Running and Grieving

For the last ten months, I have been dealing with anticipatory grieving– and using my running to help me cope. I’m not a psychologist and I can only talk about my personal experiences and thoughts on the subject.

(this article is posted simultaneously between and

Kinds of Grief

I’ve had a really lousy year. For the last ten months, I have been the primary caretaker for Rudy, one of our cats, who developed congestive heart failure. I dreaded the thought of losing my dear friend and there were many times during that time when I thought his passing was around the corner. Because I work from home, I was able to give Rudy an amazing life and a higher degree of love and care than just about any other cat could get, but I also knew that this meant that his departure would take an extra hard toll on me. I gave hm medication three times a day and spent at least a half hour each night before bed carefully grinding his medications and preparing his capsules for the next day (cats don’t like to take pills so combining his concurrent medication into fewer capsules made life better for all of us). But I also knew, as much as we tried to delay his end, that that end would come much faster than any of us would like. This was anticipatory grief— the awful feeling of grief that something awful is around the corner. Then, when Rudy died a few days ago, I had the even worse feeling of what most people call grief with its acute sense of loss. I’m still going through this kind of grief and will be for some time.

Apart from Rudy’s decline, I’ve also experienced grief among my human friends. In the last year, it seems that everyone whom I knew who was in poor health passed away. Some died from cancer. Others died from long term illness. Plus there were others who died suddenly. For instance, within my circle of “friends of friends,” four people died from pancreatic cancer while Rudy was ill. But Rudy’s passing hit me the hardest because he was such a big part of my life.

Stages of Grief

According to the Kübler-Ross model, there are five stages of grief that can be conveniently remembered by the acronym “DABDA.” They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages aren’t necessarily progressive– you don’t necessarily go from one stage to the next like a child through grade school– even though hopefully we all reach a state of acceptance at some point. Instead, various waves can hit at diffferent times.

Running and Different Elements of Grief

While nothing can fully take away the heavy pain of grief, running sure helps. While cycling does an “okay” job at making me feel better, running is my sport of choice in grief. Maybe it’s because it’s too easy to settle into a dull, familiar pace in cycling that makes running more appealing. Or maybe it’s just that I’m afraid I may drift into oncoming traffic while riding a bike. And, ironically, I found that different kinds of running helped with different stages of grief.

For instance, I found shorter harder intervals (particularly uphill intervals) to be really good for dealing with anger and bargaining. One day, I found myself crying and pounding the walls in my house in frustration with my fist as I thought that Rudy would be dying from heart disease. That came on suddenly and I’m surprised that the wall (and my hand) survived intact. But I found I could channel that same anger to pushing really, really hard when sprinting up a hill. I look pretty awful when running hard up a hill and probably no one noticed a few tears on my part. The intervals that happened to be on my schedule were absolutely perfect for the job– I was running “lactate tolerance” intervals that consisted of a dozen one-minute efforts run “all out” (or as close as possible to maximal effort) followed by a 2-3 minute rest. You can get a lot of anger out during an all-out one-minute run! Hard intervals also saw me expressing another element of grieving because I could hear myself naturally slip into “bargaining” in my silent conversation with Fate. “If I make it up the hill in less than a minute, maybe Rudy can live an extra day?”

After Rudy passed, I found solace in running in different ways. Sure, uphill intervals served the same purpose as before, but I noticed something strange in my feelings of grief during my other runs– particularly my recovery runs. While most of my days were a dull, low affect kind of existence, every now and then I could see a sparkle in the world around me that I hadn’t noticed before. It was always there, of course, but I just hadn’t paid enough attention. There is a part of me that felt that Rudy’s spirit– like all life energy– was around me in the buzz of the Universe and that I had momentarily become conscious of it. It’s a fleeting feeling to be sure but there’s something about grief that makes these moments more noticeable. I’m not sure whether that falls in the category of “denial” (my way of saying that Rudy hasn’t really left) or “acceptance” (my feeling at peace that Rudy is part of the Universe). I also find it particularly odd that I should equivocate over two polar opposite words. But I have felt this feeling more when I was running during grieving than any other time. Being outside in nature, breathing hard, and running were as natural a thing as I could possibly do. It’s the sort of thing Rudy was meant to do but couldn’t during his lifetime because he was a strictly indoor cat and because he had heart disease. Now he could, however, and I was grateful that his spirit had the opportunity.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that running helped me with grieving– and I’ve learned the hard way that, in excess, I could take on too much as part of grieving. Almost 20 years ago, I visited Maui for a friend’s wedding– and it was during a time that another dear pet (my sheltie named Cary) was dying of kidney disease. Maui is also home to Haleakala, an enormous volcano that rises over 10,000 feet from sea level (the Hawaiian volcanos are in fact some of the tallest mountains in the world– even taller than Mount Everest– because they start so far below sea level). On a lark, I asked my wife at the time to crew for me as I ran from Kula (about 2,200 feet) to the summit– a distance of about 22 miles. It was uphill the entire way, of course, and I spent a lot of that distance crying in despair and anger. I also hadn’t trained for the endeavor (apart from my day-to-day training) and ended up with a case of Achilles tendinitis that would plague me for fifteen years. Youth, stupidity, and grief tend not to mix well.

Give Yourself Room — But Do Get Out There

Normally, I do a lot of running and a lot of racing. In the not so distant past, my average was 18-23 races a year. Recently, that has included at least one Duathlon World Championship and National Championship each year. Since Rudy developed heart failure, however, I’ve refused to enter a single race. Mentally, I was completely tapped out and just didn’t have the fire inside me to compete.

Despite my lack of racing, I still have been training quite seriously and monitoring my performance. Running and cycling are a way of life and have been part of helping me get through a really difficult time. I think life is ultimately much more satisfying when training become an integral part of living instead simply a process to get you through the next big race. Not surprisingly, my sprint performance has improved over the last year while my endurance has dipped slightly.

I know that this isn’t the last time in my life when I will be going through grief. And I know that this isn’t the last time that I will be turning to running to help me through it. Fortunately, while my running has slowed down and my body becomes more prone to injury, each time grief enters my life, it takes a little less out of me as I begin the process of Acceptance in a slightly larger way.

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