Why I Run by Scott Davis

Thank you to Scott Davis for submitting this essay with us; and, for being so open about his journey.   He’s hoping to be able to get it published elsewhere.  If you have any suggestion for him about how best to go about that, please email him HERE.

Why I run.

I’m a competitive person. In my maturity I’ve learned to control it, but when I was young I flipped many board game boards, threw many ping pong paddles, and was known to yell or cry when things didn’t go my way. I didn’t like losing[1]. And honestly the first competitive activity any of us really do is run. Tag, capture the flag, foot races – being fast equated to winning. My school district growing up had an elementary school cross country program (not something you see often nowadays) that lasted until I was in fifth-grade, so I was participating in formal running from the time I started school. There wasn’t much practice involved, and practices were mostly just a half-hour of games after school to prepare for the 3 one mile races against the other kids in our grade”¦ but I was pretty good. Not the fastest kid out there, but I did make it to all-city (the Olympics of the Spokane elementary school Cross Country program) every year.

This isn’t to say I love running just because I love the feeling of being faster; though I’ll admit, it’s definitely a part of it. But it goes beyond that. My relationship with running has gone through lots of phases, with obvious highs and lows. I’ve wanted to be poetic about it the way a lot of runners can be. Talking about the freedom of being out on a trail, the beauty of enduring pain, and the feeling of overcoming adversity. I’ve felt those things. I understand exactly what the others are saying, but it feels forced when I try to put it into words. It sounds corny, not like me. And although I’ve felt it, I can’t say I always agree with what they’re saying. There have been a lot of stretches where I sort of hated running, but kept doing it. Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m in control.

There are a lot of running stories where drug addicts, ex-cons, or people who otherwise had a tough upbringing turn to running as a way of dealing with their troubled past. Running is my addiction.

The longest break from running I’ve taken (excluding wrestling season in high school or forced breaks due to injury) would be no more than a week. Part of this stems from an irrational fear of getting fat. Part of it comes from the anxiety I get when I don’t run. And another part of it is a strong familiarity with how much running can suck. Most people hate running, it’s hard and when you start for the first time (or after a long break) and it can very quickly knock you on your ass. It’s incredibly humbling. Most people don’t have a good sense of how fast they should run, so they go out way too hard. It’s not their fault really because over short distances the pace one should be running at will feel slow. You have to learn how to control your breathing and relax, otherwise you’ll be uncomfortable and your experience will be miserable. And despite having ran for years, whenever I start running after taking a long breaks, it sucks. I hate that feeling. When I’m running consistently I know how fast I should be going, but when I’m starting up again this same pace seems impossible. I get annoyed when my body can’t keep up, and no one wants to feel tired and frustrated when they still have miles to go. The easiest way I can avoid this feeling is to never stop.

I almost quit wrestling my sophomore, junior and senior year of high school because I wanted to be faster[2]. Some of my cross-country teammates ran all winter and I figured if I joined them then my times would have to improve. My junior year I went as far as to try and sneak in runs before wrestling practice, meaning I consistently arrived 15 to 20 minutes late. After a few weeks my coach pulled me aside and give me an ultimatum – I was setting a bad example and as one of the leaders on the wrestling team he told me I needed to knock it off. I showed up on time the rest of the year.

From the time I started competing all the way through high school, my two most competitive sports were running and wrestling. My dad got me into wrestling when I was really young, I’m guessing five or six. Practice was only one night a week and after a few practices they would add a weekly mini “tournament”[3]. Each Saturday we would arrive at the time our age group was scheduled and weigh in. Once they had your weight, it was written down on a card with your name on it (so they could form the groups), and also on your hand in black marker. I remember sitting on the side of the mat every weekend comparing the weights of all the kids in my group thinking that any difference I could find meant that someone had an advantage. I never starved myself or took extreme measures to make weight. Not in middle school or high school and definitely not as a little kid. But I did spend an awful lot of my childhood obsessing about that number.

I’ve had a six pack since at least middle school. I’m terrified of losing my abs maybe more than anything in the entire world.

