We all have one, so what’s yours?  An outlet is something that you plug into to help download the stress that you are feeling or to help energize you when you are feeling flat.  In essence, it is a way to connect or disconnect.  When I refer to an outlet, I am referring to something that is healthy and helpful socially, medically, and psychologically. This excludes addictive substances or addictive behavioral patterns that are detrimental to the three aforementioned categories; that means gambling, self-soothing through unhealthy eating, avoiding life situations through video games, or any excessive use of a coping behavior would not be included in the definition of a healthy outlet.  Whether it is a healthy balance of stamp collecting, quilting, exercise, cooking, or reading, it is necessary for your stability and wellbeing.

Personally, I avoid the word “escape,” and opt for the alternative of “outlet.”  The reason for this is that escaping implies that there is something in my life that I need to run away from.  But regardless of how I try to get away, it will always be there. That’s because it is part of my life and part of a role that I play within my life. That means I have to learn how to cope with (not avoid) something that is stressful for me, and I need an outlet to help me feel stable and centered.

My personal outlet is running.  I have been running ever since I was 10 years old.  I ran track and field competitively from 5th grade through college.  I have suffered my fair share of injuries as a result of pushing my body to unhealthy levels of physical distress.  This is not the type of running that I’m talking about today.  That was competitive running with an external motivation to win.  All of my focus was put into running one-tenth of a second faster or jumping one more inch higher than someone else.  That running was focused on an external source of motivation, a place on the podium, or a ranking in the state conference.

The running I now participate in is of the longer and slower variety.  I have heard many people ask, “what are you running from?” That is a question that I am not able to answer.  That frames the idea of running as a way of escaping something.  However, the question that I find to be more appropriate, and what I will answer is, “what am I running toward?” I can relate to this question because as I run, I am searching for something to add to my life.

Before I continue, I do want to inform you that I don’t typically freely share my running experiences with many people.  Through all of the years that I have run, I have increasingly found running to be a deeply personal process.  With that, I want to make sure that my discussing it in this blog is not an attempt to gain attention in any way by having a “look at me” moment.  I find that my running can be a Spiritual practice, and it has helped me process and reframe many areas of stress in my life.  Me writing this is my attempt at sharing my passion with you and to possibly inspire you to find your own outlet and passion.  So, settle in, the rest of this blog is going to be quite lengthy.

My Latest Race

I have recently completed a race that helped me find what I have been running toward.  The race is called “3 Days at the Fair,” and it is held at the Sussex County Fairground in Frankford, NJ.  The purpose of the event is to keep moving around a one-mile looped course for as much as you can in 72 hours.  Race morning was Thursday, May 13th at 9 am.  To be completely honest, I was scared out of my mind immediately after I registered for this event.  Part of me was hoping that it would be canceled due to COVID so that I didn’t have to stress about it anymore.  I was so nervous that only a select few even knew I was running the race.

What scared me was not knowing what to expect; What was the weather going to be like?  What do I pack?  What if I can’t sleep during the 72 hours?  Will I have stomach issues from running and eating simultaneously for that length of time?  What happens if I get sick?  One of the things that I have come to learn from doing races like these, is that they help me grow and develop both as a person and as a runner.  Anything can go wrong, and it forces you to think on the fly and problem solve in the moment. However, the unknown can also make my head spin.

Spoiler alert, none of my worries came to fruition.  I was able to sleep, well kind of, in my car.  I kept eating the hotdogs, chips, turkey sandwiches, chicken soup, and cookies that were being distributed without any stomach distress.  For the record, they had a lot of amazing foods, but the hotdogs agreed with me.  So, I kept to a regular meal schedule and ate them as my main entre.  I love hotdogs anyway, so it was a win/win.  During endurance events, you stick with what works for you and it’s best not to experiment on race day.  Experimentation is what training runs are for.  New running gear, new foods, new pacing techniques are all things you want to try outside of the race environment.  If things don’t go as well as you would like, no worries, it’s just a training run and you can pull the plug early if needed.

Despite the stomach situation being under control and my fears not becoming a reality in that area, I, unfortunately, did struggle with my head for the first 24 hours.  What I mean is that I was anxious and had to manage my moments of panic. The worry of not being able to sleep and the many hours of movement ahead of me kept creeping into my brain.  It was all very overwhelming at times.  On the first day, after every 20 miles, I would eat something and rest with my feet propped up against the car to help with blood circulation.  Keeping my feet propped up was an attempt to reduce any swelling and lactic acid production in my feet and legs.  It was during this time that I had to manage my internal dialogue, try to refocus back to the present moment, and not live in the future.  The future is where my anxiety lived. The present was on my cot with my feet propped up as I laid in the shape of a capital “L.”

