Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Anxiety and endurance-racing platitudes

Niwot Ridge, Dec. 11, 2022

Thank you to everyone who commented on my last post. It means a lot to me that you’re still around. My hope is to continue using this medium to connect with people, which is the motivation for this post. Mental health is a difficult and complex subject. But I gain comfort and insight from the stories of others willing to share their struggles, so here it goes. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression. Although mental health is nearly everywhere in public discourse right now, it still seems a somewhat taboo subject in endurance racing and outdoor adventure circles. After all, you can do anything you set your mind to and you can choose to be brave and strong and endorphins make you happy and nature is my antidepressant. End discussion. 

I want to talk about anxiety and depression because I used to buy into all of those ideas until anxiety came for me. It’s difficult to draw a clear origin because truthfully I’ve always struggled with some level of anxiety. As a young child, I had terrible separation anxiety. I was still in grade school when I started obsessively ruminating about the grief of the world (I still have nightmares about images I saw on the news after the 1989 San Fransisco earthquake, and television was the only way I experienced that disaster.) Young adulthood brought all of this to a head (strange fears at benign moments triggered panic attacks.) Then my mid-20s brought a lengthy reprieve that coincided with big life changes, leading me to conclude that confronting my fears was “the way.” 

These leaps of faith launched incredible life experiences that I may never have pursued if my brain had been in a worse spot. But they did not conquer anxiety. I understand this now. Anxiety isn’t something one can wish away or vanquish with the power of positive thinking. Endurance racers are too prone to magical thinking. Telling yourself your swollen knee isn’t a big deal and it’s only 50 kilometers and you’re going to finish the race because you’re brave and strong and can do anything you set your mind to … that isn’t going to stop a torn MCL from sidelining you for weeks afterward (ask me because I’ve been there.) We’re beholden to the same biological and physical laws as everything else, and yet we’re determined to feel special and powerful by feeding ourselves bullshit to the bitter end. 

I’m not immune to magical thinking, and I can’t resist a steady diet of shame: 
“You’ve crossed Alaska on your bike in the winter, why are you so scared to leave the house?” 
“No one cares if you do this or don’t, why are you so stressed?” 
“Today was a good day, why are you crying?” 
“You have it so good, what is your problem?” 

Indeed, this last question irks me the most. I am incredibly privileged. There are no big traumas in my past that I can blame. I was essentially born anxious but had an idyllic childhood and maintain positive and meaningful relationships with my family. I’ve looked into trauma therapies such as EMDR, but where could I even focus on said trauma? Here’s what I consider the top five traumatic events of my adult life, in chronological order: 

• A rock-bottom blackout during a brief stint with alcoholism, July 2005. This experience was the catalyst that led to “pulling my life together” and moving to Alaska to live happily ever after with no problems ever again. 
• My long-time boyfriend, Geoff, ended our relationship abruptly and unexpectedly one day before we were set to leave on a summer-long vacation, April 2009. 
 • A “psychotic break” after 96 sleep-deprived hours of navigating dangerous mountain terrain and team discord during an endurance foot race called Petite Trotte a Leon, August 2013. 
• The weeks leading up to my Graves Disease diagnosis, when I was quite sick and very much in denial (see endurance racers and magical thinking), February 2017. 
• Losing my father suddenly when he died in a hiking accident, June 2021. 

 There are other, more broad experiences I’d include, such as the 2016 election that burst the bubble around my understanding of the world, or when the Covid pandemic broke open in March 2020 — events that affected almost everyone and affected me relatively little (see, privilege) but that I still absorbed deeply. My point is that I believe my anxiety has no grounding, no justification. Lots of people go through phases of substance abuse, chronic illness, losing relationships, losing parents. Nearly everyone, when you put it that way. So what’s wrong with me? 

Though there were isolated incidents before then, I believe my anxiety waited until 2018 to move into the “generalized” category. It was a strange time to meet this monster. After a tough 18 months of adjustments, my thyroid disease was under control. I was again dreaming about big endurance racing goals after emotionally letting everything go during my health struggles. The political landscape was bad, but geez, I had no idea what was coming — in hindsight, the world was still somewhat sane. From a rational perspective, life was good. 

