On Saturday morning, Austin Johnson plans to step out the front door of his Lake Stevens house and go for a run.
He aims to be home again by Sunday morning.
No, that’s not a typo.
To raise money and awareness for suicide prevention and mental health, Johnson plans to make it a 24-hour run.
Johnson has mapped out a 2.5-mile out-and-back loop on the Centennial Trail in Lake Stevens. And he intends to run that loop over and over and over again — for 24 hours straight.
For the 26-year-old Brier native, his motivation is deeply personal.
Johnson, a former Mountlake Terrace High School baseball standout, has battled depression since childhood. After reaching a low point about 2 1/2 years ago, he started running. At first, he struggled to make it even a half-mile. But now, he’s an ultra-runner with a 50-miler and a handful of marathon-length runs under his belt.
“It started just (because) I was in a really bad place and needed to lose some weight to physically just look better and feel better about myself,” Johnson said. “And once that snowball started going downhill, I just realized that I had found something that I could use to help with these internal issues that I had. … It really just opened (a new path) to me.”
Johnson is doing this 24-hour run as a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He set up a GoFundMe page and has already raised thousands of dollars.
But fundraising is only part of Johnson’s goal. He also hopes that sharing his story will spark dialogue about mental health, and that it encourages those who are struggling to take the all-important first step of opening up and asking for help.
“There’s probably a lot of people that just think it’s some crazy guy running around for a day and raising some money,” Johnson said. “But I know there’s people out there that are going to hear this story and they’re going to know that they’ve felt those same depressed, sad, painful thoughts.
“Maybe they thought they were alone,” he said. “Maybe they thought nobody cared. Maybe they thought people weren’t interested. And if just one of those people feels motivated to reach out to a family or friend — any way that it can help people, that’s my point of this run.”
‘Low and dark places’
Though he didn’t get diagnosed until recently, Johnson said he’s been dealing with depression and anxiety since he was about 8 or 9.
“In early childhood, I just had some different traumas and pains that unfortunately some children go through,” he said. “Not long after that, my parents went through a very long and kind of harsh divorce that just weighed on me.
“I don’t know if it was the immediate impact of those things in childhood, or if it was the effects that carried on throughout my adolescence — or maybe a combination.”
Depression continued to hold a grip on Johnson through high school and early adulthood and took him to “low and dark places.”
“I just thought either it was a phase or it was just something that everybody goes through, or maybe it was just me and nobody else wanted to hear about it,” he said. “Things like depression, anxiety — they weren’t talked about at that time.
“I just kind of kept on going into adulthood … and the same things just kept coming up — these repeating patterns of isolation and loneliness and sadness and despair.”
Despite his inner struggles, Johnson found success on the baseball diamond.
During his senior year of high school, he was a first-team Herald All-Area catcher and a second-team Class 3A all-state pick. He played outfield in college, spending his freshman year at Tacoma Community College and his sophomore year at South Florida State College. In between, he played a summer in the New York Collegiate Baseball League.
Johnson had hoped to play at a four-year university. But some of his credits didn’t transfer over as expected, leaving him academically ineligible.
Without baseball, Johnson’s struggles grew worse. He enrolled at Everett Community College, but dropped out after a quarter. By then, he’d put on 40 pounds since his freshman year of college.
“I was completely lost, because I had put all of my eggs into one basket,” he said. “(Baseball) was my identity. … Everything that I got, whether it was love or friendships or anything, I felt like it was because of baseball — not necessarily because of who I was.”
Through his early 20s, Johnson fell deeper into depression.
“It just got to a point where I couldn’t stand the guy in the mirror every day,” he said. “I was waking up and just hated who I was. I had this great life. I had a great job and an amazing new fiance — all of those types of things. But inside, I wasn’t doing well at all.”
Then came a turning point. As Johnson and his fiance were planning their wedding, he felt an urge to run.
“I gotta lose some weight,” he remembers saying, “because I can’t look at wedding photos of us if I’m gonna look like this.”
‘One step at a time’
It began with Johnson trying to run a half-mile from his house to the gas station down the road.
“I would make it maybe a quarter of a mile and I’d be gassing out,” he said. “But eventually we made it to the gas station. And then eventually we made it to the gas station and back. And it just kind of went from there.”
One mile turned into two miles. Two into four. Four into eight.
Before long, Johnson set his sights on a marathon. He finished the Wenatchee Marathon in April of 2019 — less than a year after struggling to reach the gas station.
“And man, ever since (that marathon), it pretty much has just gone crazy,” he said.
