How often have you looked at your feet? There’s nothing like watching your toes wiggle in a soft, fluffy new pair of socks. Then there was the moment when you would look down upon your feet as a child and you put on a new pair of sneakers, and you suddenly became invincible; they were your Superhero cape, and of course you could run and jump faster and further than anyone around you, or at least in the store or in front of your house. Have you ever looked at your feet when you were crunching along a path with leaves during the fall? You can hear them, feel them, and smell them; your feet did that. We look at our feet as they sink into the snow. We can feel the crunch of the powder, we hear it, and when it wafts up at each step we can smell it-taste it.
We spend an awful lot of time staring down at our feet for things which are enjoyable. But we also know that with pride, confidence, maybe happiness, or just being present, we look forward- we look up. We are taught to look up at the world. When we look up and see things we tend to feel different about the world around us. We arch our backs, roll back our shoulders, look up and see the world with the biggest sense of ourselves. We make ourselves walk the walk, even sometimes before we can talk the talk; that too is a conscious decision to look up.
What about those whom aren’t always looking up, and in many cases are looking down on the world – or looking at our feet. When we aren’t looking up we tend to be in thought. When we are looking up and around we are taking in the world around us; we are present. When we aren’t present we are captured in thought -and usually it’s because something of importance is occupying us.
I’ve seen my feet go thousands of miles because I’ve spent a lot of time looking down. I became a long-distance runner in the last handful of years, and I realized I have been looking down. It was running which helped me focus my thoughts – good, bad, whatever… It was running which helped me understand my body, its needs, and how to better take care of it. It was also running which made me realize I had been running an emotional race my entire life. It had been a race which I have never been able to get ahead in. It was a race called depression.
Sunday, October 7, 2012 – Chicago Marathon Starting Line – Me, to myself… “I don’t belong here. All of these people actually know what they are doing. I’m not really a runner.”
Sunday, October 7, 2012 – Chicago Marathon Finish Line – Me, to myself…”I don’t belong here. All of these people actually deserved to finish. This was a fluke.”
I started running in 2011 to become healthy. I had been a twenty-year smoker and as part of quitting smoking I started running little bits before I would go and work out. I would start with a quarter of a mile, then it seemed like a lot just to run around a block near my house. Then I started running longer, and longer, and longer, until it really started to add up. The last time I had run three miles was my freshman year of college in 1993, and that was mandated if I were to pass PE 100. Now I was starting to run that distance on my own almost every single day. This was something which made me very happy while I was doing it. Endorphins are such a wonderful thing, aren’t they?
It was during this time I was asked by a few colleagues at work if I would like to run the Chicago Marathon. We three were all trying to be healthier and we thought it would be a good goal, and in 2011 you could still sign up for Chicago, because there was no lottery. I thought “what the hell, sure!”. Little did I know then that it would be put on the back burner, but it would simmer its way back to the front in the future.
Towards the end of the summer of 2011 many things in my marriage were coming to a head. I was married to an amazing woman, but things hadn’t been right in our marriage. No real need to go into all the things here, but after 12 years it was time to call it quits. Needless to say, but it was a difficult time. Running certainly became an outlet, and at this point is was just an outlet, an escape from the world around me.
Fast forward a few months, and I would need running as an escape even more. My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November, 2011. At this point I knew that my body was already going through fight or flight. I did everything I could to survive on a daily basis – so to describe my life emotionally at this time would be like painting a smile emoji. It wasn’t that I was happy, not at all, but I needed to stay above water in order to keep moving forward. The situation with my mom made that feeling grow even stronger – so running helped me maintain that big round smile. Christmas Eve 2011 my mother passed away, and my brain went into continuous fight or flight.
A few months went by after my mother passed, and I realized I hadn’t signed up for the marathon. Serendipity kicked in and I was able to sign up for the Chicago Marathon with the American Cancer Society. It was through the help and action I started with ACS which allowed me to access my ability to change – or at least the ability to think about how and why I looked at my feet. Training for my first marathon became the biggest period of learning I ever ever experienced, and I hope it remains to stay the case.
I have dealt with depression for most of my life – going back as far as at least five years old. Melancholy, sadness, even when things couldn’t be better. Add to that the life experiences of the previous year and it created a tsunami of emotions which peeked to a point where I had to find what the root was. My training for the marathon started and I began to structure my life in a way which gave a steadiness to it, which I can say was badly needed. I started eating better, I started to listen to my body, and I realized my body had been screaming. I started to see how my brain thought – which is also a symptom of my depression. All along I was looking down. Looking at my feet to see where they moved. This also meant to me that I was in thought. Being present wasn’t possible during training for my first marathon – at least not the majority of the time. I had the privilege of running in Sonoma, where I lived, and that included being in trails. Trails gave me harmony, and peace, but even with the amazing views I know I looked down most of the time.
