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Run For Your Life: The Catharsis and Conflict of Ultrarunning

More than mere exercise, long-distance running can act as a form of therapy. We spoke with comedian Richard Gadd and musician Mishka Shubaly about how ultrarunning helped and hindered when they sought to face their demons.

by Si Hawkins
Mar 27 2017, 2:11pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Mishka Shubaly discovered his aptitude for running the day after a brutal New York bar fight. But this was not simply the adrenaline-fuelled short-burst stuff that comes with the territory when you live the way he once did: this was real running.

Now an impressively frank writer and musician, Shubaly spent the worst part of 15 years at the bottom of a vodka bottle, with a side order of some seriously grim narcotics. As such, it came as more than a surprise that his booze-abused body could perform feats of supreme endurance. Less than a year after quitting the drink, the long-time waster was competing in ultrarunning events. "I've run a lot of 50 milers, a 100k race," he tells VICE Sports, displaying a curious lack of pride. The Lycra-clad elite were not people he ever thought he'd hang out with.

"I don't run because I have any kind of passion for it or because I want to belong to the running community," he admits. "I run to keep the wolves at bay. I run because I fear exercise less than I fear death, less than I fear my old life."

"Still, I own a pair of tights. It is what it is, man. Life as an alcoholic is far more humiliating than life as a runner."

Mishka celebrates another successful run // Image via

Shubaly will visit the UK in April, singing gruff-voiced songs of romantic pain and lifestyle remorse in the evenings, then running ludicrous distances the morning after. It's not the regular rock 'n' roll regime. You may have heard his stuff before, particularly if you're a fan of America's finest comedian, Doug Stanhope, who regularly uses Shubaly's broken-torch songs as the outro of his booze-fuelled podcast. Notable among them is Don't Cut YR Hair , which opens with: "The potato peelings in the sink did not turn into vodka as I had hoped..."

The two remain cordial, despite an on-tour falling out some years ago. You know you've got a problem when Stanhope fires you for overdoing it, but sobering up took a little while longer. "There was no new low that I hit in 2009 that made me quit," he says. "I'd drank in the mornings before, I'd drank at work before, I drank alone when I was a kid, I'd thrown up blood when I was still a teenager."

In 2009 he was trying to stop drinking while night-managing a bar, which probably isn't the AA-approved method. Then one particular evening went south. A friend got sucker punched all the way to ER, and the night manager found himself back home in Brooklyn the next day, furious and lacking his bike, which was somewhere in Manhattan.

"So I walked outside and ran from Brooklyn into Manhattan to get it. It was a little over four miles. When I got back, I wasn't angry anymore. I thought: 'Shit... I guess I can run?' So I started running."

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It probably saved – or at least radically changed – Shubaly's life, so much so that he eventually wrote a popular Amazon 'single' (mini e-book) about that transition. The Long Run is certainly a more interesting origin story than most how-I-started-athletics tomes. Sebastian Coe's formative years presumably didn't involve downing a litre of rum, gorging on expired cough sweets, and waking up swimming in his own urine.

Shubaly's songs are darkly comic, but darker still is the recent work of Richard Gadd, whose comedy show has probably won more major awards than any other over the last year. Monkey See, Monkey Do brings the 'run for your life' theme right on to the stage, as the Scottish actor/comedian actually pounds a treadmill for the whole hour. Those awards – he won another just last week – are recognition of his bravery and honesty as much as his sense of humour.

Gadd, pictured with a hirsute associate, promoting the comedian's award-winning show

"I started to run after being sexually assaulted around four and half years ago," he begins. "Going through something like that was hugely traumatic and I was suffering with flashbacks, invasive thoughts, a whole spectrum of repercussions. Running was the only thing that could restore me back to any semblance of calm. It was a brutal time."

Gadd had won a big Edinburgh Fringe award the year before for a high-concept show called Waiting for Gaddot, which was about him not showing up. The new one is significantly more taxing, mentally and physically. While his story is chiefly told via a pre-taped voiceover, Gadd runs around 10km every night, sometimes doing two shows a day. Still, it's pretty tame compared to his activities immediately after that traumatic experience.

"I was running five times a week and I would run until I could not run anymore," he recalls. "This one time I ran from Friern Barnet to Wembley and back along the North Circular [road]; it must have been about 18 miles in total. I knew I should have signed up to do a marathon at the time, I could have knocked one out easily."

But was it positive? Or a way of blocking out what had happened to him?