My older sister used to be a gymnast – she competed for a local club team and was incredibly fit as a young girl. After she hit puberty and no longer did club gymnastics, she briefly developed an eating disorder. When she ran cross country she would throw up during every race. Later in life my mom told me she used to see a therapist about it. My mom took me to see the same therapist when I had my first run-in with depression in middle-school through freshman year of high school. In these awkward transition years I lost most of my elementary school friends and struggled to find my new social group. My freshman year I also contracted mono. This might have been cooler if I got it from kissing girls, but I didn’t, so instead it simply took another toll on my mental health. Most of my socialization during this time came in the classroom or through participation in sports. I ran cross country in the fall, wrestled in the winter, and ran track in the Spring. Three or more[4] school sports for six straight years.

I wish I could say that I took solace in running and used it as a therapy – but I don’t think that really happened for me. Not then at least. Looking back I would guess that I still got runners high, but I didn’t pay close enough attention to it to have a noticeable effect. Runners high is subtle. And it only happens after long runs, hard workouts, or fast races. It happens after accomplishing something when your body is exhausted. For some people their fatigue is overwhelming and they can’t really feel it. That’s perfectly understandable. But for me, despite being exhausted, I start to feel excited and energized because of what I just did – that’s the high. When I push myself enough to feel it, I’m (to use a cliché) in my element. I feel lighter and more comfortable. I get animated as I talk to other runners and spectators. These people share my interest in running and know how much suffering we just went through; and runner’s high necessitates suffering, which is why it doesn’t happen on easy days.

The hardest race I’ve ever done in my life was “˜The Rut – 28k’ (a trail race that summits Lone Peak in Big Sky Montana) [5]. My friend, Kash, convinced me to sign up though I had never ran a trail race before. I’d ran on trails plenty throughout my running career, but never really raced on one. More on trails later. To prepare myself I signed up for a local 15k trail race up the local ski-hill[6]; my first ever race that wasn’t on a track, roads, or (mostly) flat grass – and I snuck in a third-place finish, giving me a lot of confidence heading into the main event. “˜The Rut’ is a different beast altogether; it’s the ultimate sufferfest. I made a poor decision to run in relatively new shoes, and early on in the race started to develop blisters on my heels that by the time I finished were 2 inches in diameter. Ever step downhill was torture and when you have thousands of feet of climbing, you have an equal amount of descent. My legs and lungs had never been pushed that hard. On the way up to Lone Peak (a significant milestone, but still with somewhere between a half and a third of the course remaining) I swore I would never do this to myself again. It was miserable. When I finished I had to have a medic clean and tape my heels, and I walked on my toes the rest of the weekend. The next day at the same location is “˜The Rut – 50k’ an ultra-marathon that covers the same course, plus another 13.7 miles. As we watched the finishers make their final approach, cheering them on, a mix of pride, confidence and apparent amnesia began to rear its head. I thought to myself “if they can do it, I can do it”¦”. My mom likened this experience to childbirth[7]; it’s horrible in the moment, but once it is over, the more removed you get, the less horrible you remember it being. Kash and I talked about the race over the course of the next couple weeks with similar experiences. It’s transformative. When you survive an extreme amount of suffering, it’s cathartic. You have new confidence in your ability to endure both mentally and physically. During those 4 and a half hours I wanted to quit multiple times. My whole body hurt, I reached my VO2 max more than once, three and a half of my toenails turned completely black with blood blisters, and the skin on my heels was literally peeling off. But I finished and no one can ever take that away.

I don’t think I’ll ever run a 50 mile race (or longer). I said the same thing about an ultra-marathon but when registration for “˜The Rut’ came around again, Kash and I signed up for the 50k.

Growing up I always liked running on trails, but it’s different from running on a track or on the roads. Often trail running offers up the best scenery, but usually has much more hills and uneven footing. You have to pay closer attention to what you’re doing, and it’s more difficult to stay in rhythm. In a word, it’s harder. I prefer running where I can be mechanical, comfortable and relaxed. Roads are great for this, and the track perfects it. Although it offers the least interesting scenery I love track because of the simplicity it offers – flat, repetitive loops. It’s like a physics experiment with the complicated factors removed[8]. At any given point in the race you know exactly where you are, and how much of the race is left. You can see all your competitors. You can have your splits planned out as specific as you want, and feel incredibly in tune with your internal measure of pace and effort. After primarily sticking to roads after graduating college, I started doing track workouts with the local running club in Missoula and was reminded how much I love the sport. And not just for the distance events either. Track pits raw human ability against one another. Running, jumping, throwing – competition in its most basic form.

