One and a half years ago, Austin Johnson ran 24 consecutive hours to raise money and awareness for mental health and suicide prevention.
Since then, the Snohomish County native has formed the nonprofit Run For Your Life Foundation.
And on Saturday, Johnson and his foundation are holding their second annual Run For Your Life Suicide Awareness Run/Walk in Lake Stevens.
As of Wednesday, approximately 300 runners had signed up. The event also includes an array of additional features for runners and non-runners alike — including more than 50 local market vendors, food trucks, a beer garden, live music, a cornhole tournament, counseling services and speakers from mental health organizations.
It’s all part of Johnson’s ultimate mission: To increase mental health and suicide awareness throughout the community, and to provide support for those who are struggling.
“We’re just trying to create a platform where people can feel welcome and have fun … (and) know that there are other people struggling alongside them, and they don’t have to be alone,” he said.
Johnson, a 2012 Mountlake Terrace High School alum whose inspiring story was chronicled in The Herald last year, took up running after reaching a low point in his battle against depression several years ago. Over time, he developed into an ultra-runner.
In February of 2021, Johnson completed a 24-hour run along the Centennial Trail in Lake Stevens. He logged more than 80 miles during the run and used the feat to raise more than $24,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Johnson was blown away by the community support — not only through the amount of donations, but the numerous people who reached out and opened up about their struggles.
“The response was just unbelievable,” he said. “So humbling. Sad in some ways as well, because (of) just how large that community is of people who are struggling.”
Riding the success of his 24-hour run, Johnson went on to form the Run For Your Life Foundation.
With help from a Lake Stevens family who lost a family member to suicide, Johnson and Run For Your Life organized their first annual suicide awareness run/walk last summer. It drew more than 300 runners and raised more than $20,000 to help launch the organization.
This year, proceeds from the event will go toward students in Lake Stevens School District. According to Johnson, the Lake Stevens community has been hit hard by suicide.
Johnson said he’s been working with the district to create a scholarship program for students who are dealing with mental health struggles or the loss of a family member to suicide. He said the scholarship money could be used in a variety of ways — including toward college, trade school or mental health services.
“We want to provide an opportunity for these kids to kind of share their story, share their vulnerability, get their story out, and then give them hope for the future,” Johnson said. “We’re putting together a big pool of money to help them and invest in their future.”
Saturday’s event is open to the public and spans from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 1808 Main Street in Lake Stevens. It includes races of 10 kilometers (9:05 a.m.), five kilometers (9:20 a.m.) and one mile (10:30 a.m.). To register for the races or the cornhole tournament, visit runforyourlifels.com.
Johnson said this year’s event has already surpassed the number of registered runners from last year. The event’s scope also has expanded.
“Last year, it was very focused on just the running aspect,” Johnson said. “This year, we’ve really tried to make it a point to bring in more mental health organizations (and) counseling services. We have a lineup of professional speakers from different organizations.
“We’re trying to really provide those resources for people, so that they can come down there and have things available to them.”
Johnson, meanwhile, is still racking up miles as an ultra-runner.
Next weekend, he and close friend Tyler Ackerman are heading to Southern California to run ultra-marathons at Big Bear Lake. Johnson plans to run a 100-kilometer race, while Ackerman is tackling a 100-miler.
“(Running) really is synonymous with mental health,” Johnson said. “You’re out there pushing yourself and taking that next step when it feels like you absolutely can’t. It’s just so metaphorical for life.
“So we just want to go out there, represent what Run For Your Life stands for and just show people that … you can absolutely keep moving forward, even through extremely hard, physical challenges.”
Ultimately, Johnson said he wants to continue to grow Run For Your Life and find the best ways to impact those who are hurting.
As he emphasized back in 2021, he hopes to encourage more open dialogue in the community about mental health.
“It’s a daily struggle for so many people,” Johnson said last year. “And (so many) of them stay silent, like I did for 26 years.
“The first step,” he added, “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.”