We run for all different reasons:
To feel great, to lose weight, to have fun, to challenge ourselves. Yes, running can change your life. By now it’s practically a cliché. But for the following four people, running truly changed their lives in profound ways—maybe even saved them. Each of their stories is a testament to how powerful our sport is.
40, Orem, Utah
When Blu Robinson approached his soon-to-be father-in-law to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he walked away with both a blessing and a challenge.
“He said, ‘I’ll let you marry her, but you have to run a marathon with me,’” Robinson remembers. “I agreed, even though I had no clue what I was getting into—a 26.2-mile run.”
The former addict who had once turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with a tough upbringing had recently discovered sobriety and healing through mountain biking. Running, however, was an entirely different animal. But he diligently trained with his father-in-law in preparation for the 2000 St. George Marathon.
“I started running every morning with my fiance’s dad and he was not only vetting me, but also establishing this father-son relationship that I never had—we talked about life, the past, the future,” Robinson says. “Finding that someone cared enough about me to let me participate in something like this with him helped heal my head and heart.”
Running also assisted him in redefining how he saw himself. No longer was “addict” his prominent identity. After training for and successfully finishing his first marathon, he saw himself as an athlete.
“As I was struggling during that first marathon, as bad as I was hurting, it didn’t even compare to the pain I felt when my parents got divorced, or when we went hungry at night because we were so poor, or when I was totally alone in my addiction,” Robinson says. “With running, I knew I could push through it—that I had trained for this and could finish.”
Robinson also went back to school and became a clinical mental health counselor and substance use disorder counselor. He knew he wanted to help others overcome some of the same hurdles he had faced. It wasn’t until 2011 that the light bulb went on and he came up with the idea to use training for a local 5K together as a way of counseling the addicts he was working with in therapy.
“The coolest thing happened—as we were training, they talked about all kinds of things they had never discussed in therapy,” he says. “By the end of training, these guys were proud of what they were doing—they were smokers, drinkers and drug addicts who just had problems they needed help with.”
After that successful trial run, Robinson expanded the program and formed a nonprofit under the Addict to Athlete moniker. In the past five years, thousands have participated in training for races from 5Ks to 100-milers. Today the team has around 500 current active members, including those who have struggled with addiction as well as their family members.
Now Robinson, who has since run many more marathons and even a couple of ultras, spends his days paying forward the gift of running that his father-in-law gave to him all those years ago.
“It blows me away watching these addicts and their families heal together,” Robinson says. “They are finding this whole new life where they can erase their addiction and replace it with running.”
36, New York City
Abby Bales has always been a runner, but it wasn’t until she got sick that she fully realized its importance in her life. Upon turning 30 in 2010, the New York City-based physical therapist and blogger at RunStrongerEveryday.com was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Although it began as a mild case, it soon developed into a life-threatening condition.
Her initial attempts at treatment included medication, special diets and meditation. Nothing worked and her symptoms worsened to include loss of bowel control, anemia, serious malnourishment and a weakened immune system. Her doctors eventually recommended surgery: first a total colectomy to remove part of her colon in 2012 and then a second operation to put in a J-pouch to replace an external colostomy bag.
Through those two years of sickness, surgery, and recovery, running was her one constant.
“When I was sick, my doctors agreed that it was good for me to keep running—I just couldn’t go long distances without major problems and I always had to know where the bathrooms were,” Bales says.
After losing more than 20 pounds of muscle following her surgeries, her return to running started with a walk. But by the spring of 2013, she was firing on all cylinders, and ran a personal best 1:40 half marathon.
“Running became something I no longer took for granted,” she says. “I didn’t realize how intricately it was woven into my identity until I was sick.”
After those two life-saving surgeries, along with a C-section to deliver her first child in 2014, Bales is well-acquainted with starting from scratch when it comes to running. Those experiences have offered her a fresh perspective on the sport.
“I don’t get worked up about qualifying for Boston or things like that anymore because when I was sick, I was just happy to put on my sneakers and go outside,” she says. “I feel strongest in my life when I feel physically strong—that doesn’t necessarily mean fast, but rather having the physical ability to move and feel comfortable doing it.”
