Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 51 - Bobby O'Donnell - RUNNING WILD - Part 1 of 3

Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is, it’s still odd to consider myself an author and I don’t always do that. But it was never meant to be a book was the big thing. And I had done so much traveling in such a short period of time and I was going all over the world and running these races.

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“Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is, it’s still odd to consider myself an author and I don’t always do that. But it was never meant to be a book was the big thing. And I had done so much traveling in such a short period of time and I was going all over the world and running these races. And it was my dad who kind of said to me, he’s like, you’re doing all these things right now.

If you don’t keep some sort of journal, you’re gonna get old like me, and you’re gonna forget it. So, I just started jotting notes down. And my story started with the Boston Marathon bombing and that’s what really the trauma from that and the depression and the PTSD is what forced me out the front door and got me running all these races.”

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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today has done a fair number of things. He’s hiked the Appalachian Trail, he’s finished three different Ironmans, he is a paramedic by trades. So, he’s still working right now amid all of the craziness with COVID-19.

But most importantly, and what we’re probably gonna talk about a lot today, he’s the author of the upcoming book, Running Wild: A Quest of Healing Across Seven Continents. Welcome to the show, Bobby O’Donnell.

BOBBY: Jesse, thanks so much for having me. Appreciate it.

JESSE: Yeah, I appreciate you coming on. It’s always nice to talk to authors because I know that there is a lot of work that goes on and to getting a book– to finishing a book, number one, but then getting your book actually ready to publish is actually a different ball game.

BOBBY: No idea. No idea.

JESSE: So, first, I mean, I think Joe said you know Matt Fitzgerald or you’re friends with Matt, something like that?

BOBBY: Yeah, yeah. I had a loose connection with him.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. So, I’ve had Matt on and obviously, he’s got, I think 20 some odd books to his name nowadays. So, it’s like old hat for him. But one of the things I’m always curious about is why put yourself through the pain of writing the book? I mean, obviously, you have a story to tell, but there’s so much work involved. What’s the payoff for you for doing it?

BOBBY: Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is, it’s still odd to consider myself an author and I don’t always do that. But it was never meant to be a book was the big thing. And I had done so much traveling in such a short period of time and I was going all over the world and running these races. And it was my dad who kind of said to me, he’s like, you’re doing all these things right now. If you don’t keep some sort of journal, you’re gonna get old like me, and you’re gonna forget it.

So, I just started jotting notes down. And my story started with the Boston Marathon bombing and that’s what really the trauma from that and the depression and the PTSD is what forced me out the front door and got me running all these races. And I never really explained to people why I was doing what I was doing.

It was kind of that I disappeared out of people’s lives and I was going all over the place. And I thought that maybe if I wrote all of it down, it might be a good way to explain to friends and family why I was doing what I was doing.

JESSE: So, at the end of the day, if you’ve got the book on your shelf is it is a matter of like, I can pick that back up and look through it and say, I didn’t remember all the details that I’ve got here now and I can think about those things and kind of think about the journey you went through?

BOBBY: Yeah, partially, I think that’s a big part of it. But what ultimately led to the decision for publishing is when– I was pretty excited when I put all these pieces of journal together, and I guess it was all just documents on my laptop because I was writing on trains and planes and boats and buses all over the world. And I put all of it together and I said, “Oh my God, I wrote this book.”

And then I read it and it was horrible. It was absolutely terrible. It’s kind of all this disjointed bits of information, which was slightly disappointing. And then I just kind of went through it again, and I gave it to a friend. And what he said to me was that anyone can read a timeline of events. Anyone can read details about a certain place or a certain race. But what they don’t know is how you were feeling when you were doing it and everything, those personal details.

So, when I went back, and I put all that through it, and then I realized that I kind of needed to tell the beginning of the story, which is the Boston Marathon bombing, and that’s when– because I do public speaking. And when I do these talks, that’s kind of the juicy thing that people want to hear about it. They want to hear about the marathon bombing.

So, that was the first two chapters of the book were the last chapters that I ended up writing. And when I started working with Mascot Books and they’re the publishing team there, the big thing was they wanted more details about April 15, 2013. So, it was kind of revisiting that and putting all those details in and then fitting it back together.

So, when I finally had this finished product, I wasn’t entirely sure I did want to put it out there because all of a sudden, all of these strangers would have access to this incredibly personal part of my life. And what led to the decision to actually publish it as I’ve gone through so much.

And when I look at all these heroes that have inspired me, and have really helped me through some of these hard times through their writing or their TED Talks, or whatever it is, they seem so far above me and they’ve done so much and they’ve accomplished so many things.

So, they’re professional athletes and I’m not. And I’m really just kind of– I’m 26 now, [??? 05:57] was 19 when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. And I was kind of 20 through 23 when I was running all these races, and I thought that people might be able to relate to me through this.

