Our final Year of the Underbird feature, Elena Hayday, shares her story of living with depression and how it accompanied her journey in running. What manifested as overachieving at a young age, transitioned into burnout in college, the mishandling of her treatment, and ultimately leaving her team and even her dreams of running competitively. Elena’s story is a powerful example of how returning to what you love can be a healing way to move forward.

This blog discusses depression. If you are struggling with depression or suicidal ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988, call 911, or get in contact with a psychiatrist or mental health counselor.

To those who have never experienced depression, I often describe it as being underwater. Having been diagnosed with depression when I was ten, I’ve had a lot of time to form this description. The neuroscientist in me wants to describe this in chemical terms, but the feeling is what really matters to those who have it. For me, a depressive episode feels like I am sinking under, bit by bit until I’m moving through my days in a sort of murky fog. I know that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be completely out of the water, but over the years I’ve begun to add buoys to keep my head above it.

Running, once one of many things that I used to mask my depression, has become one of my strongest tools. The path I’ve taken is not linear, but I’ve come to understand that depression doesn’t need to hold me back from a meaningful and joyful life.

I have what’s considered high-functioning depression—a chronic overachiever, I spent my high school days participating in pretty much any extracurricular activity I could squeeze into an already-packed schedule of Advanced Placement courses. Bouncing from activity to activity was the way that I masked negative emotions, and it didn’t matter whether I enjoyed what I was doing as long as I was too busy to feel unhappy and receiving enough external validation to ignore that I wasn’t generating my own. Running was one of the few activities that I found genuine enjoyment in. I didn’t enjoy competing, but the act of running was different. I grew up by Hyland Park Reserve in Bloomington, Minnesota, and it was there that I first ran three consecutive miles and hobbled to my mom’s car (she had driven me there and back, despite the proximity), beaming with my accomplishment. In high school, my coach made running approachable. He pushed us in workouts, but he never made us take running too seriously while simultaneously planting a seed somewhere deep in my brain that I might really be talented. Running wasn’t a huge part of my identity, but it came naturally, and the endorphins were a welcome reprieve for my serotonin-deprived brain. I wasn’t a particularly notable athlete, but I was serviceable enough to run at the state track and cross country meets a few times and committed to joining the team at the University of Minnesota when I graduated from high school.

Elena Hayday as a high school athlete. Left: competing for her high school. Right: Posing with her teammates post-race

It was in my early college years that things went a bit awry. There were consequences to being overscheduled, and my body took the brunt of it. We were working out harder than I ever had in high school, and I was foggy and tired. I found out later that I was very iron-deficient during this time, but I was also sleeping little and not taking care of my body as I tried to manage the change in both athletic and academic expectations. There were spots of fitness that occasionally shone through in workouts; my college coach described it as a “talent light switch that sometimes flips on” in an end-of-freshman-year meeting that still haunts me. My sophomore year was simultaneously better and worse; more of my workouts went well, but my course load was heavier, and the depression hit me hard. I struggled through the fall semester, running a handful of mediocre cross-country races and crying in the study rooms of our athletic building. The mental fog was ever-present, and I was placed back on the SSRI that I took during my adolescence.

Then, like many people who were in school in 2020, the start of the pandemic marked a turning point. I made the roughly 30-minute drive back to my parent’s house in the suburbs and stayed with them during the lockdown, where I invested the extra time away from practice and my part-time job into running mileage. I recorded 70-mile weeks, the furthest I’d ever run, and while I was chided multiple times by the coach for this, I felt a little lighter. We were fortunate to stay safe and healthy during this period, and I came back in the fall faster than ever: I wasn’t at the front of the pack, but I wasn’t at the back anymore either. I received my first big break in the pecking order when the coach informed me that I would be put on the team for the Big Ten cross country meet.

Elena Hayday competing for the University of Minnesota

Then, things suddenly went downhill with the medical staff. An offhand comment to the team doctor about disliking myself turned into mandatory eating disorder treatment, and my insistence that I needed treatment for depression, rather than an eating disorder, resulted in being barred from running and then practice entirely until the medical team gave me the go-ahead. Isolated and frustrated, I spent months trying to make my case and muddling through an outpatient treatment program before deciding to leave the team and find treatment elsewhere. For months, I was sure that it was the end of competitive running for me. Between the frustration and the heartbreak, running had been tainted, and I wasn’t sure how to move forward.

It turns out that moving forward ultimately meant returning to what I loved doing—running. It started as leaving the apartment without any pace or distance goals and just feeling the way each run released a bit of the tension I was still holding in my body. I was in talk therapy at this point but running offered a different type of therapeutic relief.

I had grown up camping and hiking, and I found that running outside gave me the same feeling of being at peace. I decided to run the local marathon. Spoiler alert, it went badly. But it sparked a fire that I didn’t know I had within me anymore. I wanted to try running fast again. After graduation, I made a move across the country to Washington, D.C. for a research position. Here I joined a local team, Georgetown Running Club, that seemed to have the just-right level of required commitment and I began racing again. Turning back to competitive running has simply been a process of leaning into the things that already make me feel less weighed down. I run a lot of miles, preferably in the woods or trails, and I spend time working out with a coach and teammates who I also consider friends. My brain has quieted down a little and with it my hectic schedule. I find myself able to take breaks now and sit quietly without needing to schedule every minute of my day to avoid slipping into a depression. I’m still not perfect at managing my sleep, but I am getting far more rest than I did in college, and my body is thanking me. I am also still on SSRIs, and I probably will be for the rest of my life, but I’ve made peace with that. I truly enjoy my job and the time that I spend running, I’m in a loving relationship, and I am excited to go to graduate school and make an impact through research. Life is good.

Elena Hayday smiling in a garden, as a Oiselle-sponsored Year of the Underbird marathon.

Going into the Trials, I’m not changing much. I know that I run my best when I’m happy, so I won’t be doing anything crazy with my training. That isn’t to say I won’t be doing anything uncomfortable ( I’ve already learned that I don’t love the sauna time I need for heat acclimation) but my current balance of running, work, and relationships keeps training feeling fun. Fun is something that I missed in my life for a long time, and it’s nice to have that feeling again.

I have a tattoo of a bundle of wildflowers from high-altitude climates on my inner bicep to remind me of how far I’ve come. Like the wildflowers, I have grown imperfectly and in harsh conditions, but I believe that I can still make something beautiful. For the first time, I’m excited to try and do just that.

Left: Elena Hayday smiling and holding her cat. Middle: Elena at practice, running on a track with a teammate. Right: Elena's wildflower tattoo on her bicep.

Elena will be lining up February 3 in Orlando, Florida to compete for a spot on the 2024 US Olympic Team. Follow her preparation on her Instagram. You can learn more about Elena's journey and mindset by listening to her story on the For the Long Run podcast.

Elena is one of 5 team members on our 2024 Year of the Underbird team. They've each written a blog about their experience preparing for the Olympic Marathon Trials (Carrie Verdon, Ari Hendrix, Bri Boehmer, and Molly Bookmyer). Learn more about the Year of the Underbird program here.