Simply put, running has changed my life. During my 32 years, trying to find a balance between my emotional highs and lows has been a constant and tough endeavor.

I was recently diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, after years of wondering why "depression" or "anxiety" just didn't quite sum it up. And I recently discovered that running is the most powerful tool for me to combat the tough times and relish the good ones.

Though every mile has had its own value, running the distance of 26.2 miles for the first time in the Portland Marathon was life-changing. Running has armed me with a better ability to balance my moods, and knowing that I trained for and ran a full marathon has given me loads of confidence that I carry with me daily.

Because when you've run 26.2 miles, what else can't be done?

The beginning

Four years ago, I had never run longer than 3 miles. I remember how proud I was the first time I ran one full loop, 0.79 miles of glory, around Bryan Park in my college town.

The few other times I ran in college, I was out for maybe 15 minutes, running one full minute and walking a couple of others. After college, I joined a gym with a cheap monthly fee, a very barebones place with just a couple treadmills. I was 22 years old, and went to that gym once a week or less.

Finally, one day, I ran 3 full miles on the treadmill. Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible" had just come out, and the powerful, driving "No Cars Go" was playing in my headphones. When I hit the 3-mile mark and they were singing, "between the click of the light and the start of the dream ... between the click of the light and the start of the dream ... between the click of the light and the start of the dream...," something clicked.

It marked the beginning of what is now such a vital part of my life — that feeling. Note: This may also be referred to as the "runner's high" which has been responsible for many of my sappiest moments over the past few years.

Four years ago, I was 28 years old and told my coworker Melissa that I had gone on a run through Volunteer Park in my current home of Seattle. I’d managed to make it 3 1/2 miles. That was half a mile longer than I'd ever run. It was hard to breathe and felt a little excruciating, but it was a different kind of sense of accomplishment than I'd ever felt.

No one told me to do this. No one was with me when I did it. It was all me, and all my own strength propelling me forward. Melissa had recently run her first half marathon and when I told her the following Monday at work that I had run 3 1/2 miles, she told me without hesitation: "Oh! If you can run 3 1/2, you can definitely run 4."

And that was that.

It was the click of the light that started the dream. It was when I realized that maybe I can do these things! It's like it had never occurred to me that if I could run 3, I could run 4. If I could run 4, I could run 5. If I could run 5, I could run 6. She sparked the desire in me to want to run more and to set a bigger goal for myself. 

The feelings

Back to "that feeling" and to feelings in general — I have a lot of them. Born in July, I might be the most stereotypical Cancer you’ll ever meet. I'm a homebody. I'm driven by my emotions. I'm overly sensitive. I'm "moody."

Since I was 12 years old, I've been plagued by intense emotions. By now, I feel that I know all the recommended coping strategies. I have built a very full toolkit of tricks: medication, therapy, journaling, sun lamps, vitamin D, the useless "what is wrong with me" Google search, and the very useful phone-a-friend.

When Melissa told me that I could run more than I thought I could, I took that advice and ran with it. Literally. Somehow after she very casually told me with certainty that I could run farther than 3 1/2 miles, I found myself signing up for a half marathon.

I went to my local running store (feeling totally intimidated and sure they would think I was a joke) and was fitted for a good pair of shoes. I Googled training plans and printed one out. I'd lace up, go out for a couple of miles, and check it off the schedule. I kept going and kept checking runs off the list.

Before I knew it, I had run my longest run of 5 miles. I signed up for a 10K with Melissa. She showed me how to wear a race bib (high up on my shirt? lower? Why is it so hard to put these tiny safety pins through the bib and my shirt and not make it crooked?). And then I kept going even farther.

I followed the training plan and at the end of November 2012, I had run a half marathon. I felt like I had leveled up, like I reached a level of existence I didn't know I could reach, and that things would never be the same for me.

And they haven't been. My laundry pile is now made up of at least 75 percent stinky running apparel, my bedside reading is typically Runner's World magazine, and my bank account has been dismayed by many a race fee.

Marathon training

Running that first half marathon gave me a ton of confidence. I was patient, taking it day by day, and before I knew it, I had run a full 13.1 miles through my favorite streets and parks of Seattle.

Four years later, I leveled up again and ran a full marathon. If you told 22-year-old, 0.79-mile Clare that she'd run 26.2 miles someday, she would have taken another sip of her Miller Lite, another bite of her dinner pancake, and laughed.

I'd toyed with the idea of signing up for a full for a while. In many ways, it seemed the next logical step (even though many would call it "crazy" — and they did). I'm young and have the time and can, so why not? In January of 2015, I signed up for the Portland Marathon.

The feeling in my stomach when I hit the "submit" button on the online entry form was not unlike the shaky feeling in my stomach I'd feel at the start of that race or the nauseated feeling that I'd feel at the end of that race. Signing up for the marathon was thrilling. It felt right and peaceful. Oh, and scary as hell.