"I think it was a little of both. It would give me a release that other proven methods of sorting out your mental clutter wouldn't give me, like meditation and therapy and all that stuff. It was – still is – the one thing I have in my life that properly levels me, the one thing that gets my anxiety right down and focuses me for the day."

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"At the same time... the extent to which I was running, I'm not sure looking back on it that it was all that healthy. It was probably very repressive in a way, literally fleeing from my own bullshit. I couldn't talk about it so I thought I could run it out of my system. I don't think it was very positive in that respect."

It sounds like an addiction.

"I think obviously running pales in comparison to other addictions, but it is all part of the same thing," he says. "Any addiction is probably not great. Addiction implies you have lost your control to something external, and that isn't healthy in the grand scheme of things. But I would say I was addicted to running for a while, yes."

It's an interesting question: can hitting the streets be as addictive as the hedonistic activities we demonise? For a better perspective we spoke with Hayley Jarvis, the Community Programmes Manager at mental health charity Mind. Last year Hayley helped to launch their link with England Athletics, the Mental Health Ambassadors programme, as well as Mind's own project, Get Set to Go. "I run," she tells us. "I've run for two, three years, for my mental health." Hitting the road helps with "managing your stress," she suggests, and provides "a better balance of cortisol."

Cortisol is an interesting one. This anti-stress chemical sounds helpful, but it can also affect your immune system in high doses, such as those released during extreme levels of exercise. Then again, Mind don't really recommend the sort of exercise that Shubaly and Gadd put themselves through.

Jarvis cites research they commissioned from the University of Essex in 2007 in which "90 per cent of people reported an increase in their mood," after outside activity, and a 2011 Department of Health study that found exercising regularly reduces your risk of depression by 30%. "But it's about balance," she says. "Being active, exercising, when that starts to take over your life and you stop doing other things as a result of it, then that becomes a problem in itself."

Injury is a major issue when exercise becomes all consuming. Shubaly broke down in late 2010. "I struggled that winter. As I had built an identity around alcohol, I had built an identity around running. There were certainly dark moments where I thought: 'If I can't run, I may as well drink.'"

Thankfully, he'd travelled far enough down the new road to look at the real issue: that he needed "a bigger life." Writing and performing helped to build this, after all that running had smoothed the path. He still hits the streets, but has no truck with the 'addiction' theory.

"It's not a replacement addiction, it's the opposite of addiction for me, and I'd caution anyone from leaping to that 'you've just replaced one addiction with another' assumption. Yes, it's healthy. Yes, I do it habitually. Yes, it brings me happiness, in a roundabout way. So does breathing, so does eating, so does sleeping, but you would never describe someone as a breathing addict or a life addict. Exercise is good for you. Everyone should do it. It's one of the ways to embrace the challenges that life has for us instead of avoiding them."

READ MORE: Overcoming the Empathy Barrier – Mental Health in the Premier League

Unless, of course, you actively use exercise to avoid those challenges. One common theme is apparent among these differing athletes: it's about working stuff out. For Shubaly, those lonely hours help him to think – "I got over a nine-month relationship in one 50-mile run," he says – while for Jarvis, it's social. The ambassador programme she helped launch, labelled #runandtalk, encourages people to do just that, because shared activities knock down social barriers. "You can see it in the running community," she says, "people are far more open to say that they're dealing with stress or not feeling great."

Gadd has a more complex relationship with running, but eventually it helped him sort stuff out too, via his show. The on-off year-long run of it "has been incredibly cathartic, more than I ever anticipated," he admits.

"I used to think that one day I might have the courage to speak on a stage about what happened. It was in my head for years. Maybe I could pound a treadmill and get a point across to the audience about how fucked a situation it all was? I always felt it would have a powerful effect. Turns out I was right."

They're still pounding away. Gadd is off to perform his show in Melbourne for a month, then Edinburgh again, and the on-stage distance is racking up. "Definitely over a thousand kilometres so far, without question," he says. "It's why I now walk like a pigeon with dyspraxia."

And Shubaly? He recently ran a marathon on his 40th birthday, just to keep his hand in, but "in the ultra community, what I run isn't impressive," he says. "I have friends who are running 135-mile winter races, 150 mile races... I just don't feel the burning need for it as I once did.

"I learned so much about running, about myself, about survival, about getting better, about life itself. Running taught me that sometimes the hardest way is also the best way. I'll always run, but running taught me how to live, and living is something I've become pretty interested in lately."

Long may they run.

@sihawkins

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