Running for my life

Nearly five years ago Timo Rissanen started running and it changed his life. In this essay he discusses running as a way of alleviating depression, fostering self-love and being proud of the body and its capabilities.

Nearly five years ago Timo Rissanen started running and it changed his life. In this essay he discusses running as a way of alleviating depression, fostering self-love and being proud of the body and its capabilities.

Running Rissanen

Timo Rissanen

Alongside devotees of crossfit and paleo, runners are among the most maligned people on social media for their seemingly smug posts of distances, medals and sickeningly bright and tight outfits. We deserve it. This is my mea culpa of sorts. In my case what looks like smugness is naive amazement at how resilient the human body can be. You see, five years ago I was a chain smoker with two decades of experience, and a heavy drinker to boot. If you’d told me I’d be running marathons, I would have been the first to laugh. Episodic depression was inseparable from my self-destructive behaviour for over two decades. I am not suggesting running as a cure for depression: my most recent episode was sufficient empirical evidence that running does not stop depression from re-emerging, nor should it replace treatment for depression. Nonetheless for me running substantially alleviated feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and continues to do so.

My self-medication used to be a bottle or two of pinot grigio; now it’s a ten-mile run.

Writing about running is privileged. Running is privileged. I have time to run. I have the means to travel for marathons. I have the ability to run, and I have the ability to see and hear my run. I don’t dwell on the privilege, however I do regularly remind myself of it. I could wake up tomorrow and not be able to run, for countless reasons. Permanent injury could end running; two months off to heal plantar fasciitis was a formidable mental challenge. A drastic change in circumstances – loss of a job, end of a relationship – might shatter the commitment I made to my health. I’ve learned to focus on the present; I do my best to not worry about future threats I imagine.

If I have already annoyed the bejesus out of you, here is how I invite you to read this: Look for a facet of your life that you’re resigned about, something you sometimes dare imagine differently, feeling momentarily inspired, and then the buts snuff it out of existence. “I’d love to go back to school but I’m too old.” “I want to lose some weight but I don’t have any willpower.” “This relationship is over but we should stay together for the kids.” The ‘reasons’ following the buts were among the main excuses for me not dealing with my health for years: to myself I was an undeserving, irresponsible waste of a human, too weak of mind to make any changes. We make up reasons to do things and to not do things, and we fervently believe in those reasons. My point is, when you see that your reasons are no longer serving you, make up new ones to enable new actions.

My calling, as I saw it, was to cause permanent change in the fashion industry and I saw that my health, physically and mentally, was not up to it. How could I be a source of change if a flight of stairs had me breathless? No joke, as ridiculously unlikely as it seemed under the circumstances, I made up that I was an athlete, stubbed out my last cigarette and started running a week later.

Ten minutes of running had me type emphysema into Google (a good doctor has since told me I don’t have it), and yet I persevered the next day, the next week and through the months that followed. Today, my running routine is irregular, largely dictated by work commitments. Four runs a week is my ideal that mainly happens during holidays. More than a week off has me antsy. The reality is somewhere in between. I do joke that one day I will train for a marathon instead of just running three of them a year.

Running as connecting

Like walking, running provides a powerful opportunity to connect with the world outside. For that reason I have never run with headphones. I understand why people do – I am a music lover – but running is when I connect with the world. It may sound daft but I really mean the universe. My opportunities to do so elsewhere within an average week are limited. My fear of disconnecting from the world with headphones is that I might miss the thrill of an osprey diving for a fish, the melancholy of a sky-high flock of geese on their way south, or the joy of a drumming woodpecker reminding us spring is here – all of which I’ve experienced while running. Granted, in a city these, for me divine experiences, are interspersed with the mundane: negotiating my way around a pool of urine, dodging an abusive morning drunk, hoping the pigeons don’t poop on me as I run under their perch.

Running through the dank parts of a metropolis is vivid yet brief; encounters during a run are fleeting, yet the overall experience is one of profound connection.

The yearning to connect informs my choice of minimalist shoes; the heavy soles of conventional running shoes seem to me too much of a barrier to connect with the planet. (Acknowledging the religious-like debates about the ‘right’ shoe type, I say run in what feels right for you.) It is easy to hate New York City at Union Square at 9am on a Monday, and it is impossible not to love New York City at Central Park at 7am on a Sunday. Mostly my experience of NYC is industrial-scale, like the Empire State Building, too big to fathom. At sunrise, with most residents still asleep, the city is human-size, liveable.

