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Ultra-running scientist exudes joy and resilience

When Mikel Haggadone started working toward his PhD, he also kicked off a journey involving disordered eating, depression and self-discovery through running.

Meaningful friendships evaporated. A long-term relationship ended. His self-confidence plummeted.

“I’m still trying to fully understand what triggered it, but ultimately I believe it was a matter of control,” says Haggadone, who wrote about his experience in Science Magazine in a column titled “Ultrarunning made me a more resilient scientist.” “Through that turmoil, I turned to my diet as the one thing that I could control — obsessively.”

Haggadone tracked every calorie he took in or lost while maintaining a deficit of at least 1,000 calories per day. He lost a lot of weight quickly, but would gain it all back by bingeing. Feeling shamed, he would then lose it all once again.

“For over two years, I struggled with these oscillations, and I was subject to comments from some of my loved ones about being ‘way too skinny,’” he remembers. ”I experienced so much body shaming, both internally and externally. Throughout those two years, I also dealt with significant, ever-present depression that ultimately forced me to leave my first graduate program.”

He left Stanford University to continue his doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. But he didn’t just transfer institutions of higher learning, he transitioned his approach to mental health.

“I was so deeply unhappy,” Haggadone says. “Realizing how hard mental illness can be is why I advocate for more awareness and action surrounding the issue today. Especially in academia, this is a major problem that needs to be addressed with love and empathy. To say that things are better now would be an understatement, but I’m always hesitant to use the word ‘recovered.’”

It’s a battle he continues to wage today. He sees a therapist to work through challenges with food and depression. “Although I rarely experience those crippling lows anymore, I’m really trying to love the full spectrum of my emotions, and to realize that it’s OK to not always feel OK. I expect this will always be true. But I can honestly say that there is so much more love in my heart these days, both for myself and for others. Living that out is my core intention in life.”

The ’impossible task’ of a half marathon

In addition to his therapy sessions, Haggadone also finds peace with his running and training. He had not been active earlier, admitting that he rarely exercised in high school or while getting his bachelor’s at Michigan.

About five years ago, just prior to starting graduate school at Stanford, he started running casually “as a means to get in shape.” His weekly mileage was around 10 to 20 miles, mostly on the treadmill. When he returned to Ann Arbor in 2016, a classmate invited him to run a half marathon, “which at the time seemed like an impossible task.”

Haggadone trained for and completed the 2016 Ann Arbor Half Marathon, his linchpin to get into long-distance running.

“My ‘why’ certainly has evolved over time, but one thing that has kept constant since completing that first race is realizing how emotionally uninhibited I am while running,” he says. “Since starting graduate school, I’ve struggled with depression, a lack of self-acceptance, and an inability to be in the present moment. Running has become an incredibly centering activity for me to explore my emotions without judgment. When combined with therapy, it has really helped me to manage and even leverage my mental health struggles to experience joy in life.”

‘A love for running in nature’

From that road half marathon, it did not take Haggadone long to embrace trail and ultra-running.

“I pretty quickly found a love for running in nature, and because the majority of ultras are run on trails, I naturally gravitated toward those distances,” he says. “I’ve actually had so much fun stepping down in distance and racing 13.1 or 26.2 miles on trails this year, not to mention that these ‘shorter’ races are awesome for developing speed.”

Still he finds a fulfilling combination of joy and challenge in ultras.

“The later stages of ultra-distance races really test my ability to be with my emotions, smile through discomfort, and embrace uncertainty,” says Haggadone, who won the Hungerford Trail Marathon this year, even though he went off course for over two miles. “Every time I get to the start line of an ultra, I acknowledge the risk of failure, smile at the fear I’m feeling in that moment, and then embrace the courage I’m showing to just go for it. It’s such an incredibly empowering experience.”

His victory, however, is not what makes Hungerford memorable. “Upon realizing that I was WAY off course, I smiled, turned around, and focused on getting back on track. That’s responding to setback with grace, and for me that’s success. Coach (David) Roche uses the phrase, ‘Shoot your shot.’ That’s what I’m trying to do in life: shoot my shot, let it rip, and allow success to flow from living with unreserved authenticity.”

While Haggadone’s fitness has improved so that he can compete in races, his emotional growth is key to his success — on the trails and in his PhD. “What I care about is committing myself to the beauty of each and every single moment, dynamically responding to the challenges presented during a journey, and lovingly accepting myself no matter the result.”

The David Roche experience

For those who know Coach Roche, they can attest that positivity courses through his veins. His “give no fucks, embrace joy everywhere” is precisely what Haggadone needed as a human, runner and scientist.

“Oh my gosh, to say that Coach Roche has been one of the most influential people in my life would be an understatement,” he says. “We started working together in August 2018, and in the time since, he’s been there through some significant highs and lows, both in my running and personal/professional life. Doing a PhD while training as a long-distance runner is so challenging, and he’s always helping me find that balance of stress vs. rest.”

Roche’s approach to coaching is a combination of right-brain, left-brain. Data is used to create training plans on a spreadsheet. Kindness is used to keep the athlete balanced.

