Leadville 100 ultrarunner Drew Petersen talks mental health challenges

When Drew Petersen arrived at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100-mile race on Saturday, he would feel a rush of emotions beyond the joy of fulfilling a long-held dream, not to mention the inevitable anxiety that comes with attempting 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 searching for climb and ski the highest peak in any state in the Mountain West.

He lived through a dark spiritual night 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 understand why experienced suicidal thoughts for the first time before he was a teenager.

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

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

“As I have come to understand a much fuller and much more authentic version of who I am, I have also found what I believe to be my purpose on this Earth. It means helping other people and, at this point in time, changing the culture surrounding mental health in the outdoor community, in the mountain towns and the ski community.”

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

Drew Petersen climbs Red Baldy Mountain in Utah’s Wasatch on a journey to climb and ski the highest peak in any mountain state in the 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 environment,” said Petersen, 28. “The passion for running came later in life, but it came from the same place: enjoying being in the mountains for a long time. day.”

However, he knew something about him was “off”. He describes himself as a “very emotional child” and says his earliest memory of suicidal thoughts came when he was 9 or 10, but he knew nothing about mental health and had no resources to understand what was wrong. . .

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

From the outside, though, it looked like he had a wonderful 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, high up on Mount Hood, he heard the distinctive crack of falling rocks and immediately knew he was in trouble. A rock the size of a microwave oven fell from a cliff 40 meters above him, landing on his head, mid-upper back and left arm.

An artery in his left arm began to bleed, but he had no broken bones. After a climbing partner put up a fence, they skied down to a lodge where Petersen was airlifted to a Level 1 trauma center in Portland.

Drew Petersen attached climbing skins while on a 2017 quest to climb and ski the highest mountain in every mountain west state, which he shared in a short documentary, Ups and Downs.
Drew Petersen attached climbing skins while on a 2017 quest to climb and ski the highest mountain in every state in the Mountain West, 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 was unbroken, despite how deep the crack was. The helmet saved my life. I literally walked out of the hospital. In many ways I was the luckiest man on the planet that day to be relatively well physically. But I had to get over 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 ever, but it would be 15 months before he finally broke down and asked for 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 problems to make his life a nightmare.

“I felt like a ghost, following my body around, watching it go through the motions of life, but I wasn’t really there,” Petersen said. “It turned into a really dark depression and kept going deeper until I was thinking about killing myself. I got to a point where I would rather have killed myself than seek help. Fortunately, I asked for help.”

He needed a lot. He received extensive brain rehabilitation for post-concussion symptoms that included neurological deficits in vision, speed, balance and auditory processing. He was diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder, which he now believes he had when he was growing up. He also became sober.

“My relationship with alcohol was a huge negative for my life and my mental illness,” Petersen said. “The resignation was wonderful. It is a massively positive influence in my life every day. I really can’t imagine life without sobriety.”

He is under psychiatric treatment. He practices mindfulness meditation and makes the focus of gratitude a daily practice. He says he’s built better friendships and relationships based on “genuine emotional vulnerability and depth” and calls those 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 issues in a short documentary, “Ups and Downs,” which can be viewed on YouTube. He eagerly shares advice for others experiencing the dark places he no longer inhabits.

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

“The other half of this is the strength part. It also means that every person on this planet has the strength to make it to the other side, to wake up tomorrow and build a better life. The strongest thing 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 Hope Pass in training for the Leadville Trail 100 ultra race. Hope Pass is considered the hardest part of the legendary high altitude ultra, often called the “Race Beyond the Sky.” Petersen competed in that race last weekend.

On the Leadville 100 trail, often called the “Race Across the Sky,” runners cover 100 miles of high altitude with more than 15,000 feet of climbing. In a lengthy interview last week, the only time Petersen’s voice cracked with emotion was when he talked about the 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 early Sunday morning with a time of 24 hours. , 32 minutes and 3 seconds. “Something I kept telling myself was that if I can get through this, if I can survive to see tomorrow, if I can get out of bed, then I can do absolutely anything. I can climb any mountain, I can ski any line, and I can run 100 miles. I’m getting excited because that goal – running 100 miles – became a real lifeline for me, and something I’m really grateful I was able to pull on to keep 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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