Real Fit Podcast Ep. 37 | Emma Kertesz, sub-elite distance runner, podcaster, and writer: “I can be anyone I want to be.”

In Episode 37 of the Real Fit podcast, I interview two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier and author of “The Boy Behind the Door,” Emma Kertesz. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband Noah Droddy and their two elderly rescue dogs. Emma is a self-proclaimed “serious hobbyist” who trains with Boulder Underground and is coached by Evan Schwartz and Matt Hensley. When she’s not running, working, or recording her podcast, you can find her taking a three-hour nap every Saturday after the long run.

In our interview, she shares how she went through the painful process of redefining her relationship with distance running — and her identity — when she stepped back from the sport.

We also discuss her book, “The Boy Behind the Door,” the role intergenerational trauma played (and still plays) in her life, her bipolar diagnosis and what helps her manage it (including lots of discussion around ketamine therapy), what the media tends to get wrong about bipolar, her creative process as a writer and podcaster, her Native American heritage, and so much more.

Connect with Leah
IG: @em_kertesz
Twitter: @em_kertesz

Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts, alcoholism

In this episode, we talk about…

  • Being an “Ohio ex-pat”
  • Growing up playing soccer, basketball, volleyball, and running track, and earning an athletic scholarship to run at the University of Toledo
  • On being a “serious hobbyist” runner  
  • Being okay with not being the runner she was at her peak
  • Why her performance at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials fell flat 
  • Giving herself full permission to rest and take time off from running at the start of the pandemic 
  • Redefining herself as the role running played in her life changed dramatically after the 2020 Olympics Trials
  • Getting into new forms of leisure that she didn’t have time for when she was running 100+ miles per week
  • How ketamine therapy helps her manage her bipolar disorder 
  • Having suicidal thoughts and realizing she needed to ask for help 
  • Why she has a mental health first aid plan   
  • Why it was a relief to be diagnosed with bipolar 
  • Why she hesitated to tell people about her bipolar disorder diagnosis 
  • What drove her to dive into the rabbit hole of her dad’s history and start the blog that would ultimately turn into the book “The Boy Behind the Door”
  • How growing up with an alcoholic parent shaped the person she is today
  • The role of intergenerational trauma in her life 
  • Tips on how to let go of trauma
  • Parallels between her creative process and running 
  • How she met her husband, pro runner Noah Droddy
  • Being a morning person 
  • Why Emma loves “sandwich workouts”
  • Guided journaling 

Soccer was really my first foray into sport and being aware of my body and going through the motions of, “What can my body do for me and how does my body work for me in the sport?”

I would consider myself an elite to sub-elite runner at this point in my career. I do really care about it a lot. I still have really big goals. But certainly now that I’m 31, I’m sort of on the back half of my running career. I’m really looking to enjoy the process and have fun and still compete really well, and do that in a way that makes sense for me.

At this point in my life, it’s something I really enjoy doing, and I love being a part of the team, but if I’m really, really tired and I’m supposed to double, and I’d rather sit on the couch with my husband and hang out with our dogs — probably going to do that.

I mean, it is hard, right? To