From depression and heavy drinking to addictions to food and exercise, ultra runner Adam Henderson tells how he pulled himself from the brink of suicide and finally learned to love himself and embrace life
For architect-turned-propmaker Adam Henderson, the finish line of the 2019 New York Marathon was the end of a much longer journey. As he took in the view at Central Park, he began to cry. First a few tears. And then, a flood.
“It was like I had finally achieved what I’d set out to do. Six years ago, I was just the guy knowing I had to do something. Now I’m crossing the finish line in Central Park. I just felt this huge feeling of pride, of happiness. It felt like six years of my life flashed in front of me.”
Adam had been diagnosed with depression at 16. This led to a vicious circle of drinking, to weight gain, to depression with no end.
“I was very down. I had no energy, I was on medication. All I wanted to do was sleep, eat and drink. Most days, I didn’t want to get out of bed.” The formerly wiry, casually athletic teenager eventually weighed 240lbs by the time he was 22 in 2015.
However, in his early 20s, Adam had what he describes as an “aha” moment, which began the glimmering of recovery.
“My mental health had started to get a bit better and I was starting to see that there were options outside of relying on alcohol.”
He returned to the exercise he had loved as a teenager at the Wexford gym in which he had first trained, to get a grip on his body. There was still one drawback: his drinking.
“If I did a gym session, I’d feel great, but in the evening I’d be drinking again. So I’d do a couple of days with no drink. Then I would drink and I’d go completely overboard.”
He cut back to just drinking once a week, on Saturdays. But feeling he was losing his weekends, he reconsidered. And so, he gave up. Initially for a short while, just to see. And then, amazed by the improvement, for a little bit longer. He resolved to stop drinking until he didn’t miss it anymore, until it wasn’t habit, until there was something to take its place.
‘Fitness’ can mean many things to many people. One person’s fitness can be another’s sloth… or another’s addiction. Our increasing societal obsession with fitness can allow some damaging behaviours to slide under the radar.
“I was training five, six times a week. I had, absolutely, traded one addiction for another. Some days I would train twice. I’d spend four or five hours in the gym. Complete overkill. I was holding on to what was making me feel better.”
The intensity of the regime was unmatched with impact, or so Adam felt. As he grew more impatient with his lack of visible progress, he became frustrated.
“It didn’t really matter because I was feeling good. I had got out of the deepest, darkest hole so anything was better than that. But there was a point where I felt that I did want to lose the weight. Then I started hating myself. I had this anger in me. I was so annoyed with myself for letting myself get so heavy.”
That anger at himself for failing (as he saw it) to slim fast enough propelled him to more extreme lengths. He signed up for a 12-week meal plan — a diet, essentially — which limited his food intake even further. He added cardio sessions to his exercise regime. At the end of the day, exhausted and starving, he convinced himself he would be rewarded with a six-pack.
He wasn’t. At the end of the three months, he was dismayed to have lost only 20lbs. His resolve hardened further.
“If I didn’t train six times a week, I would beat myself up. If I went out drinking, I would beat myself up. I was so brutally hard on myself. I had this very unhealthy relationship with my body. I would see the fat and be absolutely ashamed. Food became the enemy because I felt that food and alcohol had got me there.”
Such enemies were to be avoided rather than confronted. Adam shrank from social engagements, from the everyday to and fro of food, friends and family. These hostile interactions were to be strictly controlled.
“Even when I was eating at home, I would eat from my Tupperware boxes. I would never go for work lunches, never go for the after-work meals. If my friends said, ‘I’ll meet you for a pint.’ I would have said that I had training in the morning.
“There was just… nothing. There was no pleasure. It caused a lot of issues, even in my relationship. I didn’t want to do anything.”
Unsurprisingly, Adam’s friends and family were becoming concerned at his withdrawal. But where his behaviour was causing anxiety in some circles, it was finding validation in others.
“I could see a lot of people doing what I was doing. It’s an issue that is not spoken about enough. Men have massive body issues. And even when I thought I was exercising as hard as I could, there would always be men who would be exercising harder and more often.”
He could go no harder. He was reaching burnout and relationships were suffering. Physically spent and emotionally exhausted, he looked to a familiar face — the trainer who had first shown him around his Wexford gym when he was 15. It was March 2018 and he was around 105lbs when he contacted Larry Doyle, or ‘Coach Larry’, as he’s better known.
Adam hadn’t eaten a carb — intentionally — in years. He didn’t go out for dinner. He didn’t eat fruit in the evening. Every gram was weighed, every calorie counted. It was a fire and brimstone approach to fitness that was quick to damn the weak.
Larry’s credo was more laissez-faire. There was no calorie counting. There were no scales. There was no guilt. By contrast, there would be carbs and meals out. Adam wondered if he was being duped. “I thought he was codding me.”
Still, he persisted, keen to see where this radical new plan would take him. Meanwhile, having lost around 30lbs, he had quietly taken up running — just little bits here and there, for enjoyment.
He told Larry and asked if he could keep it up, alongside his newly reduced training schedule and curious new eating plan. He ran for pleasure and he ran because he could. There was no particular goal, no benchmark for progress.
It was October 2018 when he did his first 10k and eight months later, when he ran a 16k in his hometown. Shortly after, a friend asked if he was doing the Dublin Marathon.
“It never crossed my mind. Anyway, it was sold out. The same fella said, ‘I would have taken you for more of a New York Marathon type of guy.’ So I went on to the website and you could still enter. Out of the 150,000 that applied, there was only space for 10,000 new entrants. I ended up being one of them.”
He hadn’t told anyone, let alone Coach Larry, his intention to run a marathon. Eighteen weeks remained. Larry got him a training plan. For the next four months, everything was New York. At 180lbs, he was finding running easier. He was “fascinated” by how much he enjoyed it.
“I had this energy and I just wanted to take on the world.”
At the same time, he found that he was exercising less and eating more.
“I wasn’t thinking about what I was eating. I love my food now. I can eat, not what I want, but close enough. It feels normal.”
New York was a watershed. In every way — he felt rejuvenated, but he was also badly injured.
“It took me five months to recover from, but because I had injured myself so badly, I couldn’t run on roads, so I started with forests, and then I discovered trail running.
“So when I realised I could run and be out in nature, that was incredible. I decided on an Ultra marathon.”
He signed up for several but, as Covid hit, all were cancelled. So in December, he ran his own virtual 100km ultra marathon, collecting money for mental health charity Pieta House. He invited runners to join him for a segment so he wouldn’t have to go the distance alone.
Adam Henderson is an astonishing, candid young man. But in telling his story, he hopes to launch other conversations and show others like him that there is a way forward.
“The pain of running 100k is hard to describe, but I gain a sense of peace and a sense of happiness from pushing myself. I went from a guy who suffered, who felt he had no choice but to suffer. I was horrendously depressed, on the very brink of suicide at times. Now, I’m putting myself through this willingly.
“When you run those distances, all of a sudden, someone being a bit of an asshole to you or work being a bit hard, doesn’t seem like such a big deal.”
To donate to Adam’s ‘100km for Mental Health’ fundraiser, go to ie.gofundme.com/f/k259gt-100km-for-mental-health For more information on the issues featured in this article, see bodywhys.ie, samaritans.ie, risefoundation.ie, pieta.ie
Health & Living