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Running helps local overcome anxiety

Eileen Craig recently completed second sanctioned 50-km run


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Eileen Craig's journey into becoming a long-distance runner happened innocently enough.

In advance of the inaugural Whistler Half Marathon in 2011, Craig's sister, Ironman competitor Christine Suter, asked her to help out with the walk-run program.

"It was three weeks into the helping until I realized we were training for the half marathon. Sneaky bugger," Craig recalled with a chuckle.

Fast forward eight years and Craig is now completing 50-kilometre races like the Wy'east Wonder in Oregon on June 15, crossing the line in seven hours, 41 minutes and 40 seconds (7:41:40).

"It was the most beautiful trail run I've ever been on," the 55-year-old mortgage broker said. "Every time you came out of the woods ... you'd get spectacular views of Mount Hood."

Once Craig hit what she described as a fairly quick cutoff, in which she completed 33 km in about five-and-a-half hours, she took the opportunity to snap a few photos of the natural beauty.

But getting into nature and seeing such views isn't the only benefit Craig has seen as a result of her running—in combination with behavioural therapy, she feels exercise has played a major role in managing her anxiety disorder.

"One of the things that really works for me is exercise. I have been able to manage it through exercise and some behavioural therapy. Those skills really help me. I can use some of those skills to help push me through," she said.

When anxious feelings pop up, Craig feels better equipped to handle them, which is especially important when participating in an activity that seems to invoke them by design.

"When you're running, you're halfway to a panic attack. Your heart rate's already up there," she chuckled. "I used to experience that when I first started running. I would get to the finish line and I would have a panic attack. My breathing's going and my heart rate's going,

"I kept going and I don't have that anymore. I can enjoy it for what it is now."

Suter, of C2Sky Multisport, is proud of her sister, noting that as a trainer and coach, it's particularly heartwarming to see someone break through their limitations.

"We would go on runs and if we would get to a different area, she might have an anxiety attack and it was like, 'We have to turn around,'" she said. "She's really worked on being able to now understand her anxiety and manage it. Going to do a trail run was something that Eileen never wanted to do because she would be, 'If I have an anxiety attack, I'm going to be out in the middle of the forest. I can't do that.'"

Suter added that her sister has made gains in other areas of her life as well as a result of her running.

"I've seen an increase in her confidence and her ability to do it. For her, when we talk about things, it's very social. She just loves the group of people that she has met and now she's doing all these adventures with," she said. "She doesn't hesitate to go out for three or four hours for running.

"Sometimes she would say, 'I've just got to walk,' and her friends were so supportive of her that they would just walk with her."

Craig agreed that the social aspect of running has provided a boost for her, as she's made many new friends after switching from road running to trail running after an injury about five years ago. While the group enters races together, sometimes its members travel just to run, with Craig noting a three-day excursion to Revelstoke last year.

"We always just run together as a group and now we go on all these fabulous adventures," she said.

Craig's first-ever trail race was certainly an adventure, as she tackled Finlayson Arm on Vancouver Island last September.

She chose the race for its location and the time of year, but missed some other pertinent details.

"It had 10,000 feet of climbing. It's one of the hardest 50-km trail runs in Canada," she said. "When we started, it went up a mountain ... I remember thinking, 'I don't know if I can do this.' When I got up, I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't go back down there so I've got to keep going.'

"I had to work myself through some pretty significant anxiety to get myself to the top."

Running by herself, Craig was worried about missing the cutoff, but once she realized her pace was adequate, she felt a surge of confidence.

"I made it to the second aid station and I was still in. My whole mind changed. I thought, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to finish this now,'" she said. "It's not just your body. Your brain wants you to give up."

The race had a 12-hour limit; Craig crossed the line in 11:47:24.

Acknowledging that she has a supportive family, which also includes 100-mile runner Janet, as well as her gratitude to live in Whistler, Craig is glad to have found a solution that has suited her needs. She encouraged people to treat others with kindness, as anxiety can be an invisible burden for others.

"You don't know who has it. Lots of people have it. We don't talk about it enough, and this was something that works for me," she said.