Guest Blogger - Kate Phillips

For most of my life running has been the antidote to the bleak outlook I had regarding myself and the world around me. I learned pretty early on that when life became “too much” a quick run around the schoolyard could soothe my anxious thinking and help reconnect me to reality, even if only temporarily.

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As a teenager a professional once told me my depressive mood swings were typical teenage hormones. “Don’t stress it, this too shall pass”, she said. But nothing passed or got better. I was still shaking with tears in the school bathroom for “no reason”. That same year a different professional told me I had bipolar tendencies, but because of my age he wasn’t keen on diving too deep, so we spent most of my sessions talking about my latest crush. That’s when I learned to diminish my feelings.

Over the years I’ve been “diagnosed” with depression, anxiety, hormonal imbalances, and at one point a nurse practitioner told me I definitely had Bipolar Type II Disorder, here’s a ‘script. I never filled the prescription.

I’ve chased perfection by setting incredibly high standards. I’ve let self-doubt stop me from well-deserved achievements. I’ve let depression destroy my relationships with others and I’ve allowed anxiety to dictate what I could and could not do. I’ve dedicated years to figuring out what was “wrong” with me, and quite frankly it has been exhausting.

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Challenging years have come and gone and throughout those years I kept running. Regardless of whatever “diagnosis” I was feeling on my worst days, I was able to use running as a tool to heal myself.

Like many people who identify as runners, running became a way of life for me. The first time I laced up to go for an intentional run was the most natural thing in the world. I can close my eyes and immediately be brought back to that moment. My rhythmic breathing, the gentle crunch of the earth beneath my feet, and the feeling that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to. No soccer ball, no game of tag, no anxiety, just me and the trails behind my childhood home.

In high school my running flourished under the gentle guidance of two incredibly fun and caring coaches. They were tree-hugging hippies who taught me the art of running barefoot, that salt water was an incredible substitute for nasal spray, and that no matter how many times I completely fell apart they’d be right there for me.

Despite the safety net that running gave me I still struggled with whatever was going on. I simply got better at masking my issues by pushing my body to run just one more mile. I became obsessed with my newfound coping mechanism and needed more of it.

At the end of my high school career, I was fortunate enough to earn an athletic scholarship at a small Division I university in Ohio. I was excited and grateful for the opportunity to change my environment and work with a new group of young runners. The possibilities seemed endless.

However, my plan to be a top student-athlete didn’t exactly come to fruition. I had a really hard time transitioning from my small, tight knit community on Long Island to the freedom I found in an unfamiliar place. Freshman year cross country was a bust. I wasn’t necessarily recruited for cross country, but I thought that I could at least be a scoring member of the varsity squad. I barely came close. I tried shaking it off thinking that maybe indoors would go better, and for awhile it did. I snagged a few school records, received conference recognitions, and was a regular scoring athlete.

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I was finally starting to feel like I belonged and deserved to be a Division I athlete. However, this wouldn’t be a good story if there wasn’t some type of conflict.

I’ll skip most of the details, but rest assured I was drawn into various social activities, gained some weight, and my coach wasn’t stoked. At one point my Freshman Five was enough to draw comments and attach an anxiety to running I had never experienced before. It sucked. My safe running bubble had been bursted and I became a shell of the spunky New Yorker I once was. I started to dread practice and hated the numbers I saw on the scale. I skipped practice on occasion to attend, I kid you not, school sponsored meditation classes. The shower became my private therapy sessions where I would turn the water as cold as I could handle and cry in a heap on the floor. Woof. Even reflecting on that makes me want to tell young Kate it gets better, here’s a Snickers.

I started to withdraw and rejected spending too much time outside of my dorm room. My grades slipped and the tiniest comments would set me off. I started to drink a lot more and engage in risky behavior. My poor performances didn’t go unnoticed, and eventually I was booted from the middle distance team and told to train with the sprint squad. I didn’t hate sprinting and the sprinters were a ton of fun, so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. However it didn’t feel right and I felt abandoned in my time of need.

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Without the ability to cope with my stress by running for miles on end I struggled to stay positive. I thought about quitting. I thought about transferring schools. I started telling myself it didn’t matter what happened to me, but for some reason I woke up every day and put my shoes on. In hindsight I know for a fact my teammates were the reason I was able to make it through that challenging time. Despite the heartbreak and isolation I experienced watching them take off for their long runs while I fumbled with the starter blocks, they managed to give me the love I so desperately needed. They checked on me regularly and encouraged me to keep training even when it seemed impossible. The sisterhood I gained from these ladies is unmatched, and I struggle to find the words that truly capture the deep love and appreciation I have for them. From this I learned you can’t go through life alone.

An entire spring and fall went by before coach asked me back onto the middle distance squad. I was ecstatic, but by then I was so obsessed with my diet, the scale, and mileage that running had become a chore. I lost more weight than I should have and was so deep into a negative, anxious thinking cycle that my times never surpassed my high school records.

For the next three years I craved perfection and started seeking it by chasing someone else’s standards of me. I ached for things to get better, but I didn’t know how to do it. Like so many people with an untreated mental illness things never got better. They only got worse. I spiraled and retreated more. I lashed out, my weight yo-yo’d, and when graduation rolled around I was ready to be done with it all. I threw out my running shoes and said good-bye to the sport.

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Time passed, seasons changed, and life moved on without running. I moved to a small farm in Vermont and learned to love myself again. I discovered my newfound passion for baking, learned how to have a healthy relationship with food, and discovered that community living was the perfect place for me to thrive. That same year, in the mountains of Vermont, I learned to run again. To the people at Heartbeet, thank you. I love you.

