Cover Art_Black Letters

My Dank, Nasty Stairwell

by Joseph Miller

When I train for ultras, it is common for people to look at me like I am insane. This happens most often when I tell people how far I run or they see me running on a difficult hiking trail. The most common place I see it is in a dank stairwell inside the University of Maine Memorial Fieldhouse. The bulk of my training consists of running up and down three flights of stairs. It has also become my most effective PTSD treatment, an exposure therapy of my own design that—like most of my best coping strategies—came from luck and introspection.

Not so long ago, every time I raced, I suffered from terrible panic attacks. My times were bad, and in one case I was hospitalized for three days because my muscles metabolized themselves. Running was my only outlet, but it was miserable. Not the good kind of miserable that comes from your best effort, but rather it was the panicky, sickness, and migraine-ridden awful that comes with serious PTSD and mTBI.

I worked hard on my issues in therapy, and I ran a 50k and a marathon without attacks, but two weeks later I had my worst attack during a six-mile trail run. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. When I didn’t exercise the attacks increased, but they were the worst at races. The day after my worst attack I decided to run stairs at the University of Maine. It was miserable, but not in the sick, headachy PTSD way. It was gratifying. I watched the football team look up at me like I was a mad man while they practiced. They came and went because it was too hot, but not me. That day something changed.

A week later, I bought a topo map and was running up the closest mountain to my house once a week. I also ran the stairs at the university’s football stadium. Every time I ran up the stadium, I was panicking for about 20 minutes and then I would be solid. Over time I did not panic at all, unless an injury kept me off the mountain or stadium. I was climbing over 10,000 feet a week, doing four-hour workouts. Then I ran my hardest race of the year, a 9-mile run with four summits of Bradbury Mountain, and despite a significant sprain early on I shattered my previous record. I was finally making gains. It wasn’t long before I ran my first sub 10-hour 50-miler at JFK in Western Maryland. More importantly I was smiling and enjoying every moment of the race.

When I decided to start running the three flight of stairs inside of the university field house, I made a key connection and another stride forward—with PTSD. I suffered a concussion in Iraq when an IED blew up outside of a house I was occupying. It had an excellent vantage point inside of a stairwell. As a platoon leader, I tried to sleep and stay with the soldiers on guard so if there was a problem I would be there when it happened. So I was there when the IED blew up a Bradley fighting vehicle.

Stairwells became triggers for my PTSD, the nauseating feeling of a blast concussion, and the frustration of having a bomb blow up right under my nose. The dark, ill-used stairwell in the field house reminds me of that day, and while PTSD makes me want to avoid those sensations, it was more important that I faced it. I was taking those negative sensations away from that place and it has become a place of strength.

Now I purposefully play music that I listened to a lot in Iraq, just to add another layer of stress and to cause panic. With every workout I am gaining more control of my PTSD. I add PTSD stressors like I add mileage, by consistently building up in little intervals. It is so meaningful to me to do my best therapy in a building named to honor University of Maine Veterans and the fallen from the First World War.

I was featured in a March 2014 article in Runner’s World that describes research on veterans who use running to manage their PTSD. It says that with exercise, PTSD symptoms diminish overtime in a permanent fashion, but I disagree. After that tour in Iraq I returned for the surge during the terrible Sunni Shia sectarian violence in east Baghdad, and I have to say that there was just too much to mourn and process.

Rather than a long-term cure, running my stairwell as often as I do continually provides temporary relief. Anytime I get injured and have to take time off, I start at the beginning again: just like starting from scratch after a big race. Even exercise doesn’t help very much when I am exposed to high levels of stress—like when I am in a major city, or if I see or smell other people’s blood, when I have to speak in public, or on the anniversaries of particularly violent days in Iraq. However, I have refined my stress workout system so well that it takes less time when I have a setback. It is now a lot like spraining an ankle, or road/trail rash, because I have a system of managing PTSD. Running is not a cure-all, but it continuously makes me better at dealing with PTSD and gives me not only the courage to face triggers, but also the confidence that comes from facing a problem head on.

Combat was terrible, and I naturally avoided reminders of it. Over time this allowed PTSD to take control of every aspect of my life. Following my gut and exercising was miserable in all the wrong ways at first, but overtime it helped me key in on the specific strategies that help me cope. It also is extremely healthy.

I imagine that with time, it will lead you to your own dank stairwell and provide you the stamina, fortitude, and perseverance to expose yourself to those reminders, so that you can be more present with your loved ones and at your workplace. Also, the unmistakable “that-guy-is-a-bad-ass” look on peoples’ faces a couple times a week really makes me confident.

After all, if you have PTSD, you are a badass. You endured something so miserable it permanently damaged your brain. That is awesome, not shameful, and it is valuable to take some time every day and remind yourself of that.

Ultra-running will always be a doorway to feeling the way you should, and might also teach you more about yourself and how hard you can go. Sign up for your first ultra and let it break you, because that will remind you that you know how to drive on when you are broken. If you didn’t know, then how would you have survived? For me a dank, nasty stairwell was something that once made me sick. Now it is the place where I climb 15,000 feet a week, and that helps me feel ready for anything life has to throw at me.