Leadville 100 ultrarunner Drew Petersen talks mental health challenges

When Drew Petersen crossed the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100-mile race on Saturday, he was bound to feel a rush of emotions beyond the joy of fulfilling a long-held dream, not to mention the inevitable anxiety what is involved in trying one. of America’s most grueling ultras.

He’s lucky to be alive, and not just because he survived a potentially fatal accident on Oregon’s Mount Hood in 2017. While climbing to the summit to ski, a large rock fell on his head while he was on a research for climbing and skiing. the highest peak in all of the Mountain West states.

He lived through a dark night of the soul after the accident that included post-traumatic stress disorder, post-concussion syndrome, suicidal thoughts, brain injury rehabilitation and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 2. The latter helped him to understand why he first experienced suicidal thoughts before he was even a teenager.

Petersen, a professional backcountry skier and trail runner who grew up in Silverthorne, is on a mission to talk about his mental health journey and encourage those suffering to seek help.

“I’m not religious, but I’m a spiritual person,” Petersen said this week. “I’m not sure if this (the accident at Mount Hood) happened for a reason, from a higher being perspective, but I’m so grateful for this moment. I’m so grateful that a rock fell on me. I survived because of a lot more than just an inch and a half of plastic (helmet) and high density foam.

“As I have realized a much more complete and much more authentic version of who I am, I have also found what I believe to be my purpose on this Earth. That’s helping other people and, in that moment, changing the culture around mental health in the outdoor community, in the mountain towns, and in the ski community.”

Petersen was skiing before her second birthday and became passionate about the sport at an early age.

Drew Petersen climbs Red Baldy Mountain in Utah’s Wasatch on a trip to climb and ski the state’s highest peak in the mountain west in 2017, a story told in his short documentary film, Ups and Downs.

“The mountains have always been where I found myself and felt most connected to myself and my surroundings,” Petersen, 28, said. “The passion for running came later in life, but it came from the same place: enjoying being in the mountains for long days.”

Still, he knew something about him was “off.” He describes himself as a “very emotional kid” and says his first memory of suicidal thoughts came when he was 9 or 10, but he didn’t know anything about mental health and didn’t have the resources to figure out what was going on. .

His depression and suicidal thoughts continued into adulthood, and he coped in “unhealthy ways”, which mainly meant taking skiing to the extreme and developing an “abusive relationship” with ‘alcohol.

From the outside, though, it looked like he had a great life. He appeared in dozens of ski films and on the cover of ski magazines. The turning point came in the spring of 2017 when he set out to climb and ski the highest peaks in Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. Nine peaks into the trip, atop Mount Hood, he heard the characteristic crash of falling rocks and instantly knew he was in trouble. A rock the size of a microwave oven fell from a cliff 40 feet above him, landing on his head, mid-upper back and left arm.

An artery in his left arm began to ooze blood, but he had no broken bones. After a fellow climber applied a tourniquet, they skied down to a shelter where Petersen was airlifted to a Level 1 trauma center in Portland.

Drew Petersen dons climbing skins while on a mission in 2017 to climb and ski the highest mountain in the entire state in the Mountain West, which he shared in a short documentary, Ups and Downs.
Drew Petersen dons climbing skins while on a mission in 2017 to climb and ski the highest mountain in all of the Mountain West states, which he shared in a short documentary, “Ups and Downs.”

“I walked away relatively unscathed,” Petersen recalls. “They were able to restore blood flow to my arm, so I was able to keep my arm. Amazingly, it didn’t break, despite the depth of the laceration. My helmet saved my life. I literally walked out of the ‘hospital. In many ways I was the luckiest human being on the planet that day, to be relatively well physically. But I did have to go through that experience, and the scars it left on my mind were a real injury. I just didn’t know how to approach them at the time.”

He fell into a darker place than he had ever been, but it was 15 months before he finally broke down and sought help. Only then would he learn that he had suffered a previously undiagnosed severe concussion in the accident, which had combined with his pre-existing mental health issues to turn his life into a nightmare.

“I felt like a ghost, following my body around, watching it go through the motions of life, but not really being there,” Petersen said. “This turned into a very dark depression and continued to deepen until I thought about killing myself. I got to a point where I would have rather killed myself than sought help. Fortunately, I sought help.”

I needed it a lot. He received extensive brain rehabilitation for post-concussion symptoms that included neurological deficits in vision, speed, balance and auditory processing. She was diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder, which she now believes she had while growing up. He also sobered up.

“My relationship with alcohol was very negative for my life and my mental illness,” Petersen said. “Quitting smoking was great. It’s a huge positive influence on my life every day. I really can’t imagine life without sobriety.”

He is taking psychiatric medication. Practice mindfulness meditation and make the focus of gratitude a daily practice. He says he’s built better friendships and relationships based on “real emotional vulnerability and depth” and calls these things his “toolkit.” Skiing and running are part of that toolkit, but they’re not all he’s got. Not like they used to be.

Petersen tells the story of his journey to ski those 11 western peaks, the accident and his mental health struggles in a short documentary, “Ups and Downs,” which can be viewed on YouTube. He candidly shares advice for others experiencing the dark places he no longer inhabits.

“Strength and struggle are equal parts of the shared human experience,” Petersen said. “We all experience both, and it’s normal for every human on this planet to struggle and give voice to the struggles I’ve experienced. I’ve learned how normal they really are and how many people have felt the way I have.

“The other half is the piece of strength. This also means that every human being on this planet has the strength to get to the other side, to wake up tomorrow and build a better life. The strongest that you can do is ask for help. It’s one of the strongest things I’ve ever done in my life. I can tell you it takes a lot more strength than running 100 miles, or anything I’ve ever done with a pair of skis.”

Drew Petersen takes a selfie while running through Hope Pass in training for the Leadville Trail 100 ultrarace. Hope Pass is considered the toughest part of the legendary high-altitude ultra, often called “The Race Across the Sky.” Petersen competed in this race last weekend.

In the Leadville Trail 100, often called “The Race Across the Sky,” runners cover 100 miles at high altitude with more than 15,000 cumulative feet of climbing. In a lengthy interview last week, the only time Petersen’s voice cracked with emotion was when he talked about race.

“When I was really struggling in deep, dark, depressive episodes, it was really hard to find any reason to keep going,” said Petersen, who finished the race Sunday morning in a time of 24 hours, 32 minutes and 3 seconds. “Something I kept telling myself was if I can get through this, if I can survive to see tomorrow, if I can get out of bed, then I can do anything. I can climb any mountain, I can ski any line and i can run 100 miles I’m getting excited because this goal, to run 100 miles, became a real lifesaver for me, and something I’m so grateful I was able to use to keep me moving.

“I don’t have to prove to myself that I can do it. I’ve been through (things) that are much harder and much more painful and require much more strength. So running 100 miles for me is a celebration of life itself, of being alive.”

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