Depression to Marathon

This article recounts the beautiful story of a person that, from the depths of depression, decided to stand up for what’s right. From a near-death state, Stav decided to turn her life around, and against all expectations, run the Athens marathon. This is the story of how Stav managed to turn her life around.

This article is made of two parts. One recounts Stav’s experience. The other one tells the story of the personal training team that accompanied her on her journey to resurrection.

Choose your side

Support, care and understanding
Read Jarrat’s point of view

Courage, effort & dedication
Read Stav’s point of view

Depression to marathon: a story of support, care and understanding (Jarrat)

There are many different strategies for developing goals. Most modern practices are based on systems. They use the SMART principle (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound) or a similar model to define their goals. I can see many benefits to utilising these systems. However, if I was to be critical I would say that they lack a fundamental connection to our overall purpose in life and that lack of connection is what can lead to a successful outcome (based on achieving the goal) but an ultimately unfulfilling and unhappy experience. There is a ‘disconnect’ of sorts occurring.

You see, being a “winner” does not lead to fulfilment and happiness. It never really has. The problem is that we get taught from a young age that it does. We get taught that once we have the car, the trophy, the house, the partner, the kids, the TV, the sound system, the yacht, etc. that somehow this will make us fulfilled and happy. And it’s a lot of BS!!

It’s only when we connect these achievements, successes and goals to a bigger purpose in life that we are able to access a far more long-lasting form of happiness and contentment and fulfilment.

Being a “winner” does not lead to fulfilment and happiness.
Only by connecting achievements, successes and goals to a bigger purpose in life can you access a long-lasting form of happiness.

So how is it that with one of our clients we had simultaneous goals at one point this year of both cleaning the living room and training for a marathon?? How does that happen? Let me tell you…

In the depths of a very severe depressive episode earlier this year, Stavroola was restricted for many days into weeks of only being able to achieve some very minor tasks. Despite the increasing awareness of mental illness in modern Australia, it is still very difficult for most healthy people to understand the level of incapacitation a severe bout of the “Black Dog” can cause. I still am confronted by this on a personal level. But that is where Stav was earlier this year. Struggling with minor tasks such as making the bed, doing the laundry and, yes, cleaning the living room. On a ‘good day’ maybe she would get some data entry done as part of her PhD but any complex analysis, social interaction and intense exercise was simply not possible. This level of restriction is simply incomprehensible to most of us.

Yet, somehow a goal to run the Athens Marathon in November this year was not forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, it really wasn’t something that was important when making it to the end of the day did not seem possible – but it was never forsaken. The emphasis and focus of Stav’s health was elsewhere, as it needed to be, but thanks to supportive friends it was never an option to quit.

I must admit that at this time when my team member and Personal Trainer Nicola Vrachnas, Stav and I sat down over a coffee and strategised the next 8-9 months of her personal training, the marathon was far from our focus. The priority, as always, was Stav’s health and providing an environment that would allow her back to a healthy mental state. Secondary to that was any physical goals. And so it began with daily session plans, weekly plans, regular check-ins, regular contact with a team of medical professionals that have all played a significant part and sitting at the centre of this was Stavroola.

I recall one phone call as Stav made her way driving out West to collect some data in Wellington in Western New South Wales for her PhD and I honestly feared for her life. We had a discussion (most of our discussions are 30 minute plus affairs but this one may have been more important than most) which led to Stavroola “marshalling the troops” – a mantra we would repeat over the coming weeks and months to come. It took a lot of courage but Stav made some serious decisions in regards to her treatment both pharmaceutically, medically, mentally and physically. These decisions would lay the foundation for future achievement.

Throughout this deep trough of depression I believe it was crucial that Stav never lost track of what was most important and that is her health. We (Stav, Nicola and I) constantly come back and question the reasons why Stav is exercising in the first place, what it means for her health, and when we set goals we set them based on how they enhance her life’s experience rather than just ticking off boxes of success.

That is how the Athens Marathon became the key event of 2016. Stav had never run a marathon. She could have chosen to run any marathon. She could have chosen to do it anywhere in the World. But, she chose the Athens Marathon because of the connection to her heritage and she chose to raise funds for the Indigenous Marathon Project because her life’s work is based on helping those who have been unfortunate enough to be raised with the effects of disadvantage and prejudice. Those two factors would become far more motivating than worrying about a target time or a placing or beating other people. It was about heritage, family, social justice and inspiring others to do the same.

Stav chose the Athens Marathon because it was about heritage, family, social justice and inspiring others to do the same.

You see, Stav is one of those people that would have been told more than once growing up that she is “not a runner” or “not an athlete”. It’s these social constructs that can form an individual’s opinion of themselves and shape their future behaviour. Yes, it is true that when Stav first started personal training she could barely run. It is true that she could not move the chest press machine with no weight without pain in her neck. But, in my eyes she was never “not an athlete” and never “not a runner”. It is these thoughts that limit us all in our potential. Even now for Stav to mention she is a runner is difficult for her to utter – but utter it she does. Even after running 5km races, 10km races, even half marathons she wasn’t really confident to call herself a runner. I hope that doubt is now well and truly left behind.

Nobody’s “not a runner” or “not an athlete”. Social constructs too often influence people’s opinion of themselves and shape their future behaviour.