I was staying with a friend in Geneva after a stressful week of supporting Beat in a week-long mountain race called the Swiss Peaks 360. And the week was packed with stress — driving along precipitous mountain roads, meeting Beat at remote aid stations at all hours of the night, sleeping in the car, hunting for open grocery stores in tiny mountain towns because Swiss sandwiches were all Beat could stomach, and still hiking five to seven hours at a stretch because I’m not giving up that. 

Crewing Swiss Peaks was stressful, but not in a way that could remotely justify what happened when I left to meet Beat at his race finish more than an hour away — of course, in the middle of the night. I tried to use a code to get into the parking garage that held my rental car. When it didn’t work, I began hyperventilating. Then the tears burst out and I inexplicably started running. Round and round a city block in central Geneva, racing at a full sprint, stopping only to rattle locked doors and gasp, “Please!” 

 I felt as terrified as I would if being chased by a monster. My chest throbbed with a crushing pain that I thought might be a real heart attack. What was I so panicked about? Missing Beat’s finish? While my head spun, I wasn’t even thinking about the reasons I wanted to be inside that parking garage. There was nothing else, just anxiety, the red-eyed sea monster rising out of the depths, draping itself over everything with no discernible beginning or end. 

Sometimes I think about the security cameras that inevitably caught my parking garage panic attack and laugh at the ridiculousness they must have portrayed. Some minutes or even hours lapsed after I collapsed on the sidewalk, but I did get my head together and figure out how to access the garage. Then I drove for an hour around Lake Geneva, reaching the race finish line well after Beat had arrived. He was understandably irked and I couldn’t explain myself. I was deeply exhausted. Anxiety exhaustion, I’ve come to understand, falls far beyond any endurance-racing exhaustion I’ve known. It cuts even deeper than walking for 96 hours essentially without sleep, although in hindsight, my PTL “psychotic break” was actually an intense panic attack. 

The sea monster has lurked beneath my life ever since. Sometimes it’s just below the surface, and sometimes it's well below the surface, but it always seems to burst out when I least anticipate it. This happened two months ago. There had been flickers of shadows — usual life stress, really, but there were at least hints that the monster was surfacing. Then one night, I secured a Brainard Lake parking permit and went to sleep excited about the long mountain excursion I had planned for the following day. But when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t face it. Leaving the house felt impossibly hard. So I didn’t go. Then I didn’t go anywhere the next weekend or the next. I’d lost all interest. 

A few friends reached out during this time, and I replied that I was feeling “a little bit depressed.” I realize depression is not anxiety, but mental health is complex and these issues seem to be two sides of the same coin. I lamented my “mid-life crisis” and “unquenchable thirst for some sort of meaning.” These issues are a big part of my thought cycle right now, but truthfully they also have little to do with my acute state of mental health. 

Some days, I feel an overwhelming zeal for life and can’t wait to go for a 25-mile hike in the mountains. On these days, it’s not as though I’ve stopped ruminating about climate change and nihilism and the grief of the world. I’m just … normal me, unhindered me, not smothered by invisible sea monsters, and thus free to think about how amazing it is just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world. (Yes, I did steal that line from Mary Oliver.) 

The days when I think little about the broken world are my bad days. My emotional capacity has collapsed and there’s no longer space for engaging ruminations. I’ll actually spend less time with social media, stop reading the news (although I currently keep up with the news because it’s my job) and stop writing. I’ll listen to Tom Rosenthal’s “There is a Dark Place” for two hours on repeat while running my fastest-yet times on Green Mountain or Walker Ranch while caring little about success or scenery. I’m merely grateful for those two hours of relief from my exhaustion. Literal running is a great way to escape the sea monster, but it isn’t sustainable and it never lasts past the final step. 

