Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

 

By Kim Constantinesco

We have surefire markers for heart disease and cancer. But there are no blood tests or PET scans to show evidence of mental illness.

Because symptoms are expressed as feelings and behaviors, there is less acceptance, more judgement, and greater shame surrounding an issue that we should be able to talk about as freely as cancer.

That was the idea behind the Ice Breaker Run — a 24-day relay-style gallop across the United States made by six people, who have a history of mental illness.

The group of men and women took turns running 3,100 miles, day and night, starting on May 15, 2016. Their route ran from Santa Monica, Calif. to Alexandria, Virginia, the location of this year’s Mental Health America conference.

They,  like 1-in-5 adults in the U.S. who experience mental illness in a given year, have struggled with depression, anxiety, and/or addiction. Rather than stepping into the dark shadows, however, the Ice Breakers made strides (over five million of them) to break barriers and put mental illness in the spotlight.

The youngest on the team? Twenty-three-year-old Sophie Kashurba from Sommerset, Pennsylvania, who has a history of self harm.

Early in life, the former college cross-country athlete was seeking that endorphin rush, not by pushing her body to the brink like many runners do, but by cutting herself.

“I thought it was such a shameful thing. That’s why I was never very honest with it,” Kashurba said.

Losing Control to Gain Control

Kashurba grew up playing every sport in the book. However, her mom, Mary, who also happened to serve as the official Ice Breaker Run team doctor, is an avid runner herself.

So, by six years old, Kashurba was joining her mom on the road. She ran her first race, a 5K, at seven years old, claiming it wasn’t her proudest moment.

The Ice Breaker runners. Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

The Ice Breaker runners. Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

“It was an out and back race, and we got to the turn-around portion,” Kashurba said. “In my mind, I decided that was the end of the race. My mom told me I had to run back, and I cried the entire 1.5 miles back. I crossed the finish line with tears streaming down my cheeks, and told her I would never run another race again.”

That was short lived. Kashurba continued running and joined her high school’s cross country team. After that, she ran at Gettysburg College.

Even though she was a dedicated athlete growing up, her struggles with self harm began in seventh grade, while making the adjustment to junior high and greater responsibilities.

“It was the pressure I put on myself and the pressure I felt from the outside,” she said. “Along with sports, I joined every club possible, and took honors classes. I loaded everything up on my plate. I’m very much a people pleaser, so I wanted to please my parents, teachers, and coaches. In that, I felt like I lost my sense of control with everything. Self harm just became a way of escaping, and also just a way of having something I could control.”

She understood the physiology behind it. She would inflict pain on herself by cutting into her skin in order to release endorphins. It was something that she could easily hide.

It wasn’t until her best friend discovered what was going on that Kashurba started to pull herself out of it, all because she finally had someone to talk to.

“You need to tell somebody, just to have someone you can be accountable to,” she said. “The big thing is being able to voice whatever is going on in your head. You might not understand it, but getting it off your chest can do a lot.”

Once she got to high school, she wasn’t cutting as much. It wasn’t until college that it was completely under control.

“In college, I met other people who had their struggles and were open with it,” she said. “I also found To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA). I started reading some of the blogs and seeing that I wasn’t alone; seeing that ‘normal’ people go through this stuff. That gave me hope.”

Opening Up to the World

As a member of the Ice Breaker team, Kashurba ran just under 600 miles in three weeks. Prior to the epic adventure, she had done a few ultramarathons, including two 24-hour races, where she covered 95 miles in one.

It sounds like a lot, but compared to the other five runners on her team, who were over two decades older than her, she was a rookie. Starting in January, she trained by running two to three times per day. Her biggest week culminated at around 90 miles, but she incorporated a lot of strength training to get her body ready for the heavy pounding. Her teammates, meanwhile, were putting in multiple 100+ mile weeks.

Still, Kashurba finished the cross-country run feeling strong, albeit a little tired, and most importantly, she got through with no injuries. Her toughest physical challenge was shifting to a new and grinding sleep pattern. Accustomed to 8-10 hours of sleep a night, she only slept 3-5 hours per day during the march to Virginia.

Sophie (right) with Pam Rickard. Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

Sophie (right) with Pam Rickard. Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

There was an even bigger mental challenge for Kashurba, however. Throughout the run, the group told their stories of mental illness to people along the route. Whether they talked with a group at a pre-arranged YMCA pit stop or discussed the topic with “guest runners” while pounding the pavement, the Ice Breaker team was all about normalizing mental illness, and having that human connection.

“I had not been terribly honest about my story up until this last year, so when we would meet with people, I had to push myself to be very honest and open,” Kashurba said. “The running was the easy part. Physically, I’d tell myself to go, and I would do it. Being open and vulnerable only came after the first couple of times we met with people. I saw that if I was more open, other people would be willing to share their stories.”

When friend and teammate, Pam Rickard, initially told Kashurba about the Ice Breaker Run, she never considered running it herself, but she did express her concern surrounding all of the other runners being in their 50’s.

“When I went through all my issues, it was mostly¬† junior high and high school,” she said. “I wanted the group to have someone who could represent for the younger generations. I thought it would be less intimidating for high school kids or college students to approach someone like that.”

So, naturally, Rickard asked Kashurba to be that person, and it aligned perfectly with her life.

“Shame is a lot of what keeps people from admitting to anything,” she said. “If you can get people to be honest about it, you can put more prevention programs in place and you can get more people help.”

Running Does Work

After graduating with a degree in health sciences, Kashurba moved to Charlotte to take a one-year position before starting chiropractic school.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

Photo courtesy of Sophie Kashurba

Her job? Working at a non-profit called Running Works, which inserts running and life skills classes into three populations — women in drug and alcohol recovery, children in foster care, and the homeless.

“The idea of our program is we meet with each group individually and we go for a 30-40 minute run/walk, and then we come back and we do a life skills lesson,” Kashurba said. “That can be anything from anger management to budgeting. A lot of times, especially among the homeless population, they just need someone to listen to them.”

Running Works also brings these groups to local races, either to run in them or to volunteer. It turns out that the skills and qualities gained from being included in the running population transfer nicely into life.

Take one guy, who had been homeless for 10 years before starting at Running Works. He trained for and completed the Charlotte Marathon last fall.

“He said, ‘If I can run a marathon, I can probably get a job.’ Now he has a job and he has housing,” Kashurba said. “Usually what happens is they get to the point where they have the confidence to take the next step.”

And for Kashurba, life is all about taking next steps. She has her eye on doing the Badwater 135, dubbed the “World’s Toughest Footrace” because it traverses 135 sweltering miles through Death Valley.

Until that time comes, though, she will continue moving forward and promoting mental health.

“Life is easier when you know that you don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “At work, we say, ‘It’s progress. Not perfection.'”

And that goes for making mental illness relevant, too.