Stav completed the Athens Marathon on Sunday, 13th November with the support of many family and friends and 2 very proud trainers, as well as the whole Longevity Team. She raised a lot of money for the Indigenous Marathon Project and brought a tremendous amount of awareness to them as well. All of this, when simply getting out of bed and performing a simple task like putting the washing on was out of reach merely months ago.

Goals are important but the purpose behind the goal is even more important. You can set goals and achieve them but nothing will give you more fulfilment than a goal that is close to your heart. One that gives you emotional, physical, social and mental challenges and stimulation that allow you to experience as much from this life as possible.

It’s only by achieving a goal that is close to your heart that you will able able to experience as much from this life as possible.

Jarrat Wood.

Depression to marathon: a story of courage and effort (Stav)

What’s so special about Stavroola Anderson running the Athens Marathon? Millions of people run marathons. Some people run multiple marathons in a year. So, why did a range of people become unusually excited about my first marathon attempt?

The idea of me running a marathon started as a joke. Someone said, “Now that you’re a runner you should run a marathon.” To which I replied, “If I ever run a marathon, it will only be the proper one in Greece. Not this Johnny-come-lately New York, Boston, London stuff.” Then I made that statement in front of some Greeks, and people became invested. You just don’t get away with having Kytherian heritage, making proposals that implicate Greek honor, and not following through.

It was the stuff of an Ancient Greek myth. One heroic figure sacrificing themselves to the hard and time-consuming training, and enduring the grueling contest. Many Greek-Australians, their extended family and friends reveling in the glory and reflecting on the greatness of Greece.

Finishing a marathon is a state of mind that says anything is possible.

For a variety of reasons, I did not enter adult life on a path to sporting glory. I was the youngest, smallest, least coordinated, and most poorly balanced of my siblings and cousins. I had some dodgy PE teachers and sports coaches during my school years. I have levels of anxiety that border on the dysfunctional. For most of my life I have perceived myself as a person with very limited capacity and skill in the sporting realm. Then I encountered some people who genuinely believe that anyone can learn to do almost anything. Each time I suggest some seemingly outrageous fitness goal, they calmly (Jarrat) and excitedly (Nicola) respond with a strategically thought out personal training plan. All I have to do is follow instructions and engage in effortful practice.

The marathon is, so far, the greatest of my fitness challenges. It is also the one that seems to have inspired the most people to say, “Well, if that small, sulky when exercising individual, who seems to trip over things quite regularly can run a marathon, maybe I can…”

Depression is living in a body that fights to survive with a mind that tries to die.

2016 marks the 120th anniversary of the first Modern Olympic Games, at which the Athens Marathon as it exists today was staged. I, on the other hand, am marking a less fabulous anniversary this year. It is 30 years since I experienced my first major depressive episode and began my journey with chronic mental illness. I invest a great deal in maintaining good mental health and minimizing occurrence, intensity and duration of episodes related to my illness. As a psychologist friend said to me, “You do everything right.” So, impressed does NOT describe how I felt when in February I was launched into the most intense, enduring major depressive episode I have experienced in quite a long time.

I’ll spare you the full catastrophe. But I will try to give you a tiny insight into how ill I was. For the greater part of 3 months I felt like I was being pressed down through the ground into a deep abyss by a thick, crushingly heavy blanket of dark, despair-filled, choking smog. Most days I spent long periods paralysed by indecision and confusion about tasks as complex as standing up, choosing carrots, joining words together to create a sentence. I was regularly struck by invasive urges to cause myself physical harm that were as intense and all-consuming as that desperation you feel when you really, really, really need to do a wee. I knew, as surely as the sky is blue, that I needed to die. When my cognitive capacities permitted, I was seriously contemplating medications with potential side effects as unappealing as hair thinning, memory loss, hallucinations, goitre, and a potentially fatal rash. On some of my better days I merely felt like I was attempting to swim through an endless lake of dense, raw sewerage.

As the most regular contacts of my health support team, Jarrat and Nicola were thrust right into the middle of the poo. I may have completely lost control of my mind at times but, with enough encouragement, I could still largely control most of my body. My capacity to engage in personal training sessions with them and undertake the homework they prepared for me were pivotal in helping my psychiatrist and psychologist monitor the severity and stability of my condition, and plan or adapt intervention strategies. Our aims were limited: keep me alive; keep me living in the community; limit damage to brain and body; carefully adjust chemical interventions to re-establish acceptable functioning. Oh, and compete in the Athens Marathon on November 13.

Faced with Jarrat and Nicola’s dedication, consistency and hard work, and my extremely over-developed sense of obligation to others, it seemed rude and ungrateful not to go along with the marathon plan. Despite the occasional worried expression, even my impaired brain detected, crossing Jarrat’s face, he maintained the mantra, “You could walk it tomorrow in 7 hours.” So, when the new medication regime started to show results towards the end of May, and my cognitive capacity returned to relatively full functioning in September, we were all well and truly committed to one significant goal. After teetering so long on the edge of the abyss, the least my extensive health support team deserved was vicarious marathon victory.

Jarrat and Nicola’s dedication, consistency and hard work helped Stav to overcome a major depressive episode and achieve a marathon victory.

Current medical science is not able to provide a clear explanation of the full mechanisms of my illness, supply permanently successful treatments with no negative side effects, or come close to touching on a cure. However, for me personally personal training is one more weapon in my armoury. In the same year that my illness decimated my life, left me physically, cognitively and emotionally damaged and, to be absolutely truthful, came close to being fatal, I ran a marathon.

So, not only is there such a thing as better, but better can be extraordinary.


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