Fortunately, Melissa also registered, so we were in this together. As I'd done for that first half marathon, I printed my training plan and also entered each run in my online calendar. I highlighted and spreadsheeted. I wrote it all in my training journal. I learned that if I'm hungry, tired, and sore, that the remedy is to rest, and then keep going.

At the start of my 18-week training plan, I felt strong and determined. But it was the thick of summer, and the blazing sun and heat became an obstacle. I adapted by trying to become a morning runner, working on my popsicle chef skills, and scouting the location of every public water fountain. I mastered the motivational playlist and learned to embrace some guilty pleasures like Katy Perry and Ariana Grande and even Britney, thus forcing myself to break down some of my outward-facing musical pretentiousness. Because, who cares to seem cool? Just listen to Rihanna and run 20 miles and own it.

Then, six weeks before the race, I just wanted Rihanna and Ariana Grande and Robyn to shut up for a hot second and stop telling me to shine bright and break free and work it out.

Some mornings I'd feel like Paul Rudd in the scene in Wet Hot American Summer where he pushes his plate of food off the cafeteria table onto the floor. Janeane Garafolo scolds him, then he finally drags his feet and whines and once done picking his plate up off the floor, throws on some badass sunglasses, and peaces out.

On the good days, running 18 miles after work on a Friday with Melissa in hours of pouring rain would feel like the best thing I'd ever done in my life. In order to avoid the Friday night anxiety that precedes a Saturday morning long run, we decided to just get it done after work.

I stashed a dry pair of socks in my butt zipper pocket as well as three Gu packets and we headed out, agreeing that we'd turn back if we felt miserable after 1 or 2 miles.

After 2 miles, we were soaked to the bone and maybe semimiserable, but we had that feeling and were shouting ridiculous mantras to each other, like "NO TEARS! ONLY DREAMS!" which came to us via a Google search called "motivational running mantras for when you don't feel like it."

My shoes never recovered from that two-hour rainy onslaught, but I uncovered this major inner strength that I didn't know was there before. Distance running seems to do that for a person. After we were completely soaked and had run through South Lake Union to Capitol Hill to the University District to Wallingford to Fremont to Ballard, we made it to the Ballard Bridge.

I had an outburst of joy and made us stop and take a ton of pictures of the sky and of each other, and I think I even cried tears of joy. Then, Melissa reminded me to save my emotional energy a bit because we still had 4 miles left. I laughed and kept going, carrying that new bit of joy with me.

The 26.2

The day before the marathon arrived, and I realized that at 7:30 a.m. the next morning I'd embark on a (very) long run that would change my life. I'd get to say that I once ran a marathon. I'd get to know that after months of hard work, I did something I never thought I could do.

I obsessively laid out my race day gear (water bottle, race bib, five packets of Hammer Gel, my headphones), had a delicious pasta dinner out with some friends and family who'd traveled with us, and wondered if I'd be able to get any sleep. The anxiety and excitement of that night felt like a very scary Christmas Eve.

In the morning, Melissa and I toasted our bagels and smothered them with peanut butter and slices of banana. We took pictures, freaked out, hugged, laughed, and had a few moments of silent fear.

Standing at our start line corral was surreal. I couldn't believe we were really about to cross the line and do what we'd been training for for months. Our first several miles felt fun and easy, chatting about this and that, just as we'd do when we ran together any other day.

At mile 3, my mom and her husband were there with signs and cheers. After those first several miles, the memory of the full 26.2-mile journey becomes kind of a blur punctuated by some very vivid images that I might never forget:

  • the mariachi band at mile 7
  • the sign at mile 13 directing marathoners "this way" and half marathoners to continue in the opposite direction
  • the runner in my periphery most of the way who was literally juggling
  • the runner vomiting on the side of the road at mile 23
  • the group of spectators all dressed as Santa that we saw at many different spots along the way

And the very striking feelings that I also might never forget, like the elation that spread throughout my entire body at seeing the mile 20 sign and knowing I was going into my uncharted running territory. Or the feelings of uncertainty that kicked in around mile 22, not sure whether or not we could really finish this thing.

Then, there's the unforgettable feeling of crossing the finish line with my friend still by my side. There are no words to adequately describe how amazing it is to have a friend who will run 26.2 miles right next to you and put an arm around you as you approach the finish line.

Finally, there's the unforgettable feeling of how good a biscuit, blueberry pancakes, and a beer taste after a marathon.

Why I keep going

In the days and weeks following the marathon, I experienced a grab bag of feelings. I felt amazingly confident and elated, but I also felt (in addition to physical exhaustion) some sadness that it was over and some pretty real depression.

With bipolar, when I experience any kind of high (like running a marathon), there is a low that follows. Maybe in the past, I would just let myself sink into it and not know how to scramble out.

The process of training for a marathon taught me that no matter how hard it might feel, the best option is to keep going. I found that running helps my mismatched sock brain feel a little less mismatched, that running miles upon miles is when I feel the most at peace.

My mood disorder feels like less of a plague. It will always be there, but I have discovered a passion for running that gives me endless amounts of strength and confidence.