And if the book, the published book could help anyone get through whatever it is they’re going through and it just helped one person, then that would make it all worth it. It would make worth having my story out there and that’s why I decided to publish it.

JESSE: Well, I think, to your credit, or in some sense, thinking about your relatability [??? 06:24] about the pro-athletes, we look up to pro athletes as the aspiration. Like part of my story, which people that listen to the podcast know is that I spent eight years post-college trying to become a pro triathlete. So, it’s like we have these thoughts and aspirations, like I’d like to be like that.

But at the same time, it could be hard to identify with those people because like you said, they’re up there in the cloud, like they don’t– [??? 06:54] it’s not part of who I am. But then I think maybe that makes your story more relatable in the sense of like– I don’t know anything about your running times or anything like that, but just coming from the place of what you’ve mentioned that if you’re average, whatever that means, it’s easier for someone to be like, well, Bobby’s doing it.

I can do it, or I can do the thing that I want to do. And I can be inspired by the story that an “average” quote-unquote, person is, is doing.

BOBBY: Right. And I think that was huge. And when I first left, when I did my first trip outside the United States, I was 20. And that first trip was a medical mission trip to Nicaragua. And that’s what ended up inspiring me to realize hey, there’s this beautiful place in the world that I had never even known about. And if I run I can see more of it.

And there has to be so many more places around the world that I can go do this and it makes me feel good and it made me learn to love running again and overcoming this trauma.

So, the next trip to do that in my first race outside the US was in Australia. And that was really like my first big international trip, I didn’t come from a background of traveling. My parents had hardly ever left the country.

And it was just this big thing that I just decided to go out and do it. It wasn’t that I was predisposed to having an adventurous background. And that’s why I think that it’s huge for people to realize that all you have to do is make the decision to go do it.

JESSE: Well, I mean, that’s the scariest part, though, right? It’s like you’re set in your routine and right now everybody’s routine is disrupted. But typically you have a routine. Monday, I get up and go to work, and then Tuesday I do the same thing. And then Friday, I crash on the couch and I maybe play some video games or go out with friends on the weekend, and I do it all over again.

And you have to like forcibly disrupt your own routine to make these things happen like you’ve done. So, I think that’s probably the hardest part. Do you remember any kind of like, mental trepidation or like anxiety about doing it and what kind of pushed you over the edge. Like to move forward?

BOBBY: Yeah, it was huge. I mean, and I would say now like, especially my speaking is the Boston Marathon bombing undoubtedly was the worst day of my life. But it took that day for everything else good to happen after that. In the immediate days, weeks, months, even years following the marathon bombing, I was overwhelmed with this feeling of guilt more than anything else that I was responsible for having my family there.

If I wasn’t running that day, and they weren’t there to support me, then they wouldn’t have been there and then they had to go through [??? 09:34] stuff. So, it was so important to me to make sure that they were okay and to focus so much more on their mental health that I neglected my own thing and it just bled into this really bad rabbit hole.

Then a year and a half later, I was a complete mess and I realized that I needed to do something about it. I was running, anyone I’m sure that listens to this, running is their stress relief or cycling or getting into the pool or like doing interval training like hammering your body out; it was this not so stressful even all of a sudden, it was the exact opposite that triggered anxiety.

It was just anytime I heard the beep on my watch or I was lacing my running shoes, it just reminded me of that day. And I needed to figure out how to get running back.

And I think that initially, I thought that I needed closure by finishing the Boston Marathon the next year. So, as much as I didn’t want to go back in the city again besides this anxiety about being in crowded places or [??? 10:31] similar situation. I was like, maybe I just need to get back in it and cross that finish line. And the biggest thing is when I crossed the finish line in 2014, nothing had changed.

And that’s when I realized I was like, all right, I’ve tried all these things. I’ve tried counseling, and none of it’s working. I need to do something totally different. And when you talk about routine, like I grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and we had great parents I was well looked after. I didn’t really face any adversity growing up, and so I never felt the need to change my routine.

I never felt the need to take a risk or do something different. But that’s what it finally was. I was like, I need to do something entirely different. And that’s what led to start traveling.

JESSE: One thing I wanted to ask you about is whether you’ve done any kind of counseling prior to going off on your journey. I don’t recall the episode now, late 30s, early 40s. But one of the more popular episodes with Mike Haggadone; we talked a lot about like mental health and running.

He’s an ultra-marathoner. And one of the things we discussed is like, is running therapy, therapy versus like therapeutic because a lot of people talk about running is my therapy, which is obviously or I would say, obviously your case where it’s like it’s [??? 11:51] it’s very therapeutic… And so it’s kind of interesting to see different people’s perspectives on it.

And I’ll be candid and say I agree with Mike that running is not therapy, in the sense that, like therapy has a prescribed method. I’m sure whoever you saw or went with, they had a method of like, let’s work through this by doing this, this, and that.