This first sunset was pleasant.  It was quiet.  But it was not peaceful in my brain.  I was still thinking about the next 2 evenings and nights that I will have to endure.  Why did I sign up for this?  Was it really a good idea at the time?  It was cold, but I kept moving.  I had a goal distance in my mind that I was striving for before it was time to snuggle in my sleeping bag in the back of my car.  The cold, the time of night (1:30 am), and the mental fatigue of trying to manage my anxiety on the first day began to make that sleeping bag look more and more appealing.  So, I retired to the car earlier rather than later.

Surprisingly, my legs actually felt good.  My feet were another story.  I was beginning to deal with some soreness in the balls of my feet and I was feeling pressure under my right big toenail.  I apologize for sounding graphic, but I’ve lost toenails from running before, so that wasn’t stressing me at all.  We had a friend coming to the race the next day with scissors, so I was planning on cutting a hole in the top of my sneaker to alleviate any pressure on the top of that nail.  When a moon roof is finally installed on my sneaker, the problem will be solved.

Laying there in the car is when I began to feel the release of the tension and stress that I was carrying all day due to my internal dialogue.  The cold was making my body shiver, which made me focus on the physical aspect of my experience and not revisit the anxiety of what might be yet to come tomorrow.  I kept telling myself (even out loud), “relax, breathe, relax.”  This became my mantra, and after repeating it several times, my body began to settle and stop shaking.  When the shaking subsided, I eventually fell asleep.  This is when I began to see the purpose of me entering this event.

Friday morning rolled around very quickly.  Too quickly.  I crawled out of the car around 5:30 am, and to my surprise, I was able to walk around quite well.  At 8:30 am, our friend arrived with hugs, kisses, scissors, and smiles.  Not sure if it was the moral support or the caffeine from the coffee, but the miles of that morning seemed to pass relatively quickly.  During long events, moods can easily drop off and feelings of sadness and frustration can set in.  I kept waiting for this to happen, as it did for my partner, but it never did occur.

Friday’s afternoon sun began to become intense.  At this time, I made the executive decision to wear the race tee shirt.  I have a personal policy not to wear the race shirt until after completing the race.  The race shirt was a specified sun shirt with a high SPF rating.  I finally gave in and wore it out of self-preservation so that I could prevent any sunburn, avoiding any freezing when the temperatures dropped. The rest of the day on Friday is still a blur in my memory.  The only moment that I remember is crossing the start/finish line at 9:30 pm with my partner and celebrating the 101st mile of the race.  It was back to the car to rest and start early the next morning.

Saturday morning started earlier than I expected.  I wasn’t as tired as I thought I would be.  I couldn’t believe that I was actually able to sleep well.  The day started strong despite my feet feeling tired and sore. Ibuprofen did the trick for my feet, and my caffeinated gun helped lift the mental fog.  That Saturday morning was very peaceful. The sun was still rising as I kept making loop after loop. Similar to many long efforts of running, I kept making mental inventories of my body; assessing my stomach, my head, my feet, and my legs.  All systems still remained in the green and one foot kept being placed in front of the other.  Food was still being digested and fluids remained down.  The morning was progressing into a good day.

My internal dialogue had also shifted.  Instead of living in the future, I began to find myself more and more in the present.  My existence began to be simplified.  I would run from one lamp post to the next.  Walk from that lamp post to the following.  Then run, then walk.  Over and over.  My outside world began to fade away; I stopped thinking about work, finances, and other life stress.  My mere existence was broken down to one task at a time.  I’m going to eat now.  I’m going to rest now.  I’m going to move now.  That’s it.  I can’t express how peaceful that became.  Some may call that boring, but I called it refreshing.  Day after day, mile after mile, I kept seeing the same faces.  I had no idea who many of these people were, and it didn’t matter.  There was a sense of connection.  An unspoken bond.  Everyone was there for their own reasons.  They all had their own demons and their own struggles, and we were all suffering through the discomfort and experiencing peace together.