“I’ve never had someone in my corner who is so unconditionally accepting, so empowering, and so immersed in my experience as a human being,” Haggadone says. “During the lows, he is the one encouraging me to accept and love my whole self, especially the undesirable things. During the highs, he reminds me that my purpose in life is to spread love, not to chase outcomes. I would not be where I am today, publicly advocating for more love in academia, if not for David’s encouragement, and his coaching philosophy has become the foundation for how I hope to build my career as a mentor and educator to students. David truly has tapped into this well of emotional strength that I had yet to explore — I believe in myself again, and he is a major reason why.”

Not only do Haggadone and I share a coach, we are also both members of Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT), a support group that promotes mental health awareness through trail running. He first heard of BTTT from an interview with Tommy Byrne, the group’s founder.

“Inspired by the vulnerability to speak so openly about mental illness and how trail running has helped him work through his struggles, I immediately wanted to get involved,” Haggadone recalls. “To run for BTTT is an incredible privilege, and I take time to reflect on this before wearing team apparel at any race. My primary intention set before the start of every event is to support, encourage and be a champion for other runners. This is so much more important to me than ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’”

‘Fascinated by resilience’

Even though Haggadone is getting his PhD in Immunology, he refers to himself as a cell biologist. His research focuses on an immune cell called the alveolar macrophage, the guardian of the lung.

“I study how this cell communicates with other cells around it to orchestrate a homeostatic environment, even in the face of encountering the constant barrage of toxins, allergens and pathogens that we all breathe in on a daily basis.”

It’s easy to see the correlation between his running and PhD work.

“It’s been interesting to reflect on how my scientific and personal interests have co-evolved throughout my PhD,” he says. “I’m fascinated by resilience — absolutely captivated by it. All while growing as an ultra-runner, discovering my own inner resilience and seeing that quality shine in so many other amazing human beings, I’ve also gravitated toward trying to understand how resilience manifests at the cellular level. How does a cell respond to a stress stimulus? What changes does it make while experiencing stress to alter its own behavior as well as the behavior of the cells surrounding it? This theme — the interplay between stress, response, and adaptation — is something I hope to continue exploring for the rest of my career.”

When deciding to go public with his story, Haggadone was inspired by another Roche athlete, Amelia Boone.

“I really started to appreciate the impact that stories can have on people going through similar struggles,” he says. “For example, I was moved by the vulnerability that Amelia Boone showed in coming forward about her eating disorder, and I watched how that act of courage tangibly and productively influenced dialogue surrounding the issue.”

At this time, Haggadone saw a “profound absence of vulnerability in science. In the community, we rarely talk about emotions, dealing with failure, navigating setbacks, and we almost never address the human experience of battling mental illness.”

Simply being amazing

And that is what led to his commentary in Science.

“I really believed that by demonstrating radical vulnerability, I might help move the needle on this issue. I chose to write about this story in the context of my experiences as an ultra-runner because I believed that doing so conveyed a really important message: it’s not the outcome of anything in life that matters, it’s the courage to embark on a scary journey that defines success. To do something hard, to believe in yourself, to commit to uncertainty — that’s freaking AMAZING. That’s success in its purest form. Ultra-runners live that out on a daily basis, as do scientists. So, courage is what we should be celebrating, not outcomes. Because if we celebrate courage in academia, then literally every single scientist has met the threshold for success. Everyone belongs. Everyone is amazing. And despite what the current narrative communicates, science doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Ultimately, I wrote the article to push back on this narrative and present an alternative definition of success immersed in love and unconditional acceptance. You bet I’ll continue doing so for the rest of my career.”

The reaction from both communities — ultra-runners and scientists — was overwhelmingly positive, Haggadone says.

“As I anticipated, there were many scientists who loved the piece given their passion for endurance sports,” he explains. “But the responses that really filled my cup were those expressing gratitude for the courage to be so open about my biggest failure in life, and to write so publicly about my struggle with mental illness. It’s amazing how deeply you can connect with people based on shared experiences — I believe that this type of vulnerability beautifully facilitates community support, which is so very important in life.”

In his piece he mentioned a final slide that he uses in his presentations, which reads, “YOU ARE AMAZING.”

“It was also incredible to receive numerous messages from fellow PhD students and tenured faculty members who expressed their intention to end presentations with the slide I wrote about. To think that hundreds, possibly thousands, of students in traditional learning spaces will now hear that amazingness is intrinsic to the human experience absolutely blows my mind.”

Speed drill

Name: Mikel Haggadone

Hometown: Grand Ledge, Mich.

Number of years running: 3.5 years of consistency and dedicated training.

How many miles a week do you typically run: Anywhere from 40 to 75 depending on life stress and where I am in a training cycle.

Point of pride: Being a source of joy and positivity, both in running and in my personal/professional life!

Favorite race distance: 50K currently (I’m certain that will change over time!).

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Any Spring energy gel, but SPEEDNUT in particular for longer ultras.

Favorite piece of gear: My Bigger Than The Trail race singlet and Some Work, All Play Adventure Team trucker hat!

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I’m a big music fan so this is always changing, but currently it’s “Bloom” by Great Grandpa.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: My go-to mantra for when things tough in a race is “Commit yourself to the beauty of this moment.”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

  • Instagram: @mikelhaggadone

  • Twitter: @mikelhaggadone

  • Facebook: Mikel Haggadone

  • Bigger Than The Trail Fundraising Page:

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