How Harry Potter virtual running groups helped me conquer my depression

Courtesy of author

Latria Graham (right), dressed as Captain Hook, with her running partner Jillian after the Tinker Bell Half Marathon and the Pixie Dust Challenge on May 2015.

I dread solo runs the way the average person hates tax time. The solitary nature of the run forces me to turn inward, and as a goal-oriented overachiever with a fear of failure, I hate the introspection that these runs cultivate.

The thought of spending hours wrestling with my body, willing it to keep going, with no distractions and no community support makes me question my sanity. I've tried all of the recommended tips and mental tricks, as well as fitness gadgets and apps to make solo running for long distances better.

Only one thing has done the trick: virtual runs.

I joined two virtual running groups on Facebook because of my love for Harry Potter -- Nerd Herd Running, with money going to the nonprofit Stupid Cancer, and the Hogwarts Running Club, who donates to a different organization every race. When I ran the Dementor's Kiss 5K with the Hogwarts Running Club, we raised $45,000 for Miles for Cystic Fibrosis. I liked the idea that the money I spent fueling my running habit also had a larger purpose.

Virtual races are runs of a predetermined length that can take place at any location of your choosing during a particular week. You pay the race registration fee and receive a runner's bib in your email. Certain running groups require that you submit a proof of time, and after a couple of weeks, you receive a finisher's medal.

These races don't require travel, so they're easier on the wallet. And best of all, there are no long lines at the porta-potty.

For me, these runs are the perfect combination of nerd culture and running community. Running is one of those activities I never thought I would do. I abhorred physical exercise as a child. I was sedentary in my early 20s from a combination of depression and self-loathing. I wanted to be invisible.

One phone call changed my life.

It was my 27th birthday, and I needed serious convincing that I should live another year. My childhood friend Jillian called. Buried under the floral comforter in my bedroom, iPhone on speaker, I told her that I am not sure I wanted to continue living.

She persuaded me to make a list of all the things I couldn't do, but that I dream of doing. On my list was a completing a marathon.

Jill suggested we start small, with a princess-themed 5K. We registered, trained and finished the race together. From there we took on 10Ks and half-marathons and multiple-day challenges.

I've been running, off and on, ever since. Exercise is my version of Defense Against the Dark Arts. 

I let my imagination loose on these runs.

***

It's 5 a.m. when my earbuds go in, and the fusion of sight and sound begins a seamless transition to the Harry Potter Universe. My mind fills in the gaps of my elaborate fantasy. Everyday sights and sounds, with their metronomic regularity, transform into rhythmic spectacle.

My environment becomes animated -- lampposts change into floating candles, illuminating my path. The local YMCA, which towers above the rest of the landscape, morphs into the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, strong dramatic architecture silhouetted against an enchanted navy sky.

For the first half of my run, I evade the dark forces. Halfway through, my left heel is sore, and my right knee threatens to be uncooperative.

I stop.

That's when the Dementors show up. In the Harry Potter Universe, they're mystical figures shrouded in black gossamer cloth, and they thrive on despair. Their main purpose is to suck the happiness and good memories out of the people that they come across.

Courtesy of author

Latria Graham at her first costume-themed 5K (in February 2013), where she dressed as Ursula from "The Little Mermaid."

In my mind they're always hovering on the periphery, waiting time until I let my guard down. Doubt doesn't take long to blossom once it's taken root -- I know that from near fatal bouts with depression. Those brushes with the spectral always left me listless and unmotivated, wracked with nightmares and harboring the belief that I was devoid of talent.

I have to keep running. I make it past a large tree I've dubbed the Whomping Willow before I was forced to stop again. Up ahead I see a Boggart, a shape-shifting creature that takes on the form of the thing you fear most.

The resurrected corpse looks like me, but smells like betrayal -- wet, decaying flesh giving way due to neglect. Brain slightly atrophied, cloaked in anger, frustration and fear. She utters sharp, mean statements: I am not fast. I am not brave. I am a failure.

My run has a new sense of urgency, to prove the other me wrong, to conquer the things that threaten to drown me if I ever give myself permission to think about them.

I am the protagonist. I can't outrun this variant of myself. I have to face her. I surrender to the run; I stop obsessing about the time.

I pull the terrible memories and places out of myself and leave them on the pavement. In this alternate universe, I could be gifted and hardworking, and villains were always vanquished, even though all enchantments come with a price. I don't have to be fast -- I just have to finish.

Monsters, after all, can be defeated. I know I deserve to cultivate hope, to have peace. I understand it is my right to be happy. My creativity allows me to believe in the incredible, to not be limited by the bounds of my own experience. I know, at the end of all of this, that I can endure.

Latria Graham is a writer, editor and cultural critic. She is currently living in South Carolina. Follow her @LGRaconteur

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