I’ve thought a lot about how the final moments of a race – whether on a track, road, or trail – are beautiful to witness. While finishing a local 10k (my first race in a couple years) I came around the last corner and although I was exhausted I instinctively started pumping my arms, taking quicker steps, and lengthening my strides. My breathing got harder and faster; almost gasping as my muscles tensed up. But I kept pushing. Of course I kept pushing. That’s what happens in the final moments of a race – you are watching a human put themselves in the most extreme discomfort they are willing, or able, to tolerate. And it doesn’t matter how fast or seasoned someone is, everyone can share in this same experience. We’ve all seen someone “hit the wall” as they grimace to hold on, but their body just won’t respond. This feeling hurts, but it’s short lived. Plus it beats the feeling of regret if you think you could have left more on the course and shaved another couple seconds off your time. Watching a race is like watching a battle of human suffering, and as mentioned above when you suffer you grow. Again, it’s therapeutic, and whether I was aware of it or not – it has always had a profound effect on my mental health. Yet when I started running it wasn’t to deal with my depression, I ran because I liked it. I liked the friends I made and the way I felt when I had a good race. I like running without a shirt on because I was proud of my body. I like winning and throughout my early running career my team won a lot.

It started in middle school with my cross country team getting 2nd and then winning all city in 7th and 8th grade respectively. But it really grabbed hold of me in high school. My sister dated one of the seniors on the cross-country team my freshman year. My high school had won state the 3 previous years in a row, had competed at the Nike Nationals race at least twice and were entering the season, as our coach would say, “with a target on our back.” During the summer the team ran at 8 AM every morning from our high school. My sister’s boyfriend offered to drive me to these unofficial practices whenever I wanted to go, so I went consistently. Running takes a big jump between middle school and high school. Middle school races are 1 – 1.5 miles long, so you wouldn’t practice more than a couple miles at a time. High school races are 3 miles or 5k (3.1 miles) along with 2-3 miles of warming up and another 2-3 of cooling down. Summer runs were never less than 4. Me and the other freshman (and a few older JV kids) couldn’t keep up with the varsity guys, but before too long we were familiar with most of their regular loops. These months were filled with milestones – my first 8 mile run, then 9, then 10. By the end of the summer I probably doubled my lifelong mileage. And just as importantly I fit in with the runners, a significant feat considering my struggles to find my social group. I started every day with a sense of accomplishment and I loved the community of it. Easy days were kept at a conversational pace so it felt more like hanging out with friends than working out. Plus our team was good. We consistently won at all levels (Varsity, JV, and Freshman) that year. At the end of the season our freshman and JV teams won all-city and our varsity won state before taking a disappointing third place at nationals[9]. Before the national meet, because our team was expected to do well, Nike (the sponsor of the meet) threw an assembly for the whole school and brought Bernard Lagat to talk about running and our team. It was the first, and probably only, time I’ve ever seen an entire school congregate and show legitimate excitement for a cross country team. I was hooked. I wanted to be a runner.

A few years later, as a senior, our team would win state again (after a couple year break). We spent a lot of the season ranked first in the nation, and placed second at nationals just 6 points behind the team that won. I later would make it to state in the 800m for track as well, despite never even having placed at district’s before. It felt like I had reached my climax. Instead of wanting to continue running competitively, my friend/teammate Jeremy and I decided to go out with one final hurrah and race a marathon in October. This would be the cherry on top of my now-ending career as I would go enjoy my college years studying, partying, and rediscovering myself.

