Leadville 100 ultrarunner Drew Petersen talks challenges of mental health

When Drew Petersen arrived at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100-mile footrace on Saturday, he was bound to feel a rush of emotions beyond the joy of fulfilling a long-held dream, not to mention the inevitable anxiety that comes with attempting one of America’s most grueling ultras.

He is lucky to be alive, and not just because he survived a potentially fatal accident high on Oregon’s Mount Hood in 2017. A large rock fell on his head while he was on a quest to climb and ski the highest peak in every state of the Mountain West.

He lived through a dark night of the soul following the accident that included post-traumatic stress disorder, post-concussion syndrome, suicidal thoughts, brain injury rehabilitation and a diagnosis of Bipolar Type 2 Disorder. That last one helped him understand why he experienced suicidal thoughts for the first time before he was even a teenager.

Petersen, a professional ski mountaineer and trail runner who grew up in Silverthorne, is on a mission to talk about his mental health journey and encourage people who are suffering to seek help.

“I’m not religious, but I am a spiritual person,” Petersen said this week. “I’m not sure if that (accident on Mount Hood) happened for a reason, from a greater-being sort of perspective, but I’m very grateful for that moment. I’m very grateful that rock fell on me. I survived because of a lot more than just an inch and a half of (helmet) plastic and high-density foam.

“As I’ve come into realizing a much fuller and much more authentic version of who I am, I’ve also found what I believe to be my purpose on this Earth. That is to help other people and, in this moment in time, change the culture surrounding mental health in the outdoor community, in mountain towns and the ski community.”

Petersen was skiing before his second birthday and became passionate about the sport at an early age.

“The mountains have always been where I found myself and felt most connected to myself and my surroundings,” said Petersen, 28. “The passion for running came later in life, but came from the same place: enjoying being in the mountains for long days.”

Still, he knew something about him was “off.” He describes himself as a “very emotional kid,” and says his earliest memory of suicidal thoughts came when he was 9 or 10, but he didn’t know anything about mental health and didn’t have the resources to figure out what was wrong.

His depression and suicidal thoughts continued into adulthood, and he coped in “unhealthy ways,” which primarily meant taking skiing to extremes and developing an “abusive relationship” with alcohol.

From the outside, it looked like he had a great life, though. He appeared in dozens of ski films and on the cover of ski magazines. The turning point came in the spring of 2017 when he set out to climb and ski the highest peaks in Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. Nine peaks into the journey, high on Mount Hood, he heard the distinctive crack of rockfall and instantly knew he was in trouble. A rock the size of a microwave oven fell from a cliff 40 feet above him, landing on his head, the middle of his upper back and his left arm.

An artery in his left arm began gushing blood, but he had no broken bones. After a climbing partner applied a tourniquet, they skied down to a lodge where Petersen was airlifted to a Level 1 trauma center in Portland.

“I walked away relatively unscathed,” Petersen recalls. “They were able to restore blood flow to my arm, so I was able to keep my arm. Amazingly it was unbroken, despite how deep the laceration was. My helmet saved my life. I literally walked out of the hospital. In a lot of ways I was the luckiest human on the planet that day, to be relatively OK physically. But I did have to go through that experience, and the scars it left on my mind were a real injury. I just didn’t know how to address them at that time.”

He fell into a darker place than he had ever been, but it would be 15 months before he finally broke down and sought help. Only then would he learn he’d suffered a previously undiagnosed severe concussion in the accident, which had combined with his pre-existing mental health issues to make his life a nightmare.

“I felt like a ghost, following my body around, watching it go through the motions of life but not actually being there,” Petersen said. “That spiraled into a really dark depression and continued to go deeper until I was thinking about killing myself. I got to a point where I would have rather killed myself than ask for help. Fortunately, I asked for help.”

He needed lots of it. He received extensive brain rehab for post-concussion symptoms that included neurological deficits in vision, speed, balance and auditory processing. He was diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder, which he now believes he had while growing up. He also got sober.

“My relationship with alcohol was a really big negative on my life and my mental illness,” Petersen said. “Quitting was awesome. It’s a massive positive influence on my life every day. I really can’t imagine life without sobriety.”

He is on psychiatric medication. He practices mindfulness meditation and makes gratitude focus a daily practice. He says he has built better friendships and relationships based on “real emotional vulnerability and depth” and calls those things his “tool kit.” Skiing and running are part of that tool kit, but they’re not all he has. Not the way they used to be.

Petersen tells the story of his trip to ski those 11 Western peaks, the accident and his mental health struggles in a short documentary, “Ups and Downs,” which can be seen on YouTube. He earnestly shares advice for others experiencing the dark places he no longer inhabits.

“Strength and struggle are equal parts of the shared human experience,” Petersen said. “We all experience both, and it’s normal for every human on this planet to struggle and put a voice to the struggles I’ve experienced. I’ve learned how normal they really are, and how many people have felt the way I have felt.

“The other half of that is the strength piece. That also means every human on this planet has the strength to make it through to the other side, to wake up tomorrow and build a better life. The strongest thing you can do is to ask for help. It’s one of the strongest things I’ve ever done in my life. I can tell you, it takes a lot more strength than running 100 miles, or anything I’ve ever done on a pair of skis.”

In the Leadville Trail 100, often called “The Race Across the Sky,” runners cover 100 miles at high altitude with more than 15,000 cumulative feet of climbing. In a lengthy interview last week, the only time Petersen’s voice cracked with emotion was when he talked about the race.

“When I was really struggling in deep, dark, depressive episodes, it was really hard to find any reason to keep going,” Petersen said. “Something I kept saying to myself was that if I can make it through this, if I can survive to see tomorrow, if I can get out of bed, then I can do absolutely anything. I can climb any mountain, I can ski any line and I can run 100 miles. I’m getting emotional, because that goal — running 100 miles — became a real lifeline for me, and something I’m really thankful I was able to draw on to keep moving.

“I don’t have to prove to myself that I can do it. I’ve been through (stuff) that is a lot harder and a lot more painful and takes a lot more strength. So going to run 100 miles for me is a celebration of life itself, of being alive.”

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