The Three Pillars by Nils Blondon
I’ve had an untraditional journey. A path defined more by chance than planning, more by grace than reason. I never thought I would be a runner. I never imagined that running, a sport I loathed for the bulk of my life, would become something of a career for me. Not as a professional athlete, but as the coordinator of a youth program that combines running with mental health. And as the recent science has proven, the relationship between the two is deeply symbiotic.
I’m struck by two things when I meditate on what was. The first is how surreal this all seems. How difficult it is to reconcile this stranger from the past with the man I am in the present. The next is how wondrous, magnificent, and vivifying the human experience can be. My story isn’t atypical. There are many like me, who have leveraged running as an antidote to life at its most raw.
My job places me in the position of helper and mentor. But I’ve always thought that the children, teenagers, and young adults I’m tasked with supporting are the ones providing me with the guidance. Humility is a wonderful thing. It enables me to learn. To recognize that I don’t have all the answers and that often, those who I am meant to be teaching, the learners, are the ones from which I can absorb the most significant lessons. These lessons have taught me that I need to be humble if I am to grow. So on days when I’m struggling, during the moments when I question why it is I subject myself to the voluntary sufferings of the average training cycle, or continue to grind through the pangs of the not-for-profit sector, I think of the children I’ve worked with over the years. They reframe my attitude. They enliven my spirit when it’s tired.
It is they who have helped me articulate these three principles. I think of them as axioms, as fundamental to the human experience as they are to the life of the dedicated athlete. I conceived of them on a run.
They are honesty, resilience, and community. Three pillars of positive mental health.
I need to be honest about where I’m at emotionally and mentally. I need to be vulnerable and open, and let people know when I need support, when I need a listening ear or an affirming message. Honesty builds relationships. It erects bridges where there once impassable channels. It enables one to connect and identify with people in a meaningful, resonant way.
Honesty is essential to good running.
I need to set honest, achievable goals. I need to distinguish between the voice in my head that tells me to stop when it hurts, and the voice in my head that tells me to stop when I’m hurt. There’s a fundamental difference. Being real with my teammates and coach can be the deciding factor between a sidelining injury, and a season highlighted by personal bests.
Honesty is the precondition for a positive training experience. It helps me build resilience.
Resilience is best defined as the ability to transcend discomfort, to finish a race even when I’m minutes away from my goal time. It’s the grit that pushes you through kilometers thirty to forty-two in the marathon. Resilience repurposes failures as opportunities for growth. It is the hallmark of any community of runners.
Human beings are communal creatures. “Social animals,” as an evolutionary biologist would say. I see my best results when I train as a part of a group. I optimize my skills and talents when I work towards a shared goal amongst a collective of like-minded individuals. As runners, we work together in races as part of packs. We draft off one another into heavy winds, at times alternating to take on the brunt of the work. We organize ourselves into training groups based on speed and ability, cheering each other onward, through the ache, the sweat, the self-doubt.
Community buoys me when the waters get rocky.
I experienced a personal tragedy this past November. I leaned on my running community for support. The trails and roads became some a free space in which I could process my pain amongst empathetic listeners. It is this community that kept me afloat when I was too weakened by grief to walk my dog, to feed myself, or do my laundry. I would have drowned without my community.
My past, my career, and running have led me to conceptualize athletics as something profoundly transformative. We make ourselves vulnerable through honesty so we can improve. We rely on ungirding hardiness, resilience, to draw upon strength when pushing through the pain. Our communities, teams, running clubs, and training groups make the process more pleasurable. They make us feel as though we’re part of something more significant, something bigger than ourselves.
Honesty, resilience, and community. My greatest allies on the journey.
Written by Nils Blondon | Nils is a mental health advocate and works with Team Unbreakable who’s goal is to reduce stigma of youth mental illness, build awareness of the issues, and to promote the positive aspects of physical health on mental health.