I am a clinical psychologist and an ultra runner. My experience with running complements and fuels the main passion in my life – Mental Health. I distil the psychological components of this experience more than anything else. Understanding what motivates me to start, endure and complete the race is important to me. Ultimately, this understanding will help me to not only run better but also be more effective as a behavioural scientist.

On the 3rd of March 2012, as I took a few uncertain, wobbly steps at the camp on the Atacama Desert, self-doubt threatened me. What on earth had I gotten myself into this time? I was in the middle of the world’s driest desert, about to undertake the toughest challenge in my life so far. In my own quirky style, I had pushed beyond the unexcitingly common marathon and had signed up for one of the world’s toughest endurance events, a 250km footrace across Chile’s Atacama Desert organized by Racing The Planet, notorious for taking running to some of the most inhospitable places on earth.

From those first tentative steps to crossing the finish line a week later, things got progressively harder as I faced the punishing terrain of sand, rock, dunes, hills and salt flats. The idea of running 250km alone should have been sufficiently daunting! But to face the exhausting heat of the desert while carrying an unwieldy pack with my gear and rations seems bizarre to many. My motivation to take on such a big challenge comes from the fact that I truly believe I can. Besides, how would I know if I really could complete a race like this, unless I actually tried it?

Truthfully though, no matter how much I had researched, trained and prepared for it, this was not going to be easy. Certainly, everyday was marked by impediments that could not be fixed but just had to be tolerated. In this race, as in many endurance events, several competitors kept pulling out as the long tortuous hours on the course took their toll. For me however, mini goals provided the motivation to keep going and not throw in the towel despite the difficulties and pain. Sometimes it was reaching the next checkpoint while at other times, it was just staying ahead of the competitor dogging my heels. These goals were strung together in the thread that was my determination to complete the race. Focusing on the goal also helped achieve endurance over the pain that my brain registered repeatedly. Perhaps this was aided by the fact that the body produces endorphins that are natural painkillers. A legal high!

People ask, “Do you listen to music while running?” My answer is no. I have enough going on in my head to provide the background score! While a million thoughts run through my mind, a heightened sense of being alive is the only feeling that persists. In psychological terms, this experience for me is a crystal clear highpoint of focus and determination. Having said that, one memorable experience I had was listening to a race staff singing ‘My heart will go on and on’ from the Titanic. As I struggled across the infamous salt flats of the Atacama Desert, I repeated to myself that I must go on and on, on and on. Sometimes, it takes an external spark to light the fire within you.

Similarly, the fear of rejection by others can stifle and constrict. As human beings, we are social creatures that thrive on our connections with others. The biggest challenge in mental health is therefore, not surprisingly, the social stigma of psychological disorders. The problem here lies in the perceived difference between “us and them”. What is perceived as different in a bad way is rejected. The fear of rejection prevents many educated and otherwise self aware individuals from seeking timely help that could enhance the quality of life for themselves and their significant others.

The problem of stigma in mental health goes beyond language. While words like insane or mental should never be used in a derogatory way, changing language alone is not enough to banish stigma. It is far more important and powerful, though harder, to change our perceptions of persons with psychological disorders. Interestingly, my running has provided me with another tool to raise awareness about mental health and question perceptions even in everyday conversations. In addition to enhancing my own health, increasing my brain cells (neurogenesis – yes, research shows that running can do that!) and beating stress, I can also make a difference to our world, one person at a time. I know that there are no guarantees here, just as in the desert. But, I can try. So, when someone tells me that it’s weird to run 250km in a desert, I’m not offended. Just a little flattered!

(Shri is aiming for the 4Deserts Grand Slam in 2012 by completing 250km in each of the deserts, the Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and Antartica. Read more in Please support Shri’s mental health advocacy by visiting the FaceBook page ‘ELEAVEN’ and sharing your comments and ideas.)

Shrimathi Swaminathan
Clinical Psychologist

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