After 16 weeks of a training program I grew in so many ways. Physically I learned to listen to myself, and I heard from myself that taking even an iota of time for my mental and physical being each day alleviated some of the depression and cleared my mind. It also made me see that when I didn’t listen to myself I saw a lot of the pavement and trails. I looked down in thought thinking about life. I thought about my life, the world, where I fit in, and many questions which popped into my head. Questions like: “Where do I belong?” That was the most interesting question which I have asked a lot while looking at my feet. It doesn’t matter my age or what I have accomplished. Depression is a beast which can take control of your life regardless of your standing or your life achievements. No one is exempt from the feelings which your brain can cause – and depression is truly a killer.
August 2011 – Long-run Sunday thoughts upon finishing an 18 mile training run: “I’m not fast enough. Everyone else doing this probably is taking this so much more seriously. Why can’t I be more serious?”
Training definitely helped me learn, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I was able to follow all the lessons in life. Training continued the same way, and as usual I would have my ups and downs. The thoughts I had during training finally made me realize that I have had depressive thinking most of my life – in all areas. It made the truth self evident that all my life it was easy to discount most things which I had achieved, regardless of the size or nature of what I did. It was very telling overall to what my thoughts about my self were.
February 2005 – San Francisco, CA – Hotel Monaco – Master Sommelier Exam before the tasting portion on Monday – “I feel ready. I know I can do this. I have this.” These are thoughts I had while walking around the block before my 8:30 test time.
February 2005 – San Francisco, CA – Bacar Restaurant After Results and my becoming one of 71 Master Sommeliers in the United States looking at the others which passed along with me – “They were so much better than me. I don’t belong with this group. I could have done better.”
October 7, 2012 I set off to run my first marathon. I had done all the training, literally going thousands of miles. I had run 21 miles and felt great afterward, but I still didn’t think I was good enough to run 5.2 more. My thinking, while I stare at my feet, were always in a dark cloud. This isn’t 100% of the time, but enough. Even on the most beautiful days I was running in a storm. Some times the storm was from things which were happening in my life, but much of the storm was internal – and it was there just because… I was running a world marathon major and still I could be doing better, or more to the point of my thinking, I wasn’t doing well enough. Looking down continued as a theme in my life. Even if I weren’t physically doing it, I was definitely looking down at my feet in so many aspects of my life. I became one of a big group of people that day to run 26.2 miles. I did it for my mom, and I also did it to help raise awareness for cancer. However, I didn’t end up doing it for myself at the end of the day. I couldn’t pat myself on the back and acknowledge my accomplishment.
Since my first marathon I have accomplished many more. In fact, I ran all six World Marathon Majors in a calendar year, that’s Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York – all in 2016. I have done countless halves, and the Paris Marathon. In the end I have run seventeen marathons, an IronMan 70.3, and sometimes I still don’t recognize the achievements. I still look down on my feet and think in a storm. What I am practicing is knowing that I have to be aware at all times. I need to be present with myself. I may have to fight with depression for the rest of my life, but I also know that means I will live with it – so I need to make it work for me. Regardless of achievements I know there can be a storm, so doing more or better will not make the storm better. Learning to live in the storm will make it go away.
I have learned to look down and turn that into a time to focus and clear my mind – you can call it meditation. I have learned to look down and stare at the leaves and hear them crunch. I have learned to look down on the trails and see my feet hit the dirt. I have also learned to look up. Even in the storm I can see the trees, and the path. Looking down can be a time of enjoyment, and not just a time to weather the storm. I am still watching my feet go thousands of miles, but I know that this fight isn’t a sprint – it truly is a marathon.
This is only part one of a much longer story. It is my story of living with depression. It is living with this in a career which can burn the candle at both ends and deals with alcohol – so it has its own built in self-medication. It is being in the public eye, and speaking in front of 10, or speaking in front of 1000, and finding a way to energize – because doing that brings joy. It is also about trying to balance life with friends, exercise, and doing nothing – the last which is the most impossible thing to do and can feed depression. At the end of the day it is not our accomplishments which make us whole. The next parts will get into much more about perception, and how even though things may look amazing from the outside, there may be deeper things which are happening. They will also address social media, daily work life, travel, friendships, and plain old everyday life with injuries, sickness, etc…