Rob Krar is an accomplished ultramarathon runner who has struggled with serious depression for decades. By leading ultramarathon camps with his wife, Christina Bauer, he’s discovered that more than a few of his campers struggle with their mental health. In this stunning and visceral portrait at Outside, Christine Fennessy discovers that while running for 100 miles can help keep the dark times at bay, being among those who understand helps even more.
When he first started his running camps, his main focus was the organizational component, making sure everything happened exactly as he planned it at exactly the right time. The camp and his role in them was simple: talk about training and nutrition and racing, and lead kickass runs. But then three men wept during a run at the very first summer camp in 2015, and Krar was completely taken by surprise. What’s going on here? he thought. He continued to market the events as running camps, but he began to realize that he was drawing runners who were coming for other reasons, too. That he was, however inadvertently, creating a safe place where people could open up.
..many of Krar’s campers…know about overwhelming hopelessness. How it has a weight to it that’s so immense they feel rooted to the ground. How life feels like it’s happening in slow motion, and the simplest tasks—sitting up in bed, emptying the dishwasher, putting one foot in front of the other—are overwhelming. They know after they finish a race, or anything they’ve worked hard for, that they should feel happiness, a sense of accomplishment. Relief. Joy. Something. But all they feel is emptiness. And often, if they do feel something, it’s anger. Or sadness. Or shame. There’s nothing to point to, no trauma to blame. And so it becomes this terrible additional burden of feeling awful about feeling awful.
Krar thanks them all for coming. Then, as most of the campers start getting up, Krar walks over and sits next to Ben Kammin, who is trying hard to hold it together. Kammin, 45, is a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology in Boulder, Colorado. He’s lean, with a bald head and a graying goatee. He’s thoughtful and not much of a talker, and right now, with Krar sitting quietly beside him, he can’t say a word. If he opens his mouth, he’ll lose it. And there’s so much he suddenly wants to say.
He wants to say he’s struggled with manic depression for around 15 years. That when he’s going into a bad place—“absolute hopelessness”—he can feel the darkness crawl down the back of his neck. That hardly anyone knows this about him, even friends he’s had for 25 years. That a year ago he started running, and while it’s not a cure or a substitute for his meds, he calls it his miracle drug, because it gives him hours of clarity and productivity. He wants to say that sometimes he weeps when he runs. That he just gets overwhelmed with gratitude for this thing that does so much for his body and mind. He wants to say that he thinks his illness is getting worse, but he’s doing everything he can to be healthy, because he knows his time is precious. He wants to tell Krar that after just three days, he feels like he found his people. That the runners he met are imperfect just like him, and that they are the most amazing, beautiful people because of those imperfections. And that soon he will start thinking of life before camp and after camp.
But he doesn’t have to say these things. Because Rob Krar gets it.