After her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Jessica Skarzynski turned to running as a therapeutic way to take control of her life
I’ve always had an anxious personality. Every time there was a big change in my life, I suffered from heavy bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, even back in middle school. It was tough growing up with that. Once I got out of high school and moved away to college on my own, that kicked things up to a whole new level of anxiety and depression. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, but couldn’t. I felt like I was trapped in my own body— because, at 100 pounds overweight, I physically couldn’t do a lot of the things that other girls my age could do. I felt trapped in my own mind. I was unable to just go out and have fun, because I couldn’t break out of that vicious cycle of anxiety. I made a couple of friends, but I always felt outside of things. I turned to stress eating. I was depressed, on daily anti-anxiety medication, and eventually weighed over 270 pounds. (Learn the Scary Ways Stress is Affecting Your Health.)
Then, two days before I turned 21, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was the kick in the pants that I needed to tell myself, “Okay, you really need to turn things around.” I finally realized that I could take control of my body; I had more power than I thought.
I exercised slow and steady at first. I’d sit on the bike for 45 minutes every other day watching Friends at my dorm gym. But once I started to drop weight—40 pounds in the first four months—I started to plateau. So I had to explore other options to keep myself interested in working out. I tried everything my gym offered, from kickboxing and weight lifting to group fitness and dance classes.
But I finally found my happy pace when I started running. I used to say I wouldn’t run unless I was being chased. Then, I suddenly became the girl that liked to hit the treadmill and go outside to just run until I couldn’t run anymore. I felt like, ah, this is something I can really get into.
Running became my time to clear my head. It was almost better than therapy. And at the same time that I started to increase my mileage and really get into distance running, I was actually able to wean myself off of medication and therapy. I thought, “Hey, maybe I can do a half marathon.” I ran my first race in 2010.
Of course, I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. But I when came out the other side, I thought, “Oh my gosh, running made all the difference.” Once I finally started to get healthy, I was able to make up for lost time and really live my life.
Now, I’m 31 years old, married, have lost more than 100 pounds, and just celebrated a decade of my mother being cancer-free. I've also been off medication for close to seven years.
Sure, there are times when things get a bit stressful. Sometimes, life is a struggle. But getting getting those miles in helps me cope. I tell myself, “It’s not as bad as you think it is. This doesn’t mean you have to spiral. Let’s put one foot in front of the other. Lace up your sneakers, just put the headphones on. Even if you go around the block, just go do something. Because once you get out there, you are going to feel better.” I know that it’s going to be painful, mentally, to hash things out in my head as I am running. But I know that if I don’t, it’s just going to get worse. Running never fails to raise my mood and hit my reset button.
I even tore my ACL, had surgery, and was out of commission for six months. But once I started running again—very slowly but surely—I realized I need to keep on running. I’m like a border collie: if I don’t run at least once a day, I go a little crazy.
On Sunday, March 15, I’m running the United Airlines NYC Half. I’ve been focusing on cross training and strength training in addition to running. I’ve learned when to listen to my body. It has been a long road.
I would love to run a personal record, but just finishing with a smile is my real goal. This is such a landmark race—the largest I have ever done—and only my second in New York City. During my first, the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line 5K during the TCS New York City Marathon weekend, I ran a personal best and fell in love with the streets of New York. Running the NYC Half will be a memory-making, let’s-go-out-and-have-fun experience with all the crowds and the exhilaration of racing again. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. It’s a dream come true. (Learn 30 Things We Appreciate About Running.)
I recently saw an elderly man, in his 70s or 80s, running on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ, all layered up in the 18-degree weather, doing his thing. I said to my husband, “I really hope I can be that person. As long as I live, I want to be able to get out there and run.” So as long as I can lace up and I am healthy enough, I will. Bring it on, New York!