The day was going well.  Just like in any movie, when things are going well – they are going well, but then things suddenly smack into a brick wall.  My partner had to drop out with pain in her Achilles tendon, which was unexpected.  It was a devastating turn for her by not being able to reach her personal goals, but also something that I began to struggle with.  For over two days – we were out there on the course together, if not physically next to one another, together in a state of mind.  We weren’t always running and walking side-by-side, but the fact that I knew we were both somewhere on the course moving forward gave me a sense of comfort and connection.

I happened to be crossing the start/finish line at the exact same time she was handing in her timing chip.  If you happen to know anyone who has had to drop from a race, then you know the emotional anguish that can be felt.  Anger, insecurity, sadness, self-doubt, and depression are just the surface of the emotions that can be felt.  After spending some extra time with her and talking about how the decision was made, I then set back out. She handed in her timing chip after 115 miles.  Objectively, this is a success, but it sure doesn’t feel like one when she had to stop with 20 hours left to go in the race.

After heading back out, I began to struggle.  Remember when I mentioned the emotional drops that can occur?  This was my time.  I knew that my partner wasn’t able to run anymore and I can relate to having to end a race early due to injury or illness.  My personal and intimate connection on the racecourse was no longer present.  My legs began to follow my thoughts, both becoming heavy.  Starting some time on Friday, I began to take breaks to put my feet up every 10 miles.  When I left my partner back at our camp after handing in her timing chip, I was at mile 130.  I would arrive back at camp at mile 140.  However, this time I was in tears.  Emotions can run wild during these events and tears can flow pretty easily.

After us both processing our feelings of loss, and after I was able to eat dinner, I felt a lot better.  I was now focusing my sights on reaching 150 miles by 9:30 pm.  At this time, I began to fall into a peaceful rhythm once more.  Walk… run… walk… run.  Before I knew it, it the sun had set, and I reached my goal by 9:30 pm.  My partner soon went to bed, and I kept moving around the course for a few more miles while I drank hot soup until 12:30 am.

By Sunday morning, my anxiety had left me.  The simplicity of living one step at a time soon regained control after I laced up at 5:40 am. The sunrise was beautiful and incredibly peaceful.  My body knew that the 9:00 am finish time was ticking closer by the second.  Because of this, my pace quickened and my legs felt refreshed.  There is research that shows that the brain actively protects the major organs of the body during hard physical activity. Research also shows that it can create a perceived level of fatigue to slow the individual down to make sure there is enough energy to complete the activity without injuring himself or herself. Due to this, when the end of the event is seen on the horizon, the brain allows access to the stored energy and the person begins to feel both renewed and re-energized.  Knowing whether it is just a mental trick of seeing the end is in sight, or if there is actually a physiological locking mechanism being released, is pointless.  Regardless, there is a giant lifting of one’s mood in the moment.

When the race was ticking down to 9:00 am, the energy in the air was palpable.  People who had been sleepwalking like zombies for days suddenly woke up and became animated again.  I made the last mile the fastest mile of my race, thanks to the guy who I reeled in at the end and beat across the finish line.  He was my motivation for that last lap.  As a side note, he and I were going back and forth in the standings the day and night prior (10th and 11th places), and he still beat me by one more mile.  It was a great finish and hearing about his story after the race, I am grateful that he finished ahead of me in the standings. In the end, I ran a total of 171 miles in 72 hours.

If you were patient enough to read this entire blog, I give you my sincerest gratitude.  If you stuck it out and read the whole thing, I hope that you learned that what I was looking for through running this race was: peace of mind.  When I learned to quiet my internal chatter and I allowed the race to simplify my existence to the three basic components of eating, resting, and moving – my outlet was realized.  If you are wondering if I would run this race again, the answer is a resounding “yes.”  I learned so much about myself and my running.  Although I didn’t reach my goal of 202 miles, I can rest in the fact that I found a place inside of myself that allowed me to enjoy the simplicity of celebrating my aliveness.

Let me circle back to the title of this blog.  What is your outlet?  What brings peace to your state of mind and/or what energizes you?  What are you passionate about?  It is different for everyone and there is no judgement to what your outlet is.  It doesn’t matter if you find peace and calm through bird watching or a sense of being reenergized by weeding and mowing your lawn.  By the way, if you are energized by that last option, let me know because I hate weeding.  That means I have an entire yard of joyfulness waiting for you.

Thank you for your time in reading this blog.  If you are still in need of assistance in finding what your outlet is, making time for an outlet, or setting and maintaining boundaries in your life to allow for your outlet, please give The Center for Trauma, Stress, and Anxiety a call.  If you are consistently able to apply your outlet to your life, keep rocking because you are worth it.