Among the highlights: Johnson ran 26 miles on the Iron Horse Trail, from Hyak to Issaquah. He did a triathlon in Vancouver, British Columbia. He competed in a 50-kilometer race on the Iron Horse Trail. He did a 32-mile run near North Bend, from one side of Rattlesnake Mountain to the other.
Johnson’s longest run so far is a 51-miler last September, when he ran 20 laps around Bellingham’s Lake Padden.
“One of the biggest things with running that I’ve found to be a help with this mental health stuff is (that) it’s really not the physical challenge. It’s the mental challenge,” he said. “When times are really hard and you’re 22 miles into a 25-mile run, your legs are hurting really bad, your lungs are tightening up, the most obvious thing you want to do is to just stop and quit and give up. That’s kind of the natural reaction.
“And I’ve found so often that that was kind of my natural mental reaction. When life got really hard or when I got really depressed or my social anxiety was really bad, I wasn’t trying to find ways to push through. I wasn’t trying to find ways to manage it. It was just give up and quit. And obviously in life, that just isn’t an option. We can’t just quit. Life — the good, the bad, the ugly — it’s gonna continue coming.
“Just taking it one step at a time, fighting your way through the pain and the struggle and the discomfort, and finding ways to apply that from running into regular life has just benefited me greatly.”
When training for races, Johnson said he typically runs anywhere from 20 to 60 miles per week. He wakes up at 4:30 to 5 a.m. several times per week to work out before heading to his job at Central Welding Supply in Everett. Sometimes he goes for a run during his lunch break. And several times per week, he runs after work.
Johnson’s focus lately has been on preparing for the 24-hour run. After that, he will train for the IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene race in June.
“For so long, there was just so much negative, dark energy that I figured that there had to be a way to use that energy for good,” he said. “If it was going to be there, we might as well find a way to use it in a positive light.”
‘A raging pandemic of its own’
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 20.6% of all U.S. adults in 2019 had mental illness and 5.2% had serious mental illness. The percentages were higher for ages 18-25 — at 29.4% of young adults with some form of mental illness and 8.6% having serious mental illness.
From 2010 through 2019, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. for both the 15-24 and 25-34 age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the fourth-leading cause of death for the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups.
As Johnson got older, he’d hear family and friends describe similar feelings of sadness, loneliness and emptiness.
“It just became apparent to me that (mental health) is a real issue — not just on an individual level, but as a society and as a community,” he said. “… It’s like a raging pandemic of its own.”
One of the big problems, Johnson said, is that so many people keep those issues to themselves and never ask for help.
“Whatever the reason is, there’s just a lot of people hurting silently,” he said. “… It’s just still such a taboo to talk about mental health, suicide, depression.
“It’s a daily struggle for so many people,” he added. “And (so many) of them stay silent, like I did for 26 years.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson heard stories of people starting relief funds for small businesses and struggling families. That inspired him to brainstorm how he could help those battling mental-health issues — especially at a time when isolation and hardships from the pandemic have exacerbated those struggles for many.
“I knew that there were people willing to donate money to a good cause,” he said. “(And) I knew there were people willing to talk about these issues, if someone was just willing to break the ice.”
Johnson said he chose this particular challenge — running back and forth along the same stretch of trail for 24 hours — because it serves as a metaphor for what battling mental-health issues can be like.
“I thought something like this made (the most) sense, because it should be something that’s monotonous,” he said. “It should be something that’s repetitive, because so often these issues and struggles that we deal with in life seem to be that same way.
“I’m still struggling with (these) same issues,” he added, “but (am) finding ways every day to just make it a tiny bit better — figuring out the ways to make it so that tomorrow is not going to be quite as bad as yesterday.”
The contrast between his engagement photos and wedding photos serves as a reminder of how far he has come, physically and mentally. In that 1 1/2-year span, he estimates he lost about 45 pounds and reached his lightest weight since his freshman year of high school.
Johnson is doing this 24-hour run as part of a larger vision called “Run For Your Life.” He’s not quite sure yet what it will entail, but said he plans to form some sort of community group — perhaps a running club or a life group that raises money and helps people who have mental-health struggles.
“I don’t know specifically where it’s going or where I want to take it,” he said. “I just know that I want to take it directly to this community — to Snohomish County — and find a way to get people one at a time to just take a step out and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling. I need some help.’”
Johnson, for one, knows how important that first step is.
“The first step,” he said, “is always the hardest one to take — whether it’s running 24 hours or reaching out for help because you’re really sad and hurting inside.”
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