And I find this in my own life that running has these almost intangible therapeutic qualities; things that are not we’ll do Step A, then Step B, then Step C that affects us. So, it’s interesting to see you guys both kind of live in a similar world in the sense of like, having things to work through and then coming out with completely different perspectives.

BOBBY: Yeah. So, it’s not a catch-all. It’s not like [??? 12:50] isn’t this magic thing. It’s part of a system and a system has its parts and that’s the big thing with the book is that I don’t want people to misconstrue it that you don’t need counseling, because you can just go out in the mountains and fix it. Because counseling does work for some people, it just didn’t work for me.

Formal counseling doesn’t work for me, but it can very well work for many other people. And in my line of work, I do see that multiple times. But I think the trouble is, is when I finally sought counseling, and that’s a big deal for anyone who’s going through a mental health issue because we have this huge stigma against mental health because you can’t see it, people sometimes don’t view it as a real illness.

And what I tell patients is that whether it’s [??? 13:31] or an ambulance, is that if you’re going to the hospital with a mental health illness, it doesn’t make it any less severe than the person in the room next to you with a broken arm. It’s just that you can’t see your brain on an X-ray. You can’t see what you’re going through. So, that does work for some people, but because it takes so much to admit that you have something or that you’re going through something because as soon as you do that, it makes it real.

Once you go to someone, what you’ve been keeping inside you is now a real thing. And so it’s a really scary step. So, when you go to counseling, and I’ve seen this with patients is that if you take that first step, and it’s a really big deal and you’re– I was incredibly nervous the first time I went. And then when it doesn’t work, and you go again, and it doesn’t work, it’s a really defeating thing because you have this expectation that you’re going to start to get better. And when it doesn’t, it’s almost like the world’s ending and you need to try to figure it out.

So, when I started running, and I started doing this traveling, I started to feel better, but when I talked about it being part of a system, it wasn’t just the races. And one, for a speech that I was giving recently, what I did was I looked up– because a lot of times people say our audience doesn’t run ultra-marathons and they haven’t [??? 14:36] you need to make it relatable, you need to be able to relate to these people. And I totaled up the times for the races that I did.

So, seven races, seven continents, some were normal marathon distances, some were 50K, some were 80K. But the total time was like 44 hours or something. It was less than two days cumulatively over a year of travel outside the United States. So, it was just a fraction– it was the conversation with people. And these strangers that became very close friends all over the world that led to this holistic process of healing.

JESSE: I think sometimes that’s the tough part in communicating. Often, I speak to runners, because that’s the background I come from, but it’s like, how do we communicate this, I’ll say existential or theoretical kind of quality that you glean from this seemingly simple activity. like, how do you make it relatable? So, in that case, when you’re talking to those people, what do you recall, like what struck a chord with them as you’re kind of speaking with them?

BOBBY: Yeah. I think a lot of it is– I’ll talk about my background with running, which wasn’t like really anything to [??? 16:03] about. I mean, I played ice hockey, golf [??? 16:06] I wasn’t a runner, by any means. And it wasn’t until it was like my junior year of high school, I started running literally because I wanted a Boston Marathon jacket. I was in Boston with my dad, his birthday is the third week of April.

So, we’d go into the city, and there’d be all these people walking around Boston Marathon jackets on. And when you’re 17 It’s a cool jacket, and you want one. And it’s like, especially growing up in New England, like the Boston Marathon is even more so [??? 16:30] it’s a state holiday in Massachusetts. So, everyone always knows someone who’s doing Boston and everyone will always commit to it at some point in their life and like most of the people never do it.

And for whatever reason, whether it’s to prove a point or anything else this was the one thing that I was gonna stick to, to show my dad that I could do it. And so it led on to [??? 16:48] I remember not being able to run two miles and then just being able to push yourself further and further and further. And you don’t have to start from this amazingly athletic background.

Like I hated running until I figured out how to love it. And what was really hard about the Boston Marathon bombing is something that I loved so much and that I wanted to do every day for the rest of my life, all of a sudden, I didn’t have it anymore. And it’s not like having a physical injury and running is horrible. Any runner or triathlete, if you tweak something, you’re paranoid about it for the next like, two-three weeks. [crosstalk]

JESSE: It can be even longer than that. Like I still– [crosstalk]

BOBBY: Even longer.

JESSE: Yeah, I still– If I get wobbly on the bike sometime– I had a crash a couple years ago and I’m like, mo. Yeah, [??? 17:36] I’m totally with you.

BOBBY: So, I mean, I guess that’s the big thing, right? Because if I [??? 17:41] my IT band, I know that like I need to get back on the foam roller. I need to start stretching it out more. And I know roughly that it’s going to take this amount of time for it to heal. But when it’s your mental space, which is what I had with my running, why I couldn’t run, I didn’t know how long it was gonna take. And that was kind of the scariest bit.

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