I don’t know what to do. I have been in therapy before but left because therapy became another thing I couldn’t deal with after my dad died. Now I am struggling to find a way back in. I’m open to various strategies but also skeptical and even leery of talk therapy after my last experience, which ended badly. Even so, I submitted what amount to "I feel this level of bad" assessments and got myself on a few waiting lists. Availability is low right now. 

I have not yet tried medication beyond my favorite supplements (CBD capsules), which I believe do help but aren’t a cure-all. I’m open to medication, but admittedly also skeptical and leery of this sort of intervention. Either way, it seems moot if I can’t even find a therapist who could do the prescribing. Since I’m not in crisis, I’d rather try other time-tested techniques. My New Year's resolutions include participating in yoga classes, working daily on at least some type of writing, lavender tea, improving my diet, and committing to adventures — but maintaining a step back from racing. 

 Understanding that mental health is complex, I can’t help but speculate that my anxiety is just a chronic and likely hereditary twinge, not unlike the Achilles tendonitis that flares up from time to time. There’s not a lot I can do for my Achilles either, beyond strengthening the muscles around it and simply waiting for the flares to subside. I’m great about sticking with my physical therapy exercises when I’m in pain and less so when I’m not. But I've accepted that my Achilles tendonitis is always there, another scar on a meat sack that has the audacity to grow old. Are brains different? Yes, but perhaps also no?

Beat in the Ventana Wilderness, July 2013

Remember the sentence about tearing my MCL in a fall while running a 50K race? That happened in June 2013. One month later, I was still limping painfully and worried that I wouldn’t be able to participate in the big adventures I had planned for the summer: A 250-kilometer stage race in Iceland and the ill-fated PTL. Beat and I decided to embark on a weekend backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness, a rugged coastal range above Big Sur, California. For the first three miles, I dragged myself up an unbelievably steep slope, barely able to bend my knee and cursing my hubris. We descended the other side of the mountain through a recent burn. The dirt was soft and loose. The foot beneath my good knee slid forward and I fell onto my butt with the other foot wedged in place, forcing the bad knee to a full, high-impact bend. The burst of pain was excruciating, some of the worst I’ve experienced. For several seconds my vision blacked out and I was convinced I’d need a complicated helicopter rescue. After several minutes I attempted to stand. After several more, I tried shifting my weight to my bad knee. It held. When I attempted to walk, the pain dissipated. It did not return. I walked for two days through the wilderness without another issue. My knee was cured. 

A week later, I recounted the miracle cure to my massage therapist. He nodded knowingly. “You broke up the scar tissue,” he speculated. “Physical therapists sometimes try this when injuries aren’t healing. Hurts like hell.” 

I think about this experience frequently. My traumas are small, but they add up. Perhaps my brain is, in the proverbial sense, riddled with scar tissue. What if I could just get in and break it all up? Perhaps through meditation? Or meaningful suffering? Then I realize that I’m thinking about endurance racing again. No! This is not what I want! This is not the way. I need calm. I need peace. I need to quiet my mind, not inflict further trauma. 

It was interesting, though, how the rather awful running fall I took on Nov. 9 started to turn things around. Suddenly I didn’t have my best emotional outlet — exercise — and I was dealing with a decent amount of physical pain. I may have even asked Beat for a “mercy killing.” In my old, endurance-racing-focused mindset, my sternum and rib injuries would have been a big setback, worthy of having a big cry over. Instead, the fog over my mind began to lift. The sea monster slowly sank back into the depths. The view outside my window became clearer, more beautiful. It’s astonishing, really, the beauty in this view outside my window. And it’s astonishing how sometimes I don’t see it, can’t see it, for reasons I don’t understand. 

 This past weekend, I returned to the Indian Peaks Wilderness for my first mountain adventure in months. Beat and I are again planning to travel to Fairbanks over Christmas, and I wanted to ensure that my healing but still-painful torso could manage a sled. During the October slump, I thought about asking Beat to cancel the trip, but now I’m excited again. So I loaded up our smallest sled with an admittedly negligible amount of weight and headed toward a place that has been a reliable test of fortitude — Niwot Ridge. 