Pat Tyson, the legendary coach at Gonzaga University, where I went to college, had sent recruitment letters to our entire team when we won state, but wanting the full college experience I turned him down. There was no money attached anyways. Jeremy and I spent that summer before freshman year logging lots of miles training for the Portland Marathon in October. I finished in well under 3 hours, the goal I had set for myself, placed second in my age group and got a plaque for it. Jeremy stopped running after that. I didn’t. It was the first time I tried to quit. The problem is that I get crippling anxiety when I don’t workout – so despite “retiring,” my weekly mileage simply decreased, but didn’t drop to zero. I tried other forms of exercise like weight-lifting and racquetball. But usually I would supplement these workouts with a run, or by sitting on a stationary bike for an hour, not trusting anything else to keep me fit and skinny (the way I liked to look). At the beginning of Spring semester, I reached out to Tyson to see if I could walk-on to the team the following year (after giving myself a summer to get back in shape). Running wasn’t as fun when I did it alone, and I missed competing. He let me shadow the team and try to earn a spot. The following winter I raced in a Gonzaga singlet.

The second time I tried to quit was right after I graduated college. In my final track race I broke 15 minutes for a 5k – which was my personal goal for the year. Once again I felt this accomplishment would be my new peak – not national recognition, but a personal best time that I am proud of still to this day. The next two years at graduate school didn’t offer nearly as much time to run, not workouts at least. I again returned to doing the minimum amount of running, or stationary biking, that I could do without feeling like a lard. I didn’t run nearly as many miles during this time, but since I ran primarily by myself with my GPS watch, I usually ran quite fast. When I run with my dog now, or when I run/ran with friends, I don’t pay such close attention to my pace. By myself I’m a slave to it. I’m constantly monitoring how fast I’m going, and getting annoyed when my watch doesn’t match how I feel. Once I start running a certain pace I feel locked in, I can’t easily make myself slow down. I’ll sometimes offer to run with friends who usually tell me “no” because they “don’t want to slow me down.” What they don’t realize is how much of a relief that actually is. I love running with other people – the social aspect of the sport has always been one of my favorites – and I would never leave someone behind if they were a little bit slower than me. Plus, I’m less likely to get injured if I allow myself to ease up on the reigns once in a while. Every injury I’ve ever had from running came from overuse. I don’t often get hurt out of the blue. There’s usually some sort of nagging stiffness that warns me before the swelling or severe pain; the thing that physically prevents me from running. “Listen to your body.” I tell that to everyone who ever comes to talk to me about potential injuries. I need to be better at listening to my own advice.

My first major injury set-back came as a Junior in high school and resulted in the lowest point in my running career. That year at the Stanford Invitational – one of the most competitive races in the country – I finished the race second to last of everyone[10]. The only kid behind me walked for stretches at a time and the crowd wasn’t even sympathy clapping by the time I finished. The golf cart that signifies we’ve reached the end of the runners was visible the entire second half of the race. As a sophomore I had been running around 18 minutes for a 5k, with my best time a little faster; at Stanford I clocked in at over 23 and a half minutes. When I finished, I called my mom to tell her I never wanted to run again. This was the final straw after a string of bad races[11] and I hated how worthless I felt. My runs were like bad dreams where gravity is extra heavy and you struggle to lift your legs while everyone around you darts by on their light, quick feet. My mom took me to a doctor and we learned I had anemia. I didn’t run again for two months, instead cross-training and adding as much iron into my diet as possible. My first race back was the JV all-city, the last race of the season. I might as well try – there was no pressure and it would be my last chance before spring track. Instead of being my last race, I had a breakthrough. I ran a huge PR and earned my spot (7th man, but still) on the varsity squad that won regionals and placed 3rd in state – a placement that we were disappointed with. It was a great finish to a horrible start to the season though.

