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Marathons and Mental Health

May 21, 2018

I can see my breath and I can’t feel my toes. The sun’s not up yet on this mountain, but headlamps show the outlines of hundreds of runners trying to stay warm. I spot some friends from my running group, but I’m too in my head to go over and talk. I know I’ve trained for this. I’m ready. Hay’s in the barn I keep repeating to myself.

I started running in grad school. I’d just moved to LA for the second time, returning to the city I swore was not the place for me, but was the place for my husband’s career and the place with the best grad program for me. We gave up our East Bay cottage with a yard for a tenth-floor apartment in downtown LA where, after four years out of school, I’d been accepted into an MSW program.

Per a 2012 survey, 80% of social workers say their stress level is so high that they can’t do their jobs or take care of themselves. This was me, in my second semester, crashed from my initial excitement and already losing my love and passion for social work. I dreaded every day at my field placement, a continuation high school in south central LA. This, I’d thought, was my dream job, working as a social worker for the second largest school district in the nation and a leader in trauma-informed care. But each day I spent with students I felt more helpless and angry at the pile-up of poverty, homelessness, community violence, sexual assault, racism, domestic violence, drug addiction, police brutality, abuse, and exploitation. I was overwhelmed. I felt in my heart that I couldn’t make a difference for them and I questioned why I even wanted to be a social worker.

Then I joined a running group, and suddenly I had a support system. I got to explore my new city in a new way, experiencing its beauty from the early-morning trails of Griffith Park and the hills of Chinatown. I loved running in part for the control it gave me. As with other forms of exercise, running gets results based on the work you put in–input tends to equal output. As I trained for speed, I became faster. As I increased distance and mileage, I achieved new “personal bests”–longest run, fastest 10K, fastest half-marathon—and got a sense of mastery and progress. There was always a reasonable goal to work toward. My renewed physical strength allowed me to care for myself in other ways, reaching out to people I love and trust, taking up hobbies and activities. I found ways to separate my life from my work, and my world took on new colors.

The impact that running had on me during that difficult time was undeniable. I became more present with my students and saw more light in the dark places. I was no longer compassion-fatigued but experienced more rewards in both life and work. In my final semester, I ran my first marathon, the LA, and crushed my time-goal. Two months later, I walked the stage at USC and took my degree, feeling strong and excited about the future.

I returned to the school district, and have stayed healthy and energized for the work, which I love. The first day on the job I put a sticky note on my computer, reading “3:32”–my goal for my second marathon, the one that started off in a freezing parking lot on a mountainside and ended with me qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Little things do add up: the training runs we do despite a reluctant start, the ways we take care of ourselves and tend to our mental health in order to be strong for others. These help us to crush the big thing–the marathon, the master’s degree, the new job. I was recently asked if I had any advice for new grads after my first year as a social worker. I do: take care of yourself by finding something that challenges you and surrounds you with support—and even better if it makes you sweat and gets you outside. This work is sustainable and rewarding; burnout is not inevitable. Find a way to do the little things that put the hay in the barn.

Molly is a social worker in Los Angeles, California. When she’s not meeting with students or responding to crisis, you can find her running in the San Gabriel mountains or playing with her hound dogs, Lotte and Theo. You can read more on her website at

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Written By:

Molly Vasa Bertolucci

Molly Vasa Bertolucci

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