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WAKE FOREST — Each year, 100 athletes from around the world compete in the invitational Badwater 135 Ultra Marathon in Death Valley, California. Called “the world’s toughest foot race,” competitors run 135-miles, starting at the lowest point in the nation — 279 feet below sea level — and ending 8,360 above.
Scott Waldrop, 43, of Wake Forest, knows a lot about starting at the bottom and rising over obstacles.
“I really had an existential crisis toward the end of my 30s,” Waldrop said. “I had the picket fence, the house, the wife, the kid, just the American Dream, but for some reason, I still wasn’t happy. I wasn’t sure why.”
Despite having everything he thought he wanted, Waldrop was obese, depressed and struggling with addiction; each day he smoked a pack of cigarettes and drank 24 beers.
“When I was at the absolute lowest in my throes of addiction and alcoholism, I actually wasn’t getting return calls from psychiatrists,” Waldrop said. “I had the awareness that my dopamine levels were down and I was having suicidal thoughts. I knew I was hitting critical mass with my addiction. I really had come to that point where I was saying, ‘I’m one of these people I never thought I would become.’”
Waldrop realized his depression was caused by forcing himself to live a life he did not want. His unhappiness was the result of forcing himself to be someone he was not.
“I wasn’t living as the person I was supposed to be and who I wanted to be,” he said. “It is very much an unspoken rule that we adopt societal paradigms, which are that of our parents and these are rapidly evolving times, which essentially calls for rapidly evolving humans.
“To take the courage to be exactly who you want to be, even when it doesn’t make sense, I believe is our divine path in life.”
In the 1980s, Waldrop watched his father cope with a divorce by taking up running. He decided to try the same thing.
“I was 100 pounds overweight seven years ago, and I couldn’t run to my neighbor’s mailbox,” Waldrop said. “Every day, I ran one more mailbox. Soon, I ran a mile. That was a huge victory. Then I ran two miles without stopping.
“Then I ran three miles but had awful shin splints, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can’t be a runner. I get shin splints.’ But I pushed through that and soon my body started changing very little by little. I started feeling good about myself and who I was becoming.”
A year later, Waldrop saw a picture of himself. He could not believe the change. That gave him the courage to continue.
“So much of that has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We love to feed ourselves limiting beliefs to keep ourselves comfortable, such as ‘I’ll never be able to run a mile.’” Waldrop said. “But we have the choice to change the stories and so few of us realize this is actually something that we possess. I am not an outlier in this sense.”
Running naturally changed Waldrop’s dopamine levels, helping combat his depression in a healthy way. It also offered him a chance to meditate and reflect.
“I had a moment while running where I realized I could observe my thoughts and redress them and redirect them. This is when I started understanding how to control my cynicism, my anger, my depression, my negative thoughts,” Waldrop said. “I thought I was never going to be able to change them, but eventually I did. The happy, more positive thoughts became the default thoughts, which led to a whole new world for me.”
At age 39, Waldrop decided to change career paths and start over. He headed to Idaho to become a Road Runners of America certified running coach. He realized he did not have any excuses left except his fear.
“My wife, Mary, was a huge catalyst and supporter of the idea,” Waldrop said. “She said, ‘Scott, nothing is holding you back from flying to Idaho. We have the money for the plane tickets, just go.’ So I did.”
He came back from Idaho and applied to New Balance. Now, Waldrop writes a blog for the company while also coaching a running club with Mary.
“Running was an inception point for me that led to a much greater awareness of health and spirituality,” Waldrop said. “Health will provide a vehicle to wholeness. Wholeness is so much more than being wealthy monetarily. It leads to peace. It leads to happiness. When you’re happy in your own skin, it’s so much easier to give back, to be full of life and gratitude, to give back to others.”
Waldrop, who has now been sober almost five years, gives back in several ways, he said. The most visible is his partnership with the Herren Project, a program started by Boston Celtics player Chris Herren, who recovered from a heroin addiction.
“I was really looking for God and my purpose when I became sober,” Waldrop said. “I met the Herren Project, right when I decided that was my purpose in life. It was definitely serendipitous.
“The point is to not be anonymous, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s okay. There does not have to be a stigma. You do not have to be silent. We’re in this together. Whatever is the matter, we can get through it together.”
He will be running the invitational Badwater 135 Ultra Marathon in July to raise money for the Herren Project. He will also be doing it to prove to himself that he can overcome any obstacle.
“We all pick our dragons to slay. For some people, it’s Mount Everest,” Waldrop said. “The ultra-marathon runner was much more plausible for me. It really comes down to continually proving to myself what is possible when I change my beliefs and simply showing people that we can change our lives profoundly and very quickly when we change our thoughts.
“While physical conditioning is what makes it possible to withstand grueling endurance, grueling environments, make no mistakes: The mind is 90 percent of the vehicle.”
While he runs every day to prepare his body, Waldrop also meditates twice a day. He also writes daily pages where he lets out whatever he needs to.
Waldrop does not expect to complete the 135-mile race. He does expect to succeed.
“I quantify success by not giving up belief in the facts that whatever is going on I can get through it,” he said.
Previously, he attempted the Arrowhead 135, which is a 135-mile ultra marathon in Minnesota in the winter.
“You’re not supposed to finish this race. The best endurance athletes in the world, it takes them as much as 10 times to get through this race,” Waldrop said.
He made it 124 miles in that race.
Waldrop realized during the race that what we tell ourselves is incredibly powerful, he said. People are wired to want to know what is going to happen in the future, which causes anxieties. By telling himself that he was going to be successful, he became successful, Waldrop said.
He applies that mindset to more than just running.
Waldrop hopes that others learn from his experience. It can be scary to move away from certainty toward “childlike joy,” he said, but it has been his experience that those decisions are the most rewarding.
“Who you want to be and who you are, if there’s a difference, if there’s a disparity, I promise you can make the difference real when you let go of what you’ve been told and you start listening to that still inner voice that’s guiding you,” Waldrop said. “If you’re ever lost and not sure if that guidance is actually happening, I believe you can always default to ‘the answer is love.’”