In college, injuries were incredibly common on our team. At any given time, we had an injured crew of at least 3 runners who would gang up to do laps in the pool or get on stationary bikes together. It really helped us still feel like part of the team. When I had anemia in high school, I was so grateful to have an excuse for my poor performances that by the time I raced again, I had not just accepted the injury but almost embraced it. It was just a hurdle to overcome for that one season. More recently, after having set a goal to run 2000 miles in 2019 (an average of about 5 and a half miles a day) any breaks in running felt like a set-back in accomplishing that goal. Taking a single day off gave[12] me a lot of anxiety. A weeks-long injury nearly broke my spirit. During the summer, despite being well ahead of pace for reaching my goal, I noticed a burning in my Achilles. In response I tried rolling out and stretching the crap out of my calf. When the pain didn’t go away, and I saw a Physical Therapist, they told me that the stretching had most likely aggravated it. I couldn’t run for nearly 3 week. Then by the time I started up again the mileage cushion I had built up had all but vanished. I’d started meditating earlier in the year and had been seeing a therapist for a while. These things helped, but during this time it became clear how much my identity is intertwined in my ability to run. It’s sort of like losing your sense of self and purpose. Hours of my day that would normally be spent running – time outside, processing thoughts and feelings, getting endorphins – all gone. Other forms of exercise can help me feel a little better, but I’m pretty sure my appetite decreases, and my patience drops. My wife sent me several articles to read about the psychological effects of injuries on competitive athletes – the feeling of being left behind and isolated, the fear of never regaining your strength, and then being frustrated with my own struggle because of how small an issue an injury is when compared to the suffering of many people in the world. I felt all of these things.

After I completed my Masters in Math, Sydney and I moved to Tacoma, WA[13] where I started to struggle with depression more and more. I wasn’t good at expressing my emotions and assumed that forced positivity would result in my own happiness. We didn’t make many friends there, the population was more dense (and as a result more stand-offish), and live music (one of my favorite things in life) almost always required at least an hour of driving up to Seattle. Running had been such an important part of my life before, so I once again turned to it to for help. I hadn’t had any real running aspirations since I left Gonzaga, so I set a goal to run 1500 miles in the first full year we lived there (roughly 4.11 miles per day on average). The plan would be to do at least one long run a week, take a day or two off and really mix up my workouts. Instead, running became a chore. I had a 4.2 mile out and back run that I did 2 or 3 times a week and seldom did my long runs reach more than 8 miles. When I didn’t run, I would be hit with an intense disappointment in myself – so I continuously mustered up the motivation to do the bare minimum to stay on pace. I even had a mileage tracker where I compared how many miles I had run to the miles I should have run, broken down for each day of the year. My professor job had flexible hours, which should have granted me plenty of opportunity to seek out new routes and make it enjoyable, but it wasn’t. I kept running because of my goal. Then, I slowly began to resent it. The exercise still gave me endorphins, and a feeling of joy when I would finish my 4.2 out and back with a sub 6:00 mile. But overall, during this time, I felt like I had lost control of running. I had no inspiration. I never wanted to get started, yet I kept going out, again and again, and again.

After two years, Sydney and I moved back to Montana expecting my mental health problems to magically be resolved by the return. If only depression was that simple.

The first therapist I saw through my Employee Assistance Program was Michael. Anti-drug and alcohol posters covered his office walls, and when we started talking it became clear we wouldn’t get along. He wanted to sculpt my depression into a narrative he was familiar with, and his primary focus was working with addicts. He was the only option for therapy in Missoula that would accept my work’s EAP[14], so if I wanted to see someone else I would have to pay for it. Since it was free I met with him for all 3 sessions that were covered, only cutting ties after our third primarily failing session. His initial questions were more about my drinking habits than my personal issues, and when I told him that I was a runner he told me endurance running was too hard on the body and I should stop. After each session I left feeling disconnected, and certainly not better. We never clicked, and it felt like a waste of time.[15] When he asked about scheduling the 4th session (which would cost me $125) I said I needed to check with my wife first. “Oh yeah I’ve heard that one, no one ever calls back to schedule it,” he said right before I left. I did call him, to prove him wrong, obviously telling him I wouldn’t be coming back. When the EAP representative called to ask for feedback on the service I was brutally honest, and they offered me 3 new free sessions and to search for another therapist who they could work with. I got to see Maggie a total of 8 times for free (through a perfectly timed company-wide switch in EAP providers). She was better to talk to than Michael, but still not worth paying for with my own money. At least she ran, so we were able to bond about that.