 I wasn’t interested in testing my fortitude, but I was interested in avoiding the considerable avalanche risk in these mountains right now. Niwot rises on a steep-for-feet but gentle-for-snow incline toward a veritable wind tunnel beneath the Continental Divide. The slopes are alternately covered in rock-solid sastrugi and nearly-bare tundra. The West Wind blows constantly and nothing that could slide stays for long. 

The wind is what makes Niwot so fearsome. It can be a calm, warm day in Denver and the wind will be gusting to 60mph on Niwot Ridge, which is what it was doing on Saturday. I schlepped the sled five miles and 3,000 feet to our usual high point, scraping my “rock snowshoes” on tussocks and boulders. Occasionally the sled caught on alder branches and the harness yanked my tender rib, provoking involuntary yelps. Despite not being a terribly cold winter day — +15F — the windchill felt like daggers through my clothing. The sled was full of poor choices on this first-of-the-season adventure. I forgot to bring goggles. My eyebrows burned. In every logical way, my body was in pain, but I didn’t really care. I was not in danger, and admittedly this felt amazing — these exhilarating sensations after two months of flatness. This pain I could choose. 

 For this reason, I kept going, pressing deeper into the wind as gusts grew increasingly menacing. After another mile of squinting into the ground blizzard, I caught a snowshoe on hidden branches and nearly toppled over. This was what it took to turn me around — I was never going to forgive myself if I re-broke a rib or anything else up here. 

The tailwind ushered me along, the only human in seeming miles, surrounded by an amphitheater of astonishing peaks. Spindrift raced toward the foothills, and beyond that, the Great Plains sprawled out seemingly forever. Niwot Ridge, my cantankerous old friend, seemed to embrace me with its hard-pressing gale. “Everything starts here and flows from here. Didn’t you miss this?”

I did miss it, and didn’t want to leave as I meandered back to the forest and the deep snow it protected. I didn’t even feel tired as I retraced my snowshoe tracks beneath evergreens drenched in the most gorgeous winter afternoon light. It’s rather astonishing how simple this is, how just walking and breathing in such a place lets me feel so intensely alive. This is the way anxiety lies to me: That these places don’t exist anymore. The crushing darkness is all that remains. Why bother leaving if there’s nowhere else to go?

 I’m under no delusion that the sea monster left forever, but at least it’s gone for now. I also have no idea what I did to convince it to leave. But perhaps the takeaway is as simple as an endurance racing platitude: If you’re going through Hell, keep going.


  1. Your "Jill Inside" honesty is commendable. I'm sure it will be of great help and benefit those in your vast audience who are in similar mindsets right now. Keep moving. Though no cure, it is an effective treatment. I believe putting competitive events on the back burner for a while is a wise and intuitive choice. Sometimes the quiet inner voice has viable suggestions.
    Rooting for you, along with thousands of fellow readers.
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Beautifully written, Jill. Can't wait to see you and Beat where we can discuss in person. Corrine

  3. Good for you, Jill. Keep writing--its good for you and its good from those of us who benefit from your wisdom.

  4. Jill - this is such an amazing piece. Sending you so much support. I can empathize with what you are going through. When I moved to Montana from Idaho, my anxiety became unbearable. I don't know what it was about that move, but I started having panic attacks, couldn't sleep, etc. I finally went to my doctor, who prescribed Lexapro, which changed my life. Then earlier this year, I established with a new doctor, and realized just how bad my depression had gotten. I was the same - couldn't leave the house, heck, couldn't even leave my bed at times. She prescribed Wellbutrin, and that has helped immensely. I know you mentioned medication, and I'm not and would never try to force anyone into something they feel uncomfortable with, I just wanted to mention it because honestly, it has completely changed my life. Your regular doctor/NP can prescribe those as well - you don't need a therapist for them.

