AT MILE 20, I was ready to give up. My legs felt so brittle I thought they might snap; the even breath I began with had turned into ragged, snarling heaves; I was sure I’d left my feet somewhere around mile marker 10. But I was alive and moving forward. That was all that mattered.
I ran my first marathon in the spring of 2019. The day was 40 degrees and rainy, and a good chunk of it totally sucked. But some of it was beautiful — like when my father met me halfway with a clean pair of socks, or when I got into a rhythmic pace and let my mind wander, or when a woman offered me a huge slice of watermelon at an aid station. Those moments of beauty were enough to keep me going.
My decision to run a marathon wasn’t motivated by a desire for personal glory. I ran 26.2 miles for my survival. After a life-altering international experience, I’d returned to the United States and entered a period of reverse culture shock that mutated into severe depression. I started marathon training as a way to manage my own darkness and found, in combination with therapy and a healthy dose of Lexapro, that running pulled me back to the sun.
The benefits of running for physical health are both numerous and well known. It lowers one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, boosts energy and mood, improves sleep, and keeps infections at bay. What J. M. Thompson explores in his memoir Running Is a Kind of Dreaming, however, is running’s intimate relationship with mental health. In his sweeping personal account of depression, anxiety, addiction, and childhood trauma, Thompson brings readers on a journey to discover what it means to be not just an ultramarathoner but also a human being. His story seeks to provide an answer to the infamous question runners are always asked: why would you ever run?
Thompson’s story opens on a section of trail during his running of the Tahoe 200: a 205.5-mile endurance race around the whole of Lake Tahoe on the Nevada/California border. Thompson writes:
The trail leads into the quiet of the trees, the ancient ones, the womb of dirt and unseen birds, where no one knows my name: Welcome, injured pilgrim. Sugar pine, nuthatch, sierra juniper, the huff-puff of respiration, all the sad, mad, raging voices from the bad old days — everything transforms into the step before me and the instant I am in.
All at once we are right in step with him.
Thompson uses the Tahoe 200 to ground his reader. Told through a combination of flashbacks, philosophical musings, and scientific research, the memoir draws parallels between the experience of grappling with a severe mental illness and the grueling mental and physical game of running 200 miles. Though readers first encounter Thompson on the dirt trail, plodding along in an unfathomably long race, he quickly deviates from the image of himself as an endurance athlete at the top of his game to depict a scared, desperate 15-year-old kid in England. This dive into his past is necessary in order to uncover his reason for running 200 miles.
Much of the memoir explores Thompson’s childhood growing up with his brother, Sebastian, in rural England. In some chapters, he recalls serene, gentle, joyous days from his early life, but as the memoir progresses, his memories turn dark as his mother developed her own mental illness. On the experience of knowing that something was wrong with his mother, Thompson writes: “Outside the house, in public, I felt the anguish of recognizing that my mother’s disorientation was conspicuous to other people, conferring shame upon me as the son — I had come to realize — of a madwoman.” Though his mother was never formally diagnosed, present-day Thompson suspects some combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to be the culprit for his mother’s mental deterioration.
Following Thompson’s turbulent childhood is a period of what he deems to be “running away.” In his early adult life, he takes a job as a documentary producer that often involves risky assignments like following firemen into burning buildings. Thompson writes:
I could have picked less dangerous assignments — a gardening show, for instance. In a forgotten eon I might have felt happy in a garden. But not anymore. Stay in one place, in the same room, relationship, job, city, or even continent, and the Darkness caught up with me: a sad, worried, desperate, trapped feeling that had lurked inside me as long as I could remember, and got worse the longer I remained motionless. If I kept moving, I stayed ahead of the Darkness.
The reader gets to understand this Darkness as Thompson identifies the difference between running toward something with confidence and running away out of fear or avoidance. This is an important distinction as readers follow Thompson to rock bottom and then through his subsequent ascendance.
In many ways, Thompson’s memoir is a celebration of what it means to be alive. Between harrowing stories of checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, attempting to take his own life, buying eight balls of cocaine, and fighting to return to some semblance of normalcy, he brings us back to Tahoe. He tells us what he needs to pack (lots of extra socks, shoes, trekking poles, extra clothes, energy bars, camera, hand wipes, music player, cash, compass, survival blanket, just to name a few) for a 200-mile run. He brings us to the depths of mental valleys and to the tops of California mountains. He tells us of the trees and the breeze and the streams and birds in order to remind us of life’s beauty. Above all, he equates running with dreaming:
Running is a powerful medicine for the mind. Put on your shoes and run down the trail or sidewalk and something shifts on the inside. A feeling of mellow euphoria soaks through you as the brain releases natural chemicals called endocannabinoids. Your mind feels clearer. Sharper. But run far enough and the mind soon shifts from euphoria into a kind of waking dream state.
What’s unique about Thompson’s story, in the sea of memoirs about running, is the depth of his honesty. Thompson is unafraid to tell the reader when everything is awful. He emphasizes the dark parts of his life in tandem with the dark parts of running, encouraging readers almost to give way to the darkness in order to fully appreciate the light. Thompson paints an incredibly detailed picture of himself that lets readers inside his head. Even though he seems superhuman for running so many miles, readers come to understand Thompson’s complexity and his desire to be alive as the driving forces for his running.
The transformation Thompson goes through over the course of the memoir is tangible. After seeing himself fall into addiction and come out the other side, Thompson writes about the high that comes from recognizing reality:
I can’t imagine wanting to get high here. I’m already high. LSD was never quite this good. Take acid, and you drop through a rabbit hole into Wonderland. Or hell. This state of mind feels a bit like Wonderland too. But it’s different. What do you call the place where the sun feels really hot and the creek feels really cold and food tastes really good and your loved ones feel so precious you want to weep with joy? Reality.
Running Is a Kind of Dreaming is a story readers won’t forget for a long time. It is equal parts drama, comedy, and tragedy. It reminds us of our own inner resilience and tells us that we, too, can run our own versions of 200 miles with a lot of support, a bit of hope, and the ability to dream.
Sonja Flancher is a Brooklyn-based writer pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School in New York. She’s previously published essays, reviews, and poetry in Ascent, Lake Effect, The Rumpus, and Polaris.