Julio Salazar took his first running steps back in 2001 to lose weight. Little did he know it would play a much larger role in his life than simply helping him shed a few pounds. Running ended up being an important piece of the puzzle to addressing the crushing symptoms of depression that Salazar had experienced nearly his entire life.
Having struggled with suicidal thoughts and self-medicating with alcohol, Salazar says running offered him a healthy outlet to deal with the flood of negative emotions.
“I began to realize that the more I ran, the better I felt mentally,” he says. “I’d forget about things and focus on the run, not the issues I was dealing with.”
He found a particular affinity for trail running, where he could truly lose himself in the rhythm of his breathing and the pounding of his feet across the ever-changing terrain.
“That first trail race I did in Northern Minnesota was like paradise to me,” he says. “I came alive; it was like my spirit was on the trails. It reminded me of the times I used to spend hiking with my dad in Costa Rica growing up. It really changed my life.”
Combining trail running with medication and therapy, Salazar discovered the components necessary to find a happier existence.
“I think I’d be dead without running,” he says. “Running has taken me to places in my head I had never been before—peaceful places.”
Salazar now works to bring other people struggling with mental health issues to these places through his Defeat the Stigma Project, a nonprofit devoted to eliminating the shame associated with depression and other related diagnoses. His goal is to educate and discuss these issues out in the open to bring more attention to treatment and recovery.
Unsurprisingly, Salazar’s vehicle for getting the word out for Defeat the Stigma has been running. It began in 2015 with a weeklong 240-mile run across Minnesota where he logged more than 30 miles a day and stopped to educate and share his own personal journey. This spring he recruited a team to run across Wisconsin. He’s also done the Keys 100-mile in Florida for mental health awareness and plans to support other teams in several states in the coming year.
“My goal is to inspire others to organize their own journeys to create a bigger movement,” he says. “I hope the project can show how powerful running can be while also helping people overcome some of the same issues I faced.”
43, Charlestown, Ind.
Life can throw some unexpected curve balls. For Traci Falbo, that curve came from putting one foot in front of the other. The pediatric physical therapist began running in 2003 to lose weight. While she had been a runner as a youngster, she hadn’t logged any miles in more than a decade. And with two children plus marital issues, eventually she was 80 pounds overweight.
Feeling tired, depressed and rundown, Falbo knew something had to change. She made a pact with a friend and they began meeting at the gym at 5 a.m. every morning to jog before their kids awoke. Over the summer she shed a modest 15 pounds. After adjusting her diet, even more weight fell off—all 80 pounds she gained was gone after a little over a year.
“When you’re heavy and depressed, you’re just exhausted every day, so when you come home, you don’t want to do anything. You’re already tired, so why would you want to go workout?” Falbo remembers thinking. “But once you start running, you actually have more energy, and that energy and happiness gradually increase simultaneously.”
Falbo didn’t stop with just shedding the weight. She started with running 5Ks and 10Ks before completing her first marathon in 2004, finishing in 3:32, a Boston-qualifying time for her age group. A few years later, she began her journey to join the 50 States Club by running a marathon in every state. She started with four marathons in 2008 and by 2010 was running 20–25 per year.
In 2011, after winning her first 100-mile race at the Cajun Coyote in Ville Platte, La., she discovered her true calling was in ultra-long distances.
“At that point I realized that I might not be fast at shorter distances, but I could do the long distances really well,” she says. “I’m stubborn and determined and don’t quit easily—it’s like losing weight, where I just decided I was done being fat, tired and depressed. It’s a feeling of ‘I’m going to keep at this until I get it done.’”
Falbo has an penchant for doing just that when it comes to ultra racing. Since coming to the sport, she’s been a two-time member of the U.S. 24-hour ultrarunning team, broke the American 48-hour and world 48-hour indoor track records, and also held the American record for the 100-mile trail event.
But she says that she is as surprised as anyone at her own success.
“Even after that first good marathon, if you told me I was going to set world or American records, I would have laughed,” she says. “It goes to show that no matter how old you are or what you want to do, it’s important to keep reaching and dreaming and trying new things.”