John Alcantara: Remember to Breathe

“When I started running five years ago, it was to build up my endurance for a bikepacking race outside Toronto called the BT700,” says John Alcantara, a HOKA retail associate who lives in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

“After that race, my running began to evolve. I bought some lifestyle shoes from Target and joined a running group that met on Thursday nights. One thing led to another.”

Last October, John ran the Fancy Nonsense 50k, which is where I first encountered him. He ran the entire race ahead of me, which—as the course had an out-and-back portion—meant that, on multiple occasions, John passed me heading in the opposite direction. Something about him struck me immediately. He was encouraging and kind, his stride light and buoyant. But, moreover, John exuded joy. Pure, unencumbered joy. He genuinely looked to be having fun. “You’re out there for a long time,” says John. “The only way to get through that kind of suffering is to find joy in the moment.”

Finding joy is important to John these days. It wasn’t so long ago he couldn’t find joy in much of anything.

In 2020, with the onset of COVID, John experienced heartbreak and loss that affected him deeply. He stopped running, retreated inward, and began experiencing debilitating bouts of depression and anxiety. Here, John talks about that loss, his mental health journey, and how running has helped him cope and move forward.       

What was 2020 like for you?

It was a weird 2020 for me. Come around April, my dad ended up in the hospital. He had emphysema but ended up passing away from COVID. I don’t know how he got it. He caught it while he was recovering. Then my cat of fifteen years died. I had brought my cat to the vet for a check-up because something was wrong. They told us to leave her. We couldn’t stay because of COVID. So we dropped her off and were told to come back in an hour. Not an hour later, I got a call—something had ruptured in her stomach. We had to either take her to the ER—where she had a small chance of surviving—or put her down. So we put her down. That’s when the depression came along. And with that, anxiety. Running wasn’t even in the picture. I didn’t run at all during COVID.

Was 2020 the first time you recall experiencing depression and anxiety?

Yeah. With my anxiety, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know how to handle. Like panic attacks—I thought I was dying at one point. It’s a suffocating feeling, like you can’t breathe. The first time was very scary. It happened after my mom called me. She was crying, saying that my dad was in the hospital. It was before he died. I hung up with her and—yeah—my first panic attack happened. I had never felt that feeling before. I felt like I was chocking, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t breathe.” Also, it’s crazy, now that we’re on the topic of my mental health, before all that with my mom calling, I was at work and a customer told me that I had to come upstairs to deliver his food because he had tested positive for COVID. At that time, everything was unknown and brand new. I was like, “No, I’m not coming upstairs.” The guy insisted, saying he’d already tipped me. This is your job, he said. In a professional way, I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. I said I would leave the food with the security guard downstairs. I mean, it was a five-dollar tip. Give me a break, I didn’t want to get sick over a five-dollar tip. There’s no way. Anyway, after that happened, I felt a warm sensation in my chest. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. I was like, “Oh, my God. What’s going on?” It was very unsettling, and I didn’t know what it was at the time. I do now though.

When did you start running again?

When 2021 came around, I started running again little by little. My friend suggested I go out for a run, that it might clear my head. One run led to another, and I kept it consistent. I didn’t race at all; I just ran for fun. I was doing it to keep sane and keep my mental health in check. This year, though, I raced my heart out. I raced the Shamrock Shuffle, the Twilight Series, and the Mob Mile. Then I did the Fancy Nonsense 50k, which is a trail run. Something about road racing just wasn’t appealing to me anymore. I didn’t find joy in running on the road. I wanted to do something I thought would test my limits. I wanted to do something more than just road races.

Where did you train for the trail run?

I have this loop that I do. I run from my house to Horner Park—which isn’t that far—and there are some side trails in that park. I do one lap there. Then, on the other side of the river, there is another trail that’s kind of in a neighborhood. I put those two together and I just do laps, over and over again, until I feel exhausted. During training, I do laps for like ten miles. It kind of mimics the race. I have to make the best of what I have in front of me.

Has running helped you work through your feelings of depression and anxiety?

Yeah, and that’s why I run a lot. It helps me stay levelheaded. It allows me to be present. I know that everything’s going to be okay. When I run, I feel free. All those feelings that I have that lead to my anxiety just kind of go away. A lot has happened over the last three years, and running was always there. It was the only option I felt I had. I don’t have a car. I don’t have the ability to go out in the middle of the woods. This is where I live, in the city. Running was my only option to stay present and know that everything was going to be okay. With running, everyone suffers in some kind of way. But in the end, it’s all okay. I look at my panic attacks that way as well. Just take a deep breath, it’ll be fine. Running saved me, in a way.

What’s next for you?

Now that I’ve done a 50k, I don’t want to run anything less. That’s not to say that I won’t, but right now I have a fire building in me to go further. I want to see how far I can push myself. I am registered for Ice Age in May, and in October I want to do the Hudson River 50 in New York City, where I am originally from. But there’s always that thing in my head: If I do a 50-miler, will I want to do a 100-miler? I don’t know. But I do wonder. And I will continue to work on my mental health, too. I’ll remember to breathe, knowing that in the end everything will be okay.

Edited for length and clarity.

Photos: Christian Rasmussen @christian_rasmussen_photo

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