I Run Because I’m Afraid to Die
What It’s Like to Be a Suicidal Runner
Remember, it ain’t too late to take a deep breath
And throw yourself into it with everything you’ve got
It’s fucking great to be alive!
-The Drive-By Truckers
In August 2017, my ex-wife and I were preparing to shoot a short film about running, which I had written some months before. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I gave up my childhood dream of being a naval aviator, the idea of a best-selling novel becoming more exciting than the idea of landing a jet plane onto an aircraft carrier. My passion for writing combined with my interest in movies — as it does — and I decided I wanted to get into the pictures as a way to earn a living writing. But we lived in suburban Northern California, far from Hollywood as either physical place or idea, so the lovely, supportive, selfless woman I was married to at the time agreed to work on this project with me.
Neither of us knew what we were doing, but we read all about it and tried our best. I borrowed my father-in-law’s camera and one of my coworkers lent her apartment. A few days before the shoot, as I struggled to wrangle an actor who had auditioned well and turned out to be insufferable and flaky, and as I poured way more money into the thing than I expected to, I started to hate myself for trying to do it at all. It was a dumb thing I was doing — I was never going to be a writer, let alone a filmmaker — and it was ludicrous to think anybody would rally around any idea of mine anyway. It was pointless and I was worthless and everything was the worst.
Every day for the next 14 months, I wanted to kill myself. To dull that feeling, I used booze as medication and also sometimes as punishment. Sometimes I lay in bed and I cried and I screamed into a pillow. Other times, I punched myself on the side of the head over and over and over again until I couldn’t anymore. Aside from drinking, that was my favorite vehicle for self-harm.
But occasionally, very occasionally, I went for a run instead of doing any of that. I didn’t run as much as I wanted to, because if I was going to I had to get up to run at 5 a.m. Waking up that early is hard if you’re up until 11 or later. It doesn’t matter if you’re awake because your depression presents as insomnia or because you’re drinking.
A year later, in August 2018, we moved to Los Angeles and nothing changed. I still hated myself. It’s almost like the problem was me, not my situation or physical location.
I loved Los Angeles but I didn’t know anybody there and I was lonely. After years of running alone, I sought out a run club. On September 29, 2018, I ran with Koreatown Run Club for the first time. It’s a large and loose group of great people who run together — in one admixture or another — several times a week. In that first run with them, I did a hair over 10 miles at a 6:53 clip and I loved it. After the run, I drove my wife to the airport and took myself out on the town. That day, in the course of buying books and eating lunch and watching sports, I got myself enormously drunk. Then I forgot to stop drinking. I don’t remember most of the next 16 hours or so.
The next day, I woke up at noon, sweating and angry. At the end of that bender, as I lay in bed mostly hungover but also a little still-drunk, I hated myself worse than ever before. I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked most of it. By nightfall, I was back in bed, anxious and hateful and too despondent to scream.
I resolved to do the deed that night: I just needed to decide whether to kill myself with a kitchen knife or by driving my car into a wall. (Thankfully, I’ve never owned a gun. The question of how would have been much easier and the thing would have been done.) Then my cat poked his head into the bedroom and I stopped thinking about myself for a second. I thought about what he would do after I died, with my wife out of town. I couldn’t imagine him alone with my dead body, trying to wake me up, or alone at home, waiting and waiting for me to come back and feed him. I would never wake up; I would never come home.
Lying in bed, scared and alone, I remembered a billboard I’d seen on a recent run. Hanging over the 101 at Western Avenue, it was for an organization called We Rise. I could remember from the billboard that the organization did work in the mental health space but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I did a Google search, ended up on their website and saw the number for the National Suicide Lifeline. I fought with myself for some time and eventually called it.
The next morning, I was in a mental health urgent care facility in Boyle Heights and I was getting treatment.
The following week, I barely slept and I didn’t eat but I went on a couple of runs. On October 17, I joined KRC again, this time at their weekly track night. From there, my recovery from suicidality (which is ongoing and requires daily work) went hand-in-hand with my preparations for the Los Angeles Marathon in March and my engagement with L.A.’s unique and open and supportive running community.
The first time I can remember going for a run for mental health reasons was Ash Wednesday, 2010. I lived in New Orleans and took myself on a five-mile run up and down the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground to do penance for my sins from the day before. Even though my sins were nothing worse than feeling angry and sorry for myself after getting ditched by my friends sometime between the krewes of Zulu and Rex.
I was 23 then. I was 32 when I had that terrible night in 2018. The intervening years are a sort of lost decade in my life: bad professional and financial decisions led to never-ending stress, which I tried to subdue with alcohol and cigarettes. After New Orleans, I lived in New York for a year, and that spring was the first time I felt genuinely suicidal. But I left the job that I hated and I left New York. I went to California like I was living some overwrought, overearnest song from the late Sixties.
