BY: MARIA J. BURGOS
Andrew Titus was lying beside his sick two-year-old son the day he first thought of running. The anxiety and sadness he’d known well as a teenager floated to the surface again. But this time, at 35, the bullies were not tough cigarette-smoking sons of bitches. This time, they took the shape of a fever that consumed his little boy.
Titus grabbed a random book from the nightstand trying to calm his nerves and read the first page. It was an essay about a man going bouldering—a form of rock climbing without ropes to hold you. I asked if he remembers the name of this book or the author. He doesn’t. What he remembers clearly is the excitement and curiosity that pushed down the anxiety.
The next essay in the book was about climbing Everest.
“From somewhere that I had never accessed, my mind exploded with excitement,” he said. “I recall looking at my sleeping son and thinking, very clearly, that the eyes through which I was looking at him now were not at all the eyes that I had looked at him through not two hours beforehand. Maybe it wasn’t over.”
Titus had run before. On many occasions, in fact. As a teenager, he ran away from bullies and from feelings. But never before in his life had he thought of running towards something, to reach a place, rather than to escape one. Never before had he thought of running towards life, instead of against it. Until then.
* * *
From that day, Titus read about mountains. Being an adjunct English professor and a professional landscaper, reading and nature were always his thing. He became an expert on Everest, the Seven Summits and even on mountain legends. But it all remained as distant dreams and cheap talk. He was nothing more than an “armchair adventurer.”
“I had convinced myself that it wasn’t over, but my gut didn’t buy that, so I filled it full of wine and empty dreams and I became my own worst story: a drunken hypocrite,” Titus recalled.
But just like a fever can end inexplicably, Titus described that his will woke up when he was 41 years old. “A titan that I had rendered nearly dead in two long decades of ignorance, debauchery, and self-loathing, came roaring to the surface,” he said.
So he bought a pair of sneakers. And he ran.
“I ran quite literally towards life instead of away from it. I ran through the woods and the mid and the rain; I ran in knee-deep snow and nearly unbearable heat. I ran alone and with others. Running, it saved my life. Or, perhaps more accurately put, it gave me the life that I was meant to live,” Titus said.
To run, he had to give up drinking, smoking, crappy eating habits, and his bad attitude. But at the same time he picked up honesty, integrity, a healthy diet and as he said, “genuine bliss.”
The change was also physical. “I lost about 45 pounds… I also gained lots of muscle — first in my legs and then everywhere. It was kind of surprising as that was not at all what I was after with running,” he said.
After some time, Titus got pretty good at running. So he raced.
“I have won one 50k, two 5k, and one 100k. I have come in first in my age group in another 5k, a duathlon, and another 100k.”
Every time he wins he feels utter surprise. “Kilian Jornet (a Spanish runner and mountaneer) once said that the winner of a race isn’t necessarily the person who crosses the finish line first as much as the one who has accomplished an incredible dream, has made the impossible real. I feel like that every single time I make it to the finish line. I can’t believe that I do this thing,” he said.
But really, Titus doesn’t race to win. “I only ever race against one person — the person I used to be. That guy — I don’t hate him, but I am out to kick his ass.”
* * *
Running, for some like Titus, is more than just exercise. It’s also therapy against anxiety and depression.
Dr. James S. Gordon, MD, an expert in using mind-body medicine to heal depression, told The Washington Post that, “Physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed … It changes the level of serotonin in your brain. It changes, increases their levels of ‘feel good’ hormones, the endorphins. And also it can increase the number of cells in your brain, in the region of the brain, called the hippocampus.”
Titus believes this is only part of the story.
“The real ‘runner’s high’ comes from the triumvirate of being in nature daily, the great self-esteem that grows when you challenge yourself and overcome (from often failing but not giving up on yourself), and the excellent company that you come to keep… In Buddhism these are called the three treasures: the Buddha (you, being cool with yourself and the world), the Sangha (the homies you hang with), and the Dharma (the teaching that is your everyday life in nature and with others). So yeah, it cures depression.”
* * *
For Titus, his greatest accomplishment as a runner was ever starting: waking up and realizing that there was still time to turn his life around. That it wasn’t over yet.
Now, the 46-year-old athlete runs 15 hours per week and ‘cross trains’ (either bike, ski, hikes, etc.) for another 10 hours.
I asked Titus what his future plans were in regards to running. He said, “To keep at it. Forever.”