Running as meditation

For the final Central Park stretch of my first New York marathon in 2014, my mantra was, ‘Don’t think any thoughts’, in order to do a David Copperfield on the pain and the cramps that had possessed my legs. I could not tell you if I was saying it out loud or not – I think I was – however I can tell you I missed my husband cheering me in the crowd. Concentration. Extreme focus. This is why I run mostly alone. Almost a year ago I joined a local running club of truly awesome people, however, I have discovered that running as a social engagement leaves little room for the introspective inquiry it has become for me. Whatever challenging situation I’m dealing with, at work or with family, I take if for a run. Of course the run doesn’t resolve the issue itself, but post-run I have a newfound clarity and strength to deal with it. If a solution for a complex matter pops up, I might record a voice memo or send myself an email. That said, it has to be a great solution or idea. When I run, I avoid my phone for the endless distraction it is. A bout of exercise is like a neural irrigation, to borrow from its colonic cousin. The stretching at the end reinforces this. I solely focus on the muscles being stretched. Stretching is an irreplaceable physical and mental counterbalance to a run. As soon as I start skipping it, I get injured.

Running as befriending mortality

For now, a marathon is the longest distance I have run. Each time it has been akin to a death and a rebirth. At the very least, on each marathon mediocre ideas about what is possible have died, and new, big possibilities have sprung into existence. I have permanently altered my sense of self and what I am capable of, as well as my physical health. The 2016 Helsinki City Marathon, this past August, was my ninth marathon. After 37km I stopped. My left calf, already sore for some weeks, experienced such a sudden a jolt of pain that running immediately seemed like a bad idea. I stopped and made peace straight away that the months of training had not been in vain, even if I had been on track for a personal record now no longer to be. There will be other marathons, but I only have one left calf. I am doing this for myself; I have nothing to prove to anyone else. Within a minute I had dealt with the disappointment. My point is, if you do dramatically transform your health (and it does not need to include marathons, the scale is different for each of us) don’t lose sight of the person you’re doing it for: you. Whatever exercise or diet you take on should serve to empower you in life, not diminish your capacity. I forced myself to rest for several weeks to let the calf heal, and I am now on track for my tenth marathon, in New York this November.

Running as vanity

I will finish with an embarrassing share, because it is my motivational trick when everything else fails to get me into gear and out the door running. A study reported by the New York Times found that exercise not only kept the skin younger, it could reverse certain aging processes within the skin. This knowledge keeps me running. There is a also deeper benefit that I have noticed: I like my body for what it can do. Society’s ideals would tell me that my body is far from perfect. For example, I carry little excess weight and yet I have cellulite on my belly, to name one ‘flaw’. However, I like what I’ve trained my body to be capable of. ‘Athlete’ was a mere possibility while stubbing that last cigarette, now it is a lived reality each time I run, and a source of pride that I know I have earned. That pride is evident in the length of my shorts: very short. For better or worse, and certainly for more skin, the part of brain that tells most men not to wear short shorts or Speedos seems to work in reverse for me. My thighs and legs are very capable; see them, acknowledge them.

A study reported by the New York Times found that exercise not only kept the skin younger, it could reverse certain aging processes within the skin. This knowledge keeps me running. There is a also deeper benefit that I have noticed: I like my body for what it can do.

There is no need for another fashion professional to push an ageist agenda as I appear to be; we live in an era of extreme ageism. You’re fine as you are, at whatever age you are. Most of us want to live as long as possible, as healthily as possible, and I place the above study on aging in that context. Aging processes within the body are inevitable; death is inevitable. If healthy living can slow some processes and lead to greater overall well-being in later years, then I’m all for it. The point of living into a future by design is to live an empowered life in the present. I created the possibility of being an athlete in order to expand my ability to tackle the environmental and social challenges in fashion: I wanted my physical and mental health to be a match for the scale of the challenge. Whatever your commitment in life is, be a match for it.

For better or worse, and certainly for more skin, the part of brain that tells most men not to wear short shorts or Speedos seems to work in reverse for me. My thighs and legs are very capable; see them, acknowledge them.

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