As a runner I have always aimed for continual improvement. There are obvious ways to better yourself: goal setting, self-reflection, journaling. When it became clear that my mental well-being was in danger, I took this same focused approach to my personal development. In addition to seeing therapists I started meditating, taking vitamins, practicing gratitude, and reaching out to friends and family when I’m sad.[16]

In the years since I started seeing a therapist[17] I’ve made leaps and bounds in learning how to deal with my emotional stress. My wife and I are communicating better than ever. I’ve gotten better at recognizing what’s important to me and how to prioritize my time. I’ve done a better job getting involved in the Missoula running community, attending the weekly group track workouts, racing more, and volunteering when I can. My runs vary more in length throughout the week, and I mix things as often as possible; sometimes running on the roads, sometimes on trails; sometimes by myself and sometimes with company. And in this transformation I’ve rediscovered my love for running. It has always been a part of my life, for better or for worse, but I’m learning how to have a healthier relationship with it. I still get anxiety if I don’t get out, and I still have days where I lack motivation, or just feel weak and tired – But I know the good days will come back around. Running keeps me fit. It keeps me healthy and happy. It has provided me with friends and time to be social in an environment where I feel the most comfortable. And the best thing about running is that anyone who has an interest in it can share this experience. Running is a universal activity for humankind. Everyone can do it, all they need is the will power to get going. It will suck at first,[18] but it gets a little easier every day. You get out of it what you put into it, and for some people that might mean getting a single mile in per week while for others it means training to tackle a 100 mile race. For me, running offers an abundance of opportunities to better myself. It’s not just something I do, it’s a part of me, and I’ve made peace with that.

[1] And I still don’t!

[2] Why didn’t I quit? Honestly, because I liked winning and I won a lot of wrestling matches.

[3] The “tournaments” were set round-robin style where groups of 4 kids of about the same size and skill – based on their previous successfulness (so bad kids could wrestle other bad kids and good kids could wrestle other good kids) – would all take turns wrestling one another. There were 4 tournaments a year, two of which gave out medals. One gold, one silver and two bronze. In my years of youth wrestling I mostly earned golds, one silver, and a small handful of bronzes. I hated the bronzes.

[4] I also played one season of basketball when I was in 8th grade because it didn’t over lap with wrestling. Although it was fun, basketball has never been my strength.

[5] 28k is roughly 17.4 miles. The race starts at an elevation of 7500 ft, reaches a maximum elevation of 11,141 ft, and has a total of 7800 ft of climbing”¦ Because I know you were wondering.

[6] Roughly 2150 ft of climbing over 9.3 miles.

[7] I don’t mean to minimize the experience of childbirth – I am certain it is more painful than what I went through. But the experience has a lot of mental similarities.

[8] Assume you are in a frictionless vacuum”¦

[9] Third is incredible, but this team was definitely good enough to win. If a couple runners hadn’t had their worst race of the year at nationals, I’m certain they would have.

[10] As a bonus kick to the gut, it was also my birthday.

[11] The week prior to the Stanford invite, to give context, was my first week racing JV because of my poor race performances that year. I expected to win and earn back my spot on the team traveling to Stanford. I would be going either way since the flights were booked weeks earlier, but I wanted to deserve to be there, not go because of a technicality. Instead of leading the race I kept getting passed. I fell behind teammate after teammate that I should have been beating, each one hurting more than the last. Halfway through the course a freshman, who was running probably his third ever race, came up behind me, put his hand on my back and said “it’s ok, you’ll be fine.” He ran right on past me, so I quit. It’s the only race I’ve ever dropped out of.

[12] And still gives

[13] For my dream job of being a college math professor

[14] Employee Assistance Program

[15] I’ve since learned it is fairly common to go through multiple therapists until you find one you like. In a relationship where you need to be vulnerable and honest it is incredibly important to see someone who makes you feel comfortable. Thankfully I found someone else (besides the two listed in this essay) who was a much better fit.

[16] In addition to prioritizing running as part of my daily routine.

[17] I’m also happy to announce I am no longer seeing one 😊.

[18] And also just randomly sometimes.