I ran my first marathon in Eugene on a cloudy, spring day back in 2012. The months of training and miles without a watch reignited my passion for competition and I was ready. I ran Boston in 2013 and 2014. I crushed my 800, 1600, 5k, and 10k PRs and I even toyed with the idea of training for the Olympic Trials after running my first half marathon in 1:20.

I moved to Colorado to further explore my love for running and the outdoors. I discovered high altitude training and became obsessed with peakbagging unnamed summits. I adopted a dog who loved to explore and my runs took on a whole new level of satisfaction.

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I started to build up my confidence and soon decided that I was ready to advance my career. On April 4, 2017 I was accepted into my dream graduate program at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon: Mental Health Counseling with an emphasis in Wilderness Therapy. That same week I found out I was pregnant. PLOT TWIST!

I’d like to say I gracefully navigated this delicate time and I was the poster child for mental health recovery. But, alas, good old negative thinking patterns turned toxic and before I knew it I was back in crisis mode similar to college, sans binge drinking. However, with a few years of maturity under my belt I eventually accepted the persistent nudging of my partner Jeremy and close friend Liz to seek a therapist who would actually help me. Given my track record you can probably imagine my hesitation, but I went because this time my growing nugget needed me.

I’ll skip most of the nitty gritty of my time as a waddling pregnant lady. The gist: My therapist is a badass, I enjoyed being pregnant, I ate a lot of boiled okra, I ran for 25 weeks before dude man decided to settle on my bladder, I hiked every day, and my labor was actually enjoyable. Humble brag.

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Now, nearly a year and a half later I’m sitting on my bed reflecting on how far I’ve come. My partner and I are crushing parenthood and I love being a mom. I’m constantly learning what my stress triggers are and ways to cope that don’t involve running. Motherhood has put a stress on me I didn’t think was possible. I go through periods of postpartum depression, lamenting over the loss of independence, lack of sleep, and constant feeling on being “on”. I still have anxious thinking on the regular, but these days I’m able to manage my thinking errors before they become explosive. I journal every night, I try to be more open and vulnerable with my loved ones, and I’m learning to have radical acceptance for myself as much as possible.

Shortly after giving birth I was able to start running again. Like an old trusted friend, me and running didn’t skip a beat. Within a few weeks I was back to logging miles in the mountains, only this time with my little dude in tow. I ran a few local races and challenged myself to be competitive. I started running times close to my personal best, won some prize money, and placed within the top three of every race I entered. (Sidenote: every race I ran was either won by me or another MOM. Who run the world?!)

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You know that gut feeling that tells you you’re on the right path? That was the feeling I had one day while running on an empty trail in Crested Butte one morning. Two of my friends had just tied the knot and love was in the air. Right then and there I promised myself that I would start researching coaches and recommit to some dusty running goals. Given everything I had been through over the years, I owed myself. I owed myself the opportunity to give my goals a fighting chance. To prove to myself and no one else, that I am strong, capable, and worthy. I set my mind to this mantra and within a few weeks I found two incredibly talented coaches, Addie and Corey, who also believed in me.

I’d like to tell you that things have been perfect since then. That I set a PR while running the Houston Half and I was gearing up for the LA Marathon next month. I’d also like to say I was diligent about the “little things” during my postpartum training and my body was in tip-top shape… But your girl really has a real great way of keeping life exciting. Since October I’ve been dealing with a whole slew of issues from a bulging disc to knee pain to hip mobility, all of which put an immediate halt on my training. Booyah!

I don’t believe in coincidences. As dorky as this may sound, I’m almost 1,000% sure I’m supposed to be injured right now to test and train my mental strength. Am I really ready for my goals? Am I really ready to accept the inevitable heartbreak that comes with running? Am I really doing this for myself?

Yes. I am finally friggen ready.

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For the last few months I’ve been dragging my ass out of bed at 5 AM to cross train, stretch, and rehab. I’ve spent countless hours researching my injury with my coaches, discovering new mobility exercises, connecting with physical therapists, getting worked on by my chiropractor, taking long, hot baths, and telling myself that I’m capable, all while raising a wild 14 month old boy and pursuing my career as an Outdoor Educator. I’ve been investing in myself in ways no one else can for me, and t feels amazing. For the first time in a long time I’ve decided to show up for myself. I’ve decided to be my own damn champion and advocate for the things I need to be successful.

I still have my bouts of self-doubt and anxious thinking. I’ve had two panic attacks that led me to believe it was all for nothing. Just last week I woke up one morning thinking, “What if things never get better?”  That very next day I was able to run pain free on the treadmill for twenty minutes.

The fact of the matter is that the road to success is not linear. There will be many more obstacles and many more sleepless nights in my future. I will most likely always have some type of mental struggle. That’s just the way life is for me. How we process these external challenges makes all the difference. I can decide to isolate and crumble in a cold shower, or choose to stand tall and proud of myself regardless of the outcome. Who we surround ourselves with is just as important. I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing about my nonlinear success without the giant support network I’ve had over the last 30 years. I am grateful every day for the lessons I’ve learned from them.

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Today and every day moving forward I choose myself, messy thoughts and all, and I’m damn proud of it.
— Kate Phillips

Image Captions

  1. HS senior year indoor track

  2. College cross country seniors Dani, Bethany, and Kate

  3. College track saviors Dani, Bethany, Ashley, Kate, and Becky (photo cred: Dani)

  4. Kate in her Vermont casita with Il Gato (Yes, that was his name.)

  5. Kate and Rocky hiking with friend Liz (photo cred: Liz)

  6. Kate and the coolest kid ever, Wyatt.

  7. Running in Crested Butte

  8. Family pic

  9. Running with Wyatt and Liz (photo cred: Liz)

Addie Bracy