Running for the mind

Anthony Avellino credit Jubilee Paige

by Anthony Avellino |

Neurosurgeon Anthony Avellino on how running helped him to mentally recover after he tried to commit suicide

In September 12 2009, I attempted to take my life. That moment started me on a journey to wellness; to achieve a better work-life balance, optimum performance and lead a more healthy, peaceful, and purposeful life.

A plan is essential for developing confidence and achieving your goals. What I have learned is that the road to a healthier, more purposeful life requires that you listen to discover your life’s journey, learn from your failures, and then take steps to heal.

Here’s how running was crucial in healing my mind.

I have had a lifelong battle with stuttering, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, depression, and suicide. I continually fight these battles. I have come to learn that I am not alone in the community of ultra-runners to struggle with depression and mental health problems.

Considerable research points to a higher incidence of depression among athletes in ultra-endurance sports. In a thesis by Jill Colangelo of Harvard Extension School, 523 runners, triathletes, biathletes, skiers, cyclists, adventure racers and others were studied. It was found that, while the incidence of a mental health diagnosis in the general population is approximately 20%, 47.9% of the participating females and 26.5% of males reported a previous diagnosis.

But I did not need a study to confirm what I knew from personal experience. Ultra-running has become a coping skill to battle depression. I want to share my experience to help others gain the insights and skills to heal, find purpose, and live and achieve a happy, healthy, and extraordinary life.

 When I exercise, I am a better father, husband, friend, and paediatric neurosurgeon. Research has also found that many ultra-runners experience a great deal of self-exploration and self-awareness while running.

I am at total peace when running as it enables me to think more clearly, appreciate the beauty of the trees and mountains, which calms my mind, and enables me to develop mechanisms to tolerate depression and pain better. On my long runs, I continually practise mental toughness by concentrating on pushing through the pain wall as, after two to three hours, your body does hurt. To redirect the pain and remain in a stable mental state, I count with the alphabet (i.e., 1-A, 2-B, 3-C, etc.), to redirect and calms my mind.

When racing I can connect a purpose to help me through a period of grief, depression, or anxiety. For example, in August 2021, I ran my first ultra in two years. It was the North Country 50km in Manistee, Michigan – an uphill run in high heat and humidity. The race was three days after the death of one of my close friends from lymphoma, at age 49. Around mile 25, my legs were heavy and painful. I started crying as I was overcome with grief knowing I’d never see my friend again. I looked at the sky and prayed for him. I felt a wave of peace and spirituality as I felt his presence guiding me to the finish line where I ran one of my best races, finishing first in my age group with 6hrs 28 mins.

Ultra-running also helps me tackle anxiety and depression because of the support system of close friends I have gained through my journey. And the physical and mental training I do prior to a race gives me a sense of purpose and an ability to develop mechanisms to navigate my depression.

 I have found inner peace through ultras; they require you to prepare, start, work as a team, focus and finish. Training and competing in them continues to help me learn self-coping skills to overcome mental and physical challenges. Having the ability to navigate the unexpected and not lose control physically is key. You need to keep your emotions in check to develop solutions to overcome the unexpected, like missing a turn and running further to get back on course.

 Life is like an ultra. You must stay in the present and let the journey unfold. My wife and I have developed TACTICS to achieve a healthier, peaceful and purposeful life. Practise these every day to be your best:

Take time for yourself and lead a peaceful life

Always eat healthy, exercise, and sleep

Continually self-improve and remain coachable

Treasure family and friends

I choose the day I have

Control disappointments and respond positively

Smile and laugh

■ Anthony Avellino’s book Finding Purpose – A Neurosurgeon’s Journey of Hope and Healing
is available from Amazon.

Pic credit: Jubilee Paige

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