Stronger Than the Dark: Exploring the Intimate Relationship Between Running and Depression, by Cory Reese. 2021. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Photo: Evan Williams.
In his Ultrarunning magazine monthly column byline, Cory Reese boasts that he became an ultrarunner to support a well-developed sweet tooth. And this strikes a chord — for many of us, that was the initial reason we signed on. But as we progressed, we realized that the simple act of steady forward progress meant so much more: a space to connect with community, a space to enjoy nature, a space to mediate and problem solve. In fact, most of us turn to our sport to find solace when the world is simply too overwhelming. But as the tough decision made by Olympian Simone Biles illustrates, sometimes the mere act of physical release is not enough to chase down personal demons.
Who knew from reading his monthly humor column, that Cory Reese was battling depression? He was diagnosed with what is called “smiling depression,’ meaning he was good at covering it up and outwardly functioning normally. His condition was jumpstarted by the double whammy of a faith crisis and a serious medical diagnosis requiring weekly infusions. Cory at first found himself cut off from the very thing that might have helped—his running habit. True to form, once his medical issues were somewhat controlled, he decided to run not just an “ordinary” 100 miler, but also Laz Lake’s Volunteer State 500K to prove to himself that he could still function.
And he wasn’t too far off the mark. During this event he learned that it is OK to ask for help and more than OK to admit to weakness. Still, even in the afterglow of accomplishment, Cory can feel himself slipping into a downwards spiral. As a social worker, he recognizes that he needs counseling, but this is a double-edged sword, since as a social worker, he is embarrassed that he cannot handle things on his own. Like Hillary Allen in Out and Back, in order to function he must come to terms with his own vulnerability.
So, does running help depression? There is no definitive answer but Reese gives us several takeaways. As runners, we become accustomed to problem solving during a race, and this is assuredly a transferable life skill. We learn to depend on family and friends while training and on crew and road angels during the event itself. Ultimately, depression cannot be solved on its own and the ability to welcome a backup team is essential. There is no denying the physical and mental release that comes with putting one foot in front of the other in nature, but that is a bonus and not a solution when things become serious.
As Cory reflects, “I think that life is like a long, long walk across Tennessee. Life breaks us with its blisters, sunburns and heat rashes…And yet those challenges are the experiences that shape the race. They are the times when your defenses are shattered, your vulnerabilities are exposed, and you learn the most.”