this week, I ran my first 5k, my first race ever. Four years ago I didn't worry about whether my breakfast would bother my stomach during the race. I didn't know that compression capris or shorts probably would have been more comfortable than the cotton yoga pants I was wearing. I wasn't nervous when I lined up at the start line. I didn't have any time expectations or any goals other than to put one foot in front of the other until I reached the finish line. The race was only about a month into the Couch 2 5k program I was running my way through, but when my dad told me he was going to be running in this race with a team from his church, I knew I needed to participate. It was a small, local 5k, put on by a depression and suicide awareness organization called I Need a Lighthouse. I might not have been able to run a full 3.1 miles back then, but I had way more than 3.1 reasons to go out and make that race my first.

It was a beautiful, warm day at the oceanfront when I crossed my first start line. The sun was shining and the waves were rolling on the beach as I ran down the boardwalk. I remember getting to the first mile marker in 9 minutes and 30 seconds and realizing I hadn't stopped once. I know Ben warned me about going out too fast, and by the turnaround, I was starting to regret doing so. I know I slowed during the second mile and eventually stopped to walk. I was getting hot and tired (I had never run for more than 22 minutes before that day) and, the kicker, my iPod - my one source of running entertainment and motivation - died with 3/4 mile left to go. I don't know how much of that last mile I walked (I just know it was a lot), but eventually the finish line got closer and closer.

Four years ago, I could never have imagined how crossing that finish line would change my life forever.

I get reminders about that race every April, urging me to sign up, but I never had the urge to run it again until this year. When I noticed that the date was the same weekend I was moving to Virginia Beach, I thought it might be a nice way to celebrate moving home and kick off my summer. I toyed with the idea of running it for a couple weeks - I was sure it would be fun, but if I ran it I wanted to have a chance at racing it. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I looked up the times from the previous year and realized that, based on last year's results, a normal effort 5k would have put me at the top of my age group. I've placed in my age group a few times before (the result of a happy accident an so a few times before, it's just always been a happy accident) and felt a little bit like a fraud to aim for something like that.

As the race got closer and the reality of moving across the state and into a new apartment the day before the race started to set in, my goal of placing started to become less and less important. Not only that, but as I thought more and more about the race and what it stood for, I just didn't feel right about trying to compete. Maybe another day, but not this one. I knew that so many people out there would be there for the same reasons I was 4 years ago, and none of those reasons included competition. Maybe that sounds like an excuse or a cop-out, but it's the truth. Four years ago at that start line I was capable of running 3.1 miles without stopping and, truthfully, I wasn't sure I ever would be. Standing there this year and knowing fully well that making it through the race wouldn't be a problem for me was its own victory, no matter where I ended up in the rankings.


So Sunday morning I found myself on the boardwalk, the same one I lined up on 4 years ago. The same one I've run countless races on since, the same one where I've set multiple time and distance PRs. I listened to the singing of the National Anthem, and before I knew it, the countdown had begun. 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1...I was lined up close to the front so I crossed the timing mat at the start line after just a few steps. I was immediately surprised at how good my legs felt - I'm not sure they've ever felt so fresh at the start of a race, like they actually had springs in them. I was so incredulous every time I looked down at my watch and saw my pace in the 7:20s, without my breathing feeling labored or my legs feeling like lead weights, and after a quarter mile I started to settle into a 7:50 pace.

As surprisingly fine as I felt running at that pace, I knew I still had more of the race in front of me than behind me, and I feared burning out like I did the very first time I ran it. But unlike the first time I ran it, this time I was armed with all the things I've been able to push through in the last 4 years. The last time I ran on the boardwalk was during the Shamrock Marathon in March, so I tried to remind myself how this experience paled in comparison to that one (I could have been 10 miles in with 16 left to go instead of 1 mile in with 2 left to go!).  The race runs south along the boardwalk before turning around and heading north, and there was a bit of a headwind heading south but I knew if I could just make to to the turnaround, it would be smooth sailing from there.


