Local athlete finds an answer to adversity on the trail.

Eight years ago, Sarah Hodder began experiencing bouts of anxiety she described as crippling. During her first panic attack, she thought she was dying, as an ambulance whisked her away to the hospital. In the ensuing days, she described how “… sometimes, I couldn’t get out of bed, and other days, I wouldn’t even know my anxiety existed.” She was only 18.

Looking back, she thinks she may have always had an undercurrent of anxiety, but the panic attack pulled it to a prominent place, and everyday stressors only made it worse.

She saw a doctor, who quickly put her on anxiety medicine. But Hodder was opposed to medicating herself everyday, so she weaned herself off, and sought other solutions to cope. Some methods brought brief periods of comfort, yet nothing cured it. And then four years ago, she stumbled upon relief by sheer accident, after she started running—even though fitness was at the bottom of her priorities list (especially running).

“I always hated it,” she said. But misery from her lifestyle choices of alcohol and cigarettes propelled her to try something healthy. Running was it.

That first year, Hodder ran her first 5K, then a half-marathon. The following year, she started trail running … “and it changed everything.” She began distance running—logging a handful of 50Ks, a couple of 40-milers, a 50-miler, and two 100-milers. On the latter, she didn’t complete in her first attempt, but ran a full 71 miles. This past October, she made her second attempt at the Oil Creek 100 Trail Run in Pennsylvania, and finished.

As impressive as her ultramarathon running is, the real story is the impact on her health. She quit smoking and rarely drinks alcohol anymore. And her anxiety? “Running has given me a way to outrun my demons,” she emphasized. “For me, running hasn’t ever been about fitness or the number of calories I’m burning. For me, running is about finding quietude—a way to silence the anxiety.”

Photo ©Katherine Cobb

She still has bad days. “And those are the days it’s especially hard to get out and run,” she added. “But when I think of the days spent wrapped up in a ball of anxiety in my bed, the view from a run makes it a lot easier to get out.”

Hodder said finishing the 100-miler was significant for her in many ways, and in speaking about her experience, it’s clear she’s on an inspiring journey. She admitted being “incredibly nervous” at the start of the race.

“Not that anything would go wrong, or that I would get hurt or anything like that. I was just afraid of letting myself down again and dropping out of the race. Running any number of miles was going to be a great experience, and I knew that. But this run was about so much more to me. It was about proving to myself that I could accomplish what I set out to do. Running one hundred miles is a physical task, but it’s so much more a mental and emotional experience.”

She said she’s never experienced highs and lows like she did during the 29.5 hours it took her to run 100 miles. In fact, all was well and she was making great time for the first 70 miles. “I picked up my pacer—and savior—Ryan (now her boyfriend), at mile 62,” she explained. “And I think if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have finished. He saw me through the literal and figurative darkness of that journey. When I felt like I was in too much pain, or that the miles were going on way too long, he helped put it into perspective.”

When she finally reached the finish line, she was overcome by emotion. “After seeing two sunrises and pushing myself for nearly thirty hours, I couldn’t believe it was about to be over,” she remembered. “I almost didn’t want it to be finished. I’d met so many people during that run, had so many laughs, and learned about other people’s lives and what brought them there. It was such a humbling experience. People think a hundred-miler is a ‘race,’ but I wouldn’t consider it that at all. It’s a collective journey. And we each wanted to see the other succeed, and help him or her get there in any way we could. Much like our town here.”

Locals may know Hodder as the store manager for Two Rivers Treads in Shepherdstown, where she’s worked since 2013. Her life is running pretty smoothly now, and in sharing her story, she hopes it might help others to get theirs headed in that direction, too.

 

— Katherine is a freelance writer and novelist—and recovering addict. Find her online here.

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