March 8, 2020

Running Marathons for Mental Health Across the Globe

Luis Allen, psychiatrist and medical director of AdventHealth’s Center for Behavioral Health, participated in the World Marathon Challenge February 6-13, 2020. He ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, under the banner of one very important cause: mental health awareness.

It was Allen’s first time participating in the global event, though he’s run a total of 40 marathons in the past. The challenge was monumental, but certainly not the first — or worst — challenge he’s ever faced.

A Terror Survivor

Allen is a survivor of the horrific 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in which more than 150 people died. For two days, he and his family hid under a bed in their hotel room as gunmen inside the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel pulled guests from their rooms and shot them.

When local authorities rescued the Allen family, they emerged from their room to find that every door in their hallway had been knocked down except for the two doors that led to them.

In the wake of that experience, Allen re-examined his life and, among other changes, took up running to improve his mental and physical health. Gradually, he became a marathoner and started to compete around the world. He signed up for the World Marathon Challenge — an international event that would blend his love for running and traveling — and used his participation as an opportunity to raise awareness around the importance of mental health, and to raise funds for the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, where he serves on the board.

“As a psychiatrist, I’ve learned that we need to start in our communities when it comes to access to mental health resources,” Allen said. “That’s the reason why I work with the Mental Health Association, to help build awareness and therefore improve access.”

The World Marathon Challenge

The World Marathon Challenge — the only annual event of its kind — is organized by Global Running Adventures. Participants run 183 miles and spend 68 hours flying in a charter plane throughout the challenge, which includes the destinations Novo (Antarctica), Cape Town (Africa), Perth (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Madrid (Europe), Fortaleza (South America) and Miami (North America). The races take place at different hours of the day in varying climates. The first one in Cape Town had winds so intense that Allen’s son, who was running a few miles with him, ended up with debris in his eyes and had to see a doctor. In Antarctica, Allen braved freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. He slipped twice.

“The biggest challenge about doing something like this is the short period of time. It’s a repetitive process,” Allen said. “How do you recover from one race to the other? What’s your nutrition? Your hydration? Do you have enough shoes and appropriate clothing? These are all of the factors we had to consider.”

Allen trained for the World Marathon Challenge for a full year, completing six marathons in 2019 alone. But his preparation went beyond the physical aspect.

“Yes, we prepare physically, but this is more of a mental challenge than a physical one at times,” he said. “It’s the goals you set in your mind, what you're trying to get accomplished, the cause you're doing this for — all of these things really come together and push you through the difficult spots.”

A Unique Training

One of Allen’s preferred methods for preparing mentally for a marathon is to start his morning with a devotion. He uses different books, most often the Sabbath School Adult Bible Study Guide.

The people surrounding Allen also help push him to each of his finish lines. First, there are his running mates. Over the years, Allen’s marathoning has connected him with a network of running mates who motivate and cheer each other on.

For an event like the World Marathon Challenge, the network is even tighter, as you only have about 40 to 50 competitors sharing in the experience, unlike the massive, singular racing events like the Boston or New York marathons, where tens of thousands participate.

Because the World Marathon Challenge is a global event, Allen also had the opportunity to connect with other Seventh-day Adventists around the world. At many of the locations, he was met with Adventist media professionals who were filming and photographing his participation for the General Conference.

“Anywhere in the world I would go, I could find an Adventist I knew; that was such a unique experience,” he said. “Even the other runners were saying, ‘Who else does this person know? We understand one person, one place, but everywhere we go?’ My family and I have traveled to over 25 countries, and we've always gone to church on Sabbath no matter where we were.”

His family, except for one of his sons who is in college, was with him on this trip, too. They cheered him on for four of the seven races.

And then there’s his AdventHealth family, a group of colleagues who departed from central Florida on February 13 to be at his final race in Miami.

In the end, Allen completed the World Marathon Challenge with an average time of 6:37:32.

“I’ve felt that [this challenge] was like hitting a restart button,” he said. “I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, but I know there’s going to be new meaning in my life, and I’m hoping that it’ll help me serve my patients better.”