    Anyway, this is maybe too much information, but I wanted to reach out, and I'm happy to share more if you want! :)

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s heartening to hear that medication worked so well for you. My last therapist actively discouraged medication and my PCP also seems reluctant … she prescribed a type of antihistamine when I went to see her following an anxiety episode in February 2021. I took it for a month but wasn’t impressed.

      It is interesting with medical practitioners and all the ways they don’t take people seriously. One of my main issues is that I struggle a lot with verbal communication. If being grilled with questions, my brain will automatically turn to the answers it believes my questioner wants to hear so as to avoid all possible discomfort or confrontation. So telling a doctor what I need is almost impossible for me. Also, because I really do adhere to the classic suggestions … exercise, reasonable amounts of sleep, lower-stress lifestyle, reasonable diet … I feel like some of my concerns are automatically written off.

      But yes, I am open to different strategies and I’m so glad to hear from you and how you’re thriving. I may reach out for advice at some point.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I think it’s so valuable to see the very real feelings and experiences — especially maybe the negative ones — that other people have. It’s easy to look from the outside and assume things. The more we all see the fullness of others’ lives maybe it’ll be easier for us all to accept our own selves with less judgement.

    Also, your remark about the way we as endurance athletes try to diminish problems really struck home last year when I had some medical issues crop up. I’ve spent so much time ignoring or pushing through problems and pains that it was really difficult to answer doctor questions about how I was feeling. It made me kind of recommit to listening to my body.

    1. Very much this. I think we develop a tendency to gaslight ourselves — the little lies and mental games can be useful for finishing a race, but become more of a problem when this spills into everyday life.

  6. Your writing pulls me right in. You've been through quite a dark tunnel recently. I hope that the sea monster stays at bay for a long time. I, too, have dreadful anxiety so I know how hard life must be during phases in the dark tunnel. I didn't know that the wait for a therapist had become so long. I hope that you can find a plan to help keep the darkness at bay.

    1. Being stuck on waiting lists is partly a result of my trying to go through a program in my health insurance that covers 100% of the cost. I’d likely have more options if I was willing to pay out of pocket. Since I am not in crisis right now, I’d like to try to use my coverage. But I may need to explore other options. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. I cant even remember anymore how i found you but it was long time ago. Thank you so much for sharing your
    jurney. My anxiety and shashimoto was triggered
    from mold. Maybe would be
    good move to run a mycotoxin test. If that comes back positive i would run an OAT test to see how to support my neurotransmitters.. hope you find a way soon to find a good plan to get more good " just feel good" in to your life..hugs🤍

    1. Thank you for the suggestion. Household mold is fairly uncommon in Colorado but I agree, there are so many environmental factors that affect our physical health. It’s worth exploring all possibilities.

  8. Hello Jill. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog the last few month since I read about a response someone wrote on an article in NYT on the divide race. The commenter referenced your blog which I’ve read random parts on and off.
    My daughter deals with sometimes acute anxiety on a scale that is hard for me to imagine. And I myself can relate to the depression from trying to deal with what is happening right now in country and world. I have no easy solutions other than long 2 to 3 hour bike rides (e-bikes!) meditation (try binaural beats) and cutting back on doomscrolling (harder than it seems).
    Keep up your excellent insightful writing. It is your gift to the world. I feel a little less misunderstood and along kindred spirits knowing you through these writings.

    1. Yes, I think meditation is a great strategy. I’ve had limited success with it, but discovered that the process works a lot better for me when I am physically engaged … I tried engaging the breathing techniques while doing my physical therapist-prescribed stretches for my back, which is how I discovered this. But based on this I’m very interested in yoga. I just need to figure out where to start.

  9. This is beautiful, Jill. A lot of your experience with anxiety resonates with me. You describe it in ways that I can’t put into words myself. Thank you for sharing and shedding a light on this topic.

  10. Have you read Jenny Lawson’s book titled “Broken” and her experience with transcranial magnetic stimulation?

    1. I have read “Broken” — great book. I love Jenny Lawson. The treatment she describes is interesting. I haven’t researched it otherwise. I’ve gotten the sense from her subsequent blog posts that she decided it wasn’t working for her, but I may have a misconception about that.