As we approached the turnaround I started making mental notes of the leaders, specifically how many women were ahead of me. I counted 6 - even though I told myself I wasn't going to race it if that just wasn't in the cards for me, I had to now. Just in case. Shortly after the turnaround at the halfway point I passed one girl (and prayed she wouldn't speed up and pass me) and set my sights on another girl up ahead. I chased her for over a mile, getting closer and closer with every step, and with .1 left, I gave it everything I had to try to pass her. I don't think I've ever completely drained my legs like I did running toward that finish line at 6:08 pace (Garmins don't lie, right?). I thought about elite runners who finish just barely behind the person in front of them. "Why didn't they run just a little faster?" I'd always wondered. Well, I now know it's because they were already running as fast as they possibly could. Running as fast as I possibly could didn't allow me to pass that girl (I later found out she was the winner for our age group and beat me by 2.5 seconds), but when I stopped my watch after I crossed the finish line, I was shocked and happy to discover that it had earned me a shiny new 5k PR.


After my change of heart about racing this one, I really wasn't prepared to put in a PR effort (I even wore my "Run Your Run" tank just in case I forgot!) and never gave it a thought throughout all 3.1 miles. My only goal was to race with my heart and that is what I did. I was truly surprised to find that running felt so effortless, and that just made this race feel like even more of a celebration. A celebration of triumph. Triumph over all the little voices in my head that have ever told me I'm not good enough, that I'm worthless, that I can't do anything. They are there and they are very real but running has been the one thing I've found that can consistently quiet them. Running is the lighthouse to guide me home in dark, stormy waters, the one I searched for for so many years. It is my therapy, my solace, my beacon of hope.

17 comments :

  1. Ok, I loved absolutely everything about this. (Also, full disclosure: When I have a race coming up, I check last year's results. I can't help it. I just want an idea of what I could be up against!)

    You ran an awesome race, and I loved the story behind it. I'm so glad running has had such a positive impact on your life, and I love seeing how successful you are with it. This makes me even more excited about the 5k I have coming up this weekend. At this point, I can only dream of having a pace like yours, but that's ok. I just want to run a good one.

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  2. That is beautiful! The race and your story. I'm so glad you found something that can help you with something so difficult. I've definitely been starting to notice an effect on my mood and stress levels from exercise, but I have trouble convincing other people that I'm not just bullshitting them. Something as oft repeated as a cliche is worth trying, especially when it's something so inherently healthy.

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  3. Goodness - this is beautifully written... in so many ways. I fight depression daily so I get the pressures that puts on life... so cheering you on reading this race!!!! What a fantastic job! SECONDS in front of you... look at you girl!!!

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  4. I love this post. I hope this doesn't come across as a cop out of a comment, I just don't have anything constructive to say besides I love every word of this post, I loved reading your journey and this race recap. I'm happy for your PR and overcoming those thoughts. I would say I didn't get teary but it's me we're talking about, so duh of course I did.

    I have never been diagnosed and I would never say I suffered from depression because I don't want to belittle someone else's real journey, you know? But I've obviously had mental issues from about 11 onwards, mainly body image / eating disorder wise. I was in and out of hospitals for several years and it's something I think about every. single. day. Every day, I think 'I wonder if you can survive on 500 calories or less today'. I know it's stupid. I know it's not logical. I know I'm not fat. I know, I know, I know. But I can't stop the voices, those thoughts, you know? Except with running. When I started running, I realised if I didn't eat and tried to run, I would pass out or get sick. I needed fuel. It was the first time I really realised food is fuel and I should treat my body right and I can't run without being nice to myself and eating properly. I wanted to run, so I ate properly. Every day, I think to myself I can't run (or yoga / gym) unless I eat properly, and it is vital to my sanity to run, so.. eat I do. Anyway, I didn't mean to make it about me but I always do ;) I just wanted to say that I am so so happy that running has been such a positive in your life and I hope it continues to be for both of us.