Early on in my lost decade, I would sometimes take myself for a run when I was feeling really sorry for myself, like I did that Ash Wednesday, or I’d go to a gym. (In hindsight, daily trips to the Planet Fitness in Downtown Brooklyn helped stave off my depression in that hard New York spring.) That first fall in California, I worked in the wine industry and walked miles every day for work, in some of the most beautiful places on earth, so I ran infrequently. According to MapMyRun, I ran four times that August and three times in October. After harvest ended I found myself working as a prep cook in a wine bar that somehow stayed open despite rarely having actual, paying customers, and I began to hate myself again. I ran three miles on December 2, 2013 (at a surprisingly-fast 7 minute mile, despite the smoking habit I’d picked back up), and then again on the third, fifth and sixth of the month.
I ran 62 miles that December, far and away my highest mileage ever. Suddenly I was a runner.
I ran all over Northern California, and it quickly became my favorite thing. The seeds of that depression that would overwhelm me a few years later were already there — they were there in New Orleans and in New York and on those first runs in Napa. They were there in the cigarettes I smoked consistently until after my first half-marathon (sub-1:30 despite the cigs!) and they were there in the one-too-many beers I drank every day. But on my runs — long, hot runs in the Mt Diablo foothills or along the old railroad right-of-way, hungover long runs and exhausting tempo runs and solo track work — I worked off all of the angst and anger and resentment I carried with me every day and I felt a little more human.
The Bay Area is beautiful, but after the initial jolt I got from moving there, I quickly sank back to my worst depths. Running allowed me to find the beauty again, both in myself and in my home.
Then it was August 2017 and I took a turn for the worse. Then it was September 2018 and I found the bottom of the well. Then with the help of medication, therapy, the sense of purpose I got from training for a marathon and the community I found among Los Angeles runners, I slowly learned to believe Patterson Hood when he screamed:
“It’s fucking great to be alive!”
The mental health benefits of running and other forms of exercise are well documented, both in the academic literature and powerful anecdotes. There are magazine articles about it and podcasts and books — so many books. Every time I feel the impulse to tell my story, I have to ask myself the question I’m asking now: why add mine to all those already told?
This is the second time I’ve told mine, and I’ve asked myself that both times. On the morning of the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon, I recorded a video telling portions of this story and explaining why that race meant so much to me. For the 24 hours that Instagram stories stay live, my anecdote was part of that documentation. I had planned to post that video for months, but still, the morning of, when anxiety was forcing me to run the marathon on an hour and a half of sleep and a sick stomach, I almost bailed. I asked myself why anyone would care about what I had to say. It felt self-indulgent at best, idiotic and dumb at worst.
I was embarrassed to tell my story then, like I’m embarrassed to tell it now. Maybe that embarrassment is just another symptom of the stigma that this whole thing is supposed to combat. (Or this is indeed nothing more than an act of self-indulgence performed by a lonely, needy man. At my best moments, I don’t believe that’s true, but who knows.)
I decided before the marathon that I thought there was value in a person like me telling my story. Even though one in five Americans live with mental illness at any given time — and nearly half of everyone will experience it at some point in their lives — there is a stigma attached to it. Mine is not the face you think of when you hear the phrase “mental illness.” But it should be: mental illness can affect anybody.
Among athletes, especially, I believe we can, should, need to talk about it more openly. There are a few high profile athletes like Michael Phelps and Kelly Holmes and Terry freakin’ Bradshaw who speak openly about it, but it’s not really something we talk about as average, everyday athletes, because it’s not something we talk about as normal, workaday people.
Being open and honest about it has become so important to me, even though I’ve yet to figure out a way to measure if I’m actually having an impact. I’m heartened to see this conversation happening throughout the club I run with, and across the running community in Los Angeles. I didn’t do that — it was already happening, because we’re a loving and open people — but I’m happy to contribute something to it.
There’s another reason I wanted to tell my story the morning of the Los Angeles Marathon: Training for that race took everything I had. I ran my heart out at the track to punish myself and also to feel alive. I got angry at myself for missing morning runs and sometimes remembered to celebrate myself on the mornings I actually made it up and out. I cruised with new friends on long runs in Koreatown, Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica and elsewhere. I ran alone in Griffith Park and Echo Park and MacArthur Park. Sometimes I felt better, and sometimes I did not. Running was necessary, though, as important to me as therapy and medication.
At one of my first runs with KRC, Carol Sun, one of our track coaches, called me “New Alex” to differentiate me from the four other guys named Alex who run with the club. (We’ve acquired even more since then.) Maybe it was supposed to be a passing joke, but I ran with it literally and figuratively. The idea of being new was so enticing to me, after having hit such lows. And Los Angeles is a city that has always allowed people to reinvent themselves. It just felt right. Aspirational, certainly, but still: right.
Most days, I don’t feel any better or any different than I did on those worst days a few years ago. I berate myself every day for having no purpose, no value, no reason for existing. I’m never going to be a novelist or a screenwriter or a short story writer or anything else contributing actual value to the world. I’m going to live for 70-odd years, if I’m lucky, spinning my wheels and hating everything, until I die.
After a year and half of treatment and recovery — after expensive, exhausting work with a psychiatrist and several therapists — I still feel that way more often than not. And when I do feel that way, I go for a run, or I remind myself that if I slow down, calm down, and get to sleep, I’ll be able to run the next morning. It’s the only thing I know I can do well. It’s the only way I have to feel better and to love myself.
I run, and I know: It’s fucking great to be alive.
If you or someone you know is in need, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7: 1–800–273–8255