It's the most popular 10-mile race in the nation. Randy LoBasso digs for its spiritual meaning.
One thing, though, is clear: The so-called “runner’s high” is not just a figure of speech. It’s a rush of endocannabinoids—the same system in our brain researchers have studied to understand medical marijuana’s positive effects on the human psyche. And I can attest that it’s spectacular.
It can also bring about long-term mental health advantages. “We do now know that aerobic exercise has really profound mental health benefits,” says Herbert. “It can work well with depression and anxiety, as well as even sub-clinical levels of anxiety. Most people have some degree of anxiety.”
A runner himself, Herbert notes that in many cases, exercise three days a week can work just as well as anti-depressants prescribed by someone like him. He’s done the Broad Street Run, the Rock n’ Roll Marathon—which he calls, “my newest obsession”—and is a regular at the Narberth 5K. “For me, it’s stress,” he says. “I don’t have problems with depression or anxiety, but it’s the best way of coping with stress.”
It’s gotten to the point where he recently bought a t-shirt with the outline of a dead body on it.
“It says, ‘I run so I don’t kill people,’” he muses. “I don’t think I would kill anybody, but I have a pretty stressful job. I think [running is] the best stress reliever.”
Studies have similarly shown that running about 15 miles per week can help prevent obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and some cancers. Exercise helps extend our life by reducing what we all know as “bad” cholesterol—LDL cholesterol—and lowering our blood pressure. Weight-bearing activities, which running is, also help build bone and muscle density, which helps put off debilitating diseases later in life.
But if more of us are running, why is our overall well-being so poor? America is getting fatter, more diabetic, and we’re enjoying KFC Double-Downs at higher rates than ever before.
According to the Center for Disease Control, two-thirds of us are overweight or obese, and the average person in this country is about 23 pounds above their ideal weight. So, even though more of us are running, more of us also just aren’t. In many corners of the non-American Internet, it’s not uncommon for Europeans, Australians and Asians to refer to the people of our country, as a whole, as “Amerifats,”—which says a lot about us. But the reaction to it also says a lot about us, in a good way.
Fat acceptance is gaining more prominence in our society—which is a positive reaction to unfair media portrayals of men and women in magazines and elsewhere—but obesity and a healthy weight are two different things entirely. Obesity often brings with it many health risks. Excess weight has the propensity to lead to some of the same things running works against: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some forms of cancer. Weighing a third more than your ideal weight, a 2009 study found, could take three years off your life. And as Americans, as a whole, accept their excess weight as a new normal, those whose obesity could have serious effects on their health often don’t understand it.
Interestingly, though: Every one of the people I spoke to for this story named something other than weight loss or pure mental health as their prime motivating factor in signing up for Broad Street.
Keturah Church is a 21-year-old nursing student and rugby player at the College of New Jersey. She recently had back surgery and was told she wouldn’t get back on the rugby field, so decided to sign up for the Broad Street Run after her school’s Christmas break.
“It was to take my mind off having to be on the sideline for every upcoming game, give me a reason to expedite recovery—and also a platform for my battle cry of victory over surgery,” she says. “All the training and then the end goal of finishing this run is proof to myself and others that limitations are just that, limitations, not a disability.”
Michele C. wants to run for a cause, too. The Broomall mom decided to do Broad Street in January. She’d always been a runner, she says, but had never joined a race. “I reconnected with a few old friends during the sickness and death of our mutual friend,” she says—and through the tragedy, she found a reason to run.
The friend: Ray. They first met in 1998. Opinionated and willful, she says, they were inseparable for several years. “Our relationship blossomed in one of the deepest relationships I have ever had,” she continues.
That is, until their mutual stubbornness drove a wedge between them, and they stopped speaking. The mutual silence went on for 10 years, even though she thought about him every day during that time.
Ray found out he had cancer on his 42nd birthday. He underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, then surgery; the cancer spread from his lymph nodes to his brain and spine. He never had the chance to proclaim remission. After reconnecting through an online forum for Grateful Dead fans, the two got back in touch. “Ray welcomed me back into his life with open arms,” Michele says. “I spent the next year taking care of him and watching him slowly die. We were able to talk about our past and our regrets, which healed some of the wounds.”
Ray had another friend, Joe, from whom he had been estranged. And the night before he died, Michele met Joe as he came to Ray’s bedside to make peace. When Ray died, Michele, Joe and Joe’s girlfriend, Erica, created a support group to deal with the tragedy. After helping each other cope, Michele says, her appetite returned, and they decided to begin working out.
Mourning became running, and the three signed up for the Broad Street Run lottery together.
“Keeping busy and focused has helped me cope with Ray’s death since I don’t have time to sit and sulk. Plus, running helps bring clarity and stillness to my mind,” she says. “I find the waves of grief sweep over me the most when I am alone. I’m not trying to ignore the reality of losing a loved one by overbooking my schedule [but] running has provided me with a positive outlet for my emotions. I still have those dark moments, but it’s more fun to see the light. Knowing I need to strap on my sneaks, get my butt outdoors to start running has helped guide me through grieving.”
What Michele is experiencing is something the American Psychological Association has referred to as The Exercise Effect. There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. “People who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” James Blumenthal, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Duke University, told the APA in 2011.