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  5. I didn't know about your struggles with depression, so first off- let me say I think you are amazing for sharing this so openly and honestly. I've told you a zillion times and I'll say it again- YOU. INSPIRE. ME. This post was so beautifully written and congrats on the amazing PR and all you've done!

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  6. I just love how you share so many pieces of you. And how honest and real you are. Your race story was truly amazing and goes to show that even if you don't set out to really accomplish and push yourself....it is just in you to do so! Congrats on the PR and for being such an inspiration.

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  7. I love this race and what it stands for. I love it for you and for being a thing in the world. I love this post, and I love that if one of us was going to have a good Sunday, it was you. This was important and I'm proud beyond words of you. Not only for what you did in 3.1 miles on Sunday (6:08!?), not only for what you did in the past few weeks that brought you to it, but for everything you've done as long as I've known you and in the many preceding years that I didn't. I'm proud of you for posting this story and sharing this part of yourself with us. Thank you for letting us in on what this race means to you so we can celebrate with you adequately :) Congratulations on this amazing race and on the last four years. And thank you for being an incredible and unrelenting role model for me.

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  8. I love running races that mean something. I think that's why I don't like signing up for any race that's near me... I don't care as much about collecting medals as about having experiences. Thanks for sharing more about your story! I'm glad running has been such a great thing for you. Congrats on your PR! Full disclosure? Reading your blog lately has been making me sad that I can't train for a PR or sign up for any races right now. Which is totally not your fault, obviously. But I miss running! Anyway, tangent. You're not the only one who scopes out the previous year's times to see if they could place. I landed 4 in my age group once. The top 3 got something, and that's the closest I've ever been! I was bummed.

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  9. I love reading all of your running posts, but this one gave me a little excitement as I read it. I love that this was your first 5k race, and what you said about just the fact that you ran this weekend and knew you would be able to run and finish it without any problems-- compared to your first time running it. Buuut still so awesome that you placed and had a new PR! Your last few seconds of running and trying to pass people sounds like how I feel-- but obviously racing against my own time, haha. But really, I love your openness in this- I'm so happy that running turned into something that has such a positive impact on your life in so many ways.

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  10. Tracy I love this post for so many reasons but mostly because you're just so inspiring. I work with people with depression and it can be a real struggle. We should talk about it more and I so appreciate that you're honest about your journey. Also, what a fantastic victory. It totally sounds likes you ran your race and then just kicked butt at it! Congrats girl and good luck with the move

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  11. I hadn't known about your struggle with depression, but it his close to home for me. Thank you for sharing your heart with us and for being so honest! I feel like I say this with every comment I leave but holy cow girl, you're a BEAST! ;) so proud of you!!!! Look at how far you've come in these 4 years!

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  12. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Tracy. This was absolutely beautiful. I'm so glad you decided to run that race, even with so much else going on. I've thought many, many times, I don't know where I would be if I didn't have my running. It is a lifesaver for me as well. Awesome job on your pr!

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  13. This is such an incredible story. Running has done so much for me mentally, as well. And I don't think non-runners can completely understand how cathartic it can be. I was so proud when I finished my first 5k but it was a beer run and now that I actually take running serious, I don't know if I could chug a beer half way through so I may not do a repeat! I'm coveting a Garmin lately, so I might need to pick your brain on recommendations soon!

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  14. Oh my gosh I'm now tearing up at my desk at work after reading this (I never read blogs at work but for some reason I did today of all days and now I'm crying in my office haha). I love that you are so open about your struggles with depression. My Mom was diagnosed with clinical depression over 15 years ago and every day is a battle for her - I'm so glad more and more people are being open about their own struggles so the mentality behind mental illness can change. You were my inspiration before this post but this just solidified it for me!

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  15. I love how much your running journey means to you and it is so inspiring. I think it is amazing that you shared your story and the strength people are going to get from reading it. You have come so far in 4 years and I know you will only continue to kick ass and cross off goals :)

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  16. Congrats on the PR and for sharing your journey to this race :)

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