    2. Jill, my daughter has had many TMS sessions which has been a lifesaver for her. I believe it works best for depression, but may also have anxiety benefits. She also has had very good results with cognitive behavioral therapy and lately, EMDR therapy. She has gone down a long road to help herself and will soon be graduating college. I myself find long moderately intense exercise as most helpful to me but I find that if I overdo it by getting all competitive I set myself up for a emotional crash. -scott

  11. Hey Jill! Thank you for sharing all of that, and everything you've shared over the years. I love your writing and I love YOU. What you're going through and have been through sounds so difficult. I wonder if you've considered seeing a chiropractor? They treat the nervous system so I feel like they are always worth a shot. I also wonder if you've heard of somatic therapy? Just some alternatives and food for thought... Sending love from Montana, Katie

  12. I also wonder if you've considered doing a heavy metal detox? I think a lot of autoimmune disorders are due to a buildup of heavy metals. TRS is a good one... ❤️

  13. One last thing :-) if you're looking for a good place to start with yoga, Breathe & Flow - a YouTube channel has lots of videos and programs for beginners. If you go to their playlists you will see in the 'videos by category' section: Embark, which is a beginners program, and then there's also a meditation program called Expand... I find yoga classes to be the worst place to start and just not a good place to be in general lol.

    1. Thanks for your comments. There are truly so many different paths to try in regard to any wellness journey. It feels dizzying at times, but definitely worth considering all possibilities. Thank you. As for yoga classes … such a thing is far outside my comfort zone, but that’s why I thought it might be a good thing to try. Self-guided meditation just hasn’t worked for me. It’s difficult to see how self-guided yoga might be any different. But I do intend to try a few videos before I venture into the wild.

  14. Awesome piece of writing, Stay healthy and blessed!

  15. Hi Jill, First I’m so sorry to hear about your father’s passing. I lost my dad when I was 21 years old. Losing a parent before their time is one of the hardest things to process and can make you feel more alone in the world. I’ve also battled depression and anxiety over my lifetime and I often wonder if endurance racing is a band-aid for it. There are so many other benefits for me (spending time in nature, the simplicity of living off of just what I can carry, the people I meet, the adventure of it), but the need to keep going farther and have the distraction of a project is what concerns me. I’m still trying to work that out. I don’t think you need more advice, I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone in this. Please message me if you ever need anything.

  16. Hi Jill,
    while I can't give you any first hand advice since I luckily have never been in such a situation, I found it interesting that the latest issue of Adventure Cyclist has two stories on the subject.
    In case you don't follow your former employer's magazine closely, you may want to have a look.
    Spoiler alert: an epic bike ride has helped one of the authors.

  17. Oh this is a wonderful post. I’m another that read for years and drifted away. I found your blog again after learning a friends sister is riding the ITI 1000 this year and will (I think) be the first MN female to do so. Nevertheless, I was also very excited to see you have the course record! So, yes it’s been a few years for me. I read your blog before I had kids and my oldest is 14. Over the past few years, my 12 year old has had several bouts of medical issues that have resulted in terrifying middle of the night ambulance rides, and hospitalizations. All this was extremely traumatic for my wife and I, and brought on some anxiety for us. Reading about how you experienced anxiety gradually, sporadically, then fiercely, felt very real to me. I’ve been doing talk therapy and it seems to help, but it wasn’t enough, and I reluctantly went on Zoloft. I take a very small dose, but honestly it’s been extremely helpful. My son had another trip to the hospital in October and I was easily able to handle the whole thing without the overwhelming panic taking over. I could confidently help him, and help my wife through it. I would recommend meds to help, even temporarily. I know it seems bad but man have we all been through some stuff the last 6 years…
    Nice to see you’re still around posting. I’ll check in more often from now on. Take care, Jill.

    Chris from Minnesota


Feedback is always appreciated!