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When trail running heals mental health issues

Trail running means more to Tommy Byrne than just physical activity. It’s about more than just a run amid billowing trees and welcoming trail. It’s an escape, an outlet and a way for him to heal.

Byrne lost his father and a couple of uncles to suicide. “Personally, I run because it’s an outlet for me for my mental health,” the Wisconsin resident says. “I really enjoy the people and the places I’ve been able to run. I like to see what I am capable of.”

He lost his dad to suicide when he was 18.

“Growing up, I saw the extreme side of when mental health goes unchecked,” says Byrne. “I was on Adderall. I wouldn’t get depressed to the extreme that you see. I would do anything for a laugh. I always compared mental health to the extreme that I saw growing up. After my dad’s death, I turned to alcohol and drugs and went through life not caring, just wanted to have fun.”

One day during the spring of 2014, Byrne — who had been sober for a couple of years at that point — didn’t feel right.

“I was not in a good place,” he recalls. “I reached out to my wife and told her that I needed to go to the doctor. I thought something was wrong. I didn’t feel myself. That was one of the hardest conversations.”

The support Byrne received from his wife, other family members and friends was instrumental in his recovery. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, saw a psychiatrist and began a treatment plan.

“I was able to find my happy place,” he says. “Seeing the extreme and not knowing what’s normal — am I supposed to feel this way? — Then there’s the feeling that people might see you differently. After I got diagnosed it became my scarlet letter — I have to hide this. After a awhile, I figured that this is dumb. I decided to be vocal about it and sharing. I think it is really encouraging for me to share and encourage others.”

The community of ultra runners

Byrne ran cross-country in high school “to stay in shape for other sports.” In adulthood, his brother challenged him to a half marathon. “Being competitive, I said, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ We did the half and then we did a full together.”

It was an inauspicious start for Byrne. He admits he didn’t know what he was doing. He always ran hard. He was frequently hurt. He didn’t train smart. “I figured that if I could push through a half marathon, I could push through a marathon.”

He discovered ultra running when he attended the North Face Endurance Challenge Series event in Wisconsin in 2015, about five years after his road races. “I saw somebody I knew finish the 50-miler,” he recalls. “With all the raw emotion, I knew I had to do that. I planned to be there the next year and that would be my race. That’s how I got into running.”

Byrne found a running group in the area with experienced ultra runners. He started running with them, picking their brains along the way. They all signed up for the North Face 50-miler in 2016.

“As soon as I got onto the trails, and off the roads, for racing, I fell in love with the community.”

‘I had no clue if I could do it’

Byrne set a goal of an eight-hour finish at the North Face race.

“I had no clue if I could do it,” he admits. “I had no gauge. But I was able to run it successfully (7:50, eighth overall). The community was amazing, as was the support from aid stations to the fellow runners to the spectators. Finding and pushing through your perceived limits are really important in the ultra distance. It’s easy to get in your own head and give up and slow down. Having a goal, whether it be aggressive or not, held me accountable.”

Within 10 days of finishing his first 50-miler, Byrne signed up for Bryce Canyon — his first 100-miler. “I guess it was the runner’s high.”

Byrne picked up Jeff Browning as a coach and subscribed to his keto diet. “Honestly having him as a coach, helped me formulate a plan and work on my diet helped make the Bryce race a success.”

He finished in 23:25 — beating his 24-hour goal — for a successful, top 10 debut at the 100-mile distance.

“Having a great support crew really helped me keep moving when I got into dark places,” Byrne said. “It’s crazy to me because it felt easy because I was so prepared. I had everything go right for me that day. Not that it was easy, but the crew, my pacers helped a lot, they had a good attitude and it was awesome. It was mentally easier than I expected. Mentally I was on. I didn’t have one time when I felt like I had to stop.”

Finding his ‘why’

With his mental demons under control and his newfound love of ultra running, Byrne wanted to do more. He wanted to help others. He focused on spreading awareness about mental health. He found his passion in his nonprofit, Bigger Than the Trail.

“That’s kind of my ‘why’ — I wanted to do more than share my story,” he says. “Originally, I was just going to blog about it but then I wanted to do something more. And that’s how Bigger Than the Trail started.

Right now, he has 19 ambassadors running for his nonprofit. The organization’s goal is to build awareness and foster a community. “We do offer treatment opportunities, free online counseling to individuals who want to take this step. We also have training opportunities for people who want to help but aren’t sure how to help. We are raising funds because we want to give somebody the support they need.”

While trail running continues to work for Byrne, he knows it’s not for everyone.

“It’s just finding an outlet for the individual,” he says. “Bigger Than the Trail isn’t about only offering help to those who trail run. I use trail running as an outlet, it’s just something that’s worked really well for me. It’s finding that passion. There is some benefit to being in nature and seeing new things. I think you can also find an outlet in road running, biking or something else that is a personal choice.”

Out of his comfort zone

Describing himself as “competitive,” Byrne ticks off a list of bucket-list races as his goals.

“I have set some hefty goals with races I would love to do. I would love to run Hardrock at some point,” he says, adding he lived in the San Juans for a summer. “It’s got a piece of my heart so I want to experience that. I want to run Western States. I love to be competitive so I set hard goals.

Byrne knows he was fortunate to find love and support when he struggled.

“Personally, I run because it’s an outlet for me for mental health,” he says. “I really enjoy the people and the place I’ve been able to run. I like to see what I am capable of as well as my nonprofit. To get people talking about mental health, that has really helped me get out to bigger races and out of my comfort zone and get others involved.”

And now, he says life is good. His support system is in place. His treatment has worked. And he’s found his passion for trail running.

“I’ve been really lucky to have this support,” Byrne says. “I know family and friends who get told to ‘suck it up.’ I think that’s really discouraging. There’s sometimes a lack of knowledge of someone who has never had to deal with it, or manage any of those states. …. I’m good. I have a good support system and treatment plan. I feel really blessed.”

Speed drill

Name: Tommy Byrne

Hometown: De Pere, WI

Number of years running: 3

How many miles a week do you typically run: 50-70

Point of pride: Starting Bigger Than The Trail

Favorite race distance: 50 mile to 100 mile

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Night before I’ve had good luck with Mexican of all things.

Favorite piece of gear: Altra Lone Peaks

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Don’t run with music

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Make it Count”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

  • Website:

  • Instagram: @biggerthanthetrail or @tbyrne17

  • Facebook:

  • Twitter: @biggerthanthe_

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