It is a sight which many of us will be familiar with at races, be it mass participation marathons or even at a summer fun run.
It’s that runner with a loved one’s name and image on their running top, usually accompanied by poignant words about a life which often ended far too early. In the starkest way possible, it tells onlookers the reason why that person is lining up to run their race.
Maybe in the past that runner has been you.
In many ways, it’s a heartening sight. It shows that someone who has suffered a devastating loss can now mark or even celebrate that lost life in a positive way, be it by running, fundraising, increasing awareness of a cause or a combination of all three. It also shows they are moving forward along this well-trodden road and are dealing with their loss.
Inevitably, we all have to face the death of someone important to us, with grief being a very natural response.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 there were 285,270 deaths in the country. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, there were 307,132, a rise of over 21,000 due in part to the pandemic (in Canada the total Covid-related deaths as of April 1, 2022, was over 37,900). This means more of us than ever will have experienced a recent bereavement.
How we deal with loss is very personal and of course there’s no right or wrong way. But during the late 1960s, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put forward the ‘stage theory’ idea, outlining the typical pattern of how we grieve following a bereavement and has since gained considerable traction. Although not everyone experiences each of these or in the same order, she said common stages include denial, anger, bargaining (struggling to find meaning from a loss), depression and acceptance.
Any of these stages can have a huge impact on our emotional and physical well-being, says Dr. John Wilson, a visiting research fellow at UK’s York St John University and experienced bereavement counsellor.
“A typical sequence of grief begins with acute pain and a sense of disbelief, followed by a numb phase which may last for a few weeks or months,” says Dr. Wilson, who also wrote The Plain Guide to Grief. “This phase can be helpful because it means the person is protected from the worst of the emotional pain while they get used to the reality and enormity of their loss.”
He says it can often be during this phase that people turn to exercise as a way of distracting themselves.
“Running is a great way to distract or occupy our thoughts from the intrusion of grief, but it has more benefits than being just a distraction,” says Dr. Wilson.
He says extensive ongoing research shows how exercise can increase the levels of positive chemicals in our bodies and brains which can be in short supply when we are low or working through grief. He points to our four so-called ‘feelgood’ neurotransmitters which include dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and the body’s own natural opioids which help relieve stress and pain: endorphins.
“If you get out for a run and hit a time or distance, the reward will be dopamine flooding your brain while just being outside in the daylight with others will boast your serotonin,” Dr. Wilson says. “Meanwhile oxytocin is the love drug and will be released if you run with a group or friend, and endorphins will make you feel good if you really push yourself.”
“There’s evidence they work together and increasing one will increase the others too. There is no doubt that running, especially with others, will boast all four and lift your mood.”
Being physically active can also provide an additional coping mechanism. A study published in the Journal of Public Health in 2020 looked at how almost 140,000 Germans over a 19-year period dealt with adverse life events including bereavements. The research found that those who had always exercised more—especially men—seemed to cope better more quickly following a loss.
Matt Brown, Mental Performance Coach with Edgeschool.com, based in Calgary, AB says that exercise is proven to be better than medication.
“The American Psychological Association concluded years ago that exercise is a more effective anti-depressant than anti-depressant medication. But to me, it’s very simple. What takes something from being an idea in our heads to an emotion is that it triggers a response in our bodies; we literally feel our emotions physically. So, it stands to reason that the processing those emotions should also have a physical element.”
“For the emotion to run its course it has to pass through us somehow, be it anger, frustration, or in this case grief. Some people need to talk, cry, yell, or write it out. Others may sing, dance, or paint it out. But it can also be run out, lifted out, or even walked or hiked out. But adding to the effectiveness of exercise as way of processing grief is the neurochemical boost that it provides. It can counteract the crippling decline in mood that accompanies grief, allowing for a kind of upswing, and ultimately a resilience and reaffirmation of life.”
Dr. Clare Stevinson, a senior lecturer in physical activity and health at Loughborough University in England, agrees that exercise could play a key role in coping with grief.
“Grief for a loss is because there is a hole in someone’s life and exercise can fill that gap,” she says. “Although many other activities can fulfil this purpose, importantly exercise is not passive, with the likes of running requiring considerable physical effort. Also, it does not need to be distraction as it may need your full attention as you are developing mastery— a new skill to become good at—and can restore confidence which can diminish following loss.”
“To counteract negative emotional reactions to loss, running can restore feelings of competence if you begin to run faster or further for example. This can bring back pleasure in your life, again something which may be lacking while mourning.”
Grief is clearly a complicated road to navigate. Although no one claims running will provide all the answers, for many it can have a positive effect during one of the most painful periods of our lives.
Re-printed with courtesy Adrian Monti, Runner’s World UK.
FIVE RUNNERS SHARE THEIR PERSONAL STORIES AFTER SUFFERING A LOSS
Russell Lagasse, Calgary, AB
In 2020, my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I made the decision to leave my job to become her full-time caregiver. She fought hard and I took care of her until the end. Taking care of her was the most enriching experience of my life.
I felt so alone and was determined to work through the grief in a healthy way in the months to come. I set a goal of summiting 50 mountains in 90 days and achieved it. During a hike I saw a woman running up and down the mountain and was in awe. I wanted to try running! I remembered that my late wife always told me I had runner’s legs and didn’t know what she meant, so I decided to find out. On February 26th, I walked into a running store, purchased runners, and was told about a run group that was gathering in a few days. I joined that group and ran 16 kilometres with three other people who had run marathons. I had no idea what I was doing running 16 kilometres of pavement on my first run attempt!
One of the runners mentioned that she had a running coach help her prep for a marathon and it got me thinking. Being so new at running, I didn’t want to develop bad habits, so I looked into coaching. I discovered We Run The World Coaching and applied and to my surprise, they had a huge team of people that welcomed me with open arms. I began to follow their runs on Strava and messages in WhatsApp. It opened my eyes to a whole new world. These were people who run all the time, challenge themselves and encouraged each other. I am an encourager by nature, and these were my people!
It was the first time since losing my wife that I felt like I belonged somewhere, with a running community that feels like family. I began to feel freer on my runs and exhilarated by pushing myself and appreciating the encouragement from the team. Running has given me a new sense of purpose, one that had been missing since I lost Jan. She would be so proud of me and happy for me right now. My first half-marathon attempt will be in Calgary on May 29th (13 weeks from the day I started running). As it turns out, she was right, I have runner’s legs and my journey of grief has led me to discover that I have more than just a love for running. I have discovered, I am a runner.
Cal Zaryski, Calgary, AB
Hi Dad… I love you and miss our weekly conversations. I know this week has been really difficult for you. Fight as hard and long as you can until you are at peace.
Please know that I am forever grateful for your love and support. I am who I am because of you, Mom, and my siblings. I’m very sad to realize that our time together is coming to an end and can only hope that you know I am so grateful to have had you as a father. Dad, you taught me how to persevere and never give up, which has been instrumental to my business and athletic accomplishments. Thank you. Rest when you can and think of peaceful memories and thoughts. Cherish your visits from Lorraine. I will miss you very much. Us kids will take care of each other until it is our time to join you and Mom.
After a brief conversation with my brother urging him to text Dad to say goodbye, I was on foot to my favourite trail. My energy was drained, and my emotional health was brittle but with each step forward, I used forward movement to shift to thoughts of gratitude and the realization that death is part of living. My familiar trail and love for running was my personal tool for coping and closure. Like the process of building fitness, my grief would need countless steps to dampen my heart break and feeling of isolation.
Two months before my father’s death, he and I had a long and emotional discussion about vaccinations and the pandemic. He elected not to get vaccinated, and his views were in stark contrast to mine. He held many questionable beliefs from the internet. After a heated debate, we did not speak to each other for weeks.
Saturday, January 16, my father became another victim of our global pandemic. Running provided me with the time I needed alone to process what had happened. I needed to deal, not just with what happened, but also the “why.” I waded through my feelings of loss and guilt as my legs ate up the trail and my lungs offered that familiar running tingle.
Running will, and has always been, my choice for dealing with stress and anxiety. As I get older, running is an opportunity to be alone to process my thoughts about life—my life and the hundreds of people who are close to my heart. Of course, not all my running is solo. When I run with clients and friends, my daily struggles vanish into each breath and short sentence replies. When running is no longer an option, I will choose the slower, but equally effective discipline of walking.
I’m not exactly sure how others cope with the sudden death of a parent or loved one but running certainly continues to minimize my destructive emotions and helps me trigger feelings of gratitude and attach meaning to life.
Michelle Clarke, Toronto, ON
Nothing prepares you for the phone call that no one wants to get, and nothing will prepare you for what happens next. My father who hours before was a healthy and independent 81-year-old had a massive bilateral stroke. In the days that followed we hoped for a miracle but knew we had tough decisions to make. For the next four days, running was the furthest thing from my mind. Full of guilt I questioned, why should I be able to run, when my father can’t even move? Instead, I cried but now my grief was taking a toll on my family.
My best friend and coach are both Finnish, and the Finnish are a strong and practical people. They believe deeply in a thing they call SISU*. Both were the only ones brave enough to give me the tough love chat which was exactly what I needed to get back to running; to get back to myself. I was taking up a lot of space and wasn’t leaving room for anyone else to grieve. I needed to find my “SISU” and show my family they didn’t have to worry about me on top of everything else. Cutting out running cold turkey was like a junkie suddenly quitting heroin so if I was going to get through the hardest time of my life, I needed my daily dose of “medicine” that running gave me.
The first day I ran looked more like walking and crying but it didn’t have to be perfect. One thing runners are great at is setting goals, so every day, I promised myself to run a few more steps before I let the tears take over. After my second run I realized what role running would play in my life these next few weeks. It would be my time to cry my eyes out, scream at the sky and have as many breakdowns as I needed so when I got back to my family, I could help them. My dad took his last breath on February 13th with all of us there beside him, and immediately I felt a piece of me was missing.
Now more than ever I needed space, and without needing to be close to home, I ran further. I cried so much during those runs as I listened to his favourite songs and started brainstorming the bits and pieces that would eventually eulogize the life of the man I called Dad.
There’s still a lot of grieving to get through and people keep reminding me the emptiness will never go away, you just get better at living with it. The waves come and go, and I try not to fight them. I don’t think of running as something that healed me because healing is so much more complex but running gave me the space to navigate grief and the strength to unpack a 47-year relationship with my father.
*SISU: Strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.
Robert Huckle, Calgary, AB
In late 2019 I lost both my parents to cancer, only weeks apart. Although my parents lived in England, we were extremely close never running short on conversation. During their illnesses and after their deaths, my stress levels were extreme to say the least. I remember in 2020 making a list of the items causing me major stress. I remember COVID-19 didn’t make the top five, that was my life back then. I began running in earnest after my parents passed as it distracted me, if only for a short time, from my pain at their loss. I found solace in running.
I needed a goal to focus on. I had only run a couple half-marathons but set my sights on an ultramarathon. The problems with this goal was I had never run a marathon and I didn’t want to run a marathon distance while training. The ultramarathon was something I needed to do for me; the marathon distance I wanted to save and run my first with a friend.
I wanted to do an ultramarathon with only a few months of training, and I was lucky to find a trainer who built me a custom ultramarathon training plan. After several hundred kilometres of training, in November 2020 I ran my first 50 kilometre ultra marathon in honour of my Mum’s birthday.
During this training I found my next goal, which I continue with to this day—to run two half-marathons a month. Since August 2020, I have met this goal, and often exceeded it when training for my second ultramarathon, which I ran in 2021.
Getting back to running after taking a break can be really hard so I tried to minimize the breaks when possible. I concentrated on being on top of my nutrition, used the time to catch up on podcasts, and got my run in, regardless of the distance. I was never a runner before losing my parents but in April 2022 I ran my 55th half-marathon. This is just the beginning. In 2022 I’ll
try for another ultramarathon, probably a 50 km, and the David Goggins 4x4x48 challenge—run four miles every four hours for 48 hours; so basically 48 miles spread over two days on limited sleep.
Jo Berry, Kamloops, B.C.
I found out on November 11th 1997 that nothing can prepare you for your worst day. A cold feeling will strike you deep down in your chest, stop your breathing, and radiate outwards for a long time. I was a young mom, with twin daughters (age one) and my dear mom had sunk into a coma. Seven days later I was told that my mom had died. Seven days later, with massive snowflakes coming down and massive tears streaming down my face, I was out running. It was the morning of her funeral. Running was the only thing I could do to get through that day, and the days that followed.
I was wrecked for months, by the grief and the trauma of it all. My mom had taken her own life, the result of dealing with depression her entire life. I was experiencing depression for the first time. It hit me like a freight train and I began to comprehend depression and anxiety in a way I hadn’t before. The other discovery was running—and walking—outdoors was my healing place. Some days, there was more walking than running. Some days I had to stop, bend over because the sobs were suffocating me. Then I would stand up and keep moving. Running moved the emotion out and I was able to breathe again. Ten years later, I lost my dear Dad. Eighty days straight I ran, walked, and cried. Each time was a little easier. I came to understand how running could be a healthy release valve, how it cleared my energy and healed my mind, body and soul. Running also brought both my parents with me. I feel them deeply when I run now and especially at races, where emotions are potent.
Grief is hard. Very hard. Life brings us to our knees sometimes. In 2020, when my twins were 14, we went through a very challenging divorce. This was grief in another way, and it pained me to my core, and also my two daughters. He left us, moved away and we were abandoned to cope by ourselves. Once again it was movement that helped us move through. That was the year we took up skiing as a family. The air, snow, energy and movement brought us close. We healed.
This is how I feel about running—it is my best friend and I go to it in all of life’s inevitable joys and heartbreak. When I am tired, I run and I am invigorated. When I am angry, I run and I am calm. When happy, I run and I feel connected. When confused, I run and am clear. And when I grieve, I run and I am healed. Movement is Change.
This journey led me to pay it forward, developing a charity run that has raised over $1 million dollars for local charities—www.boogiethebridge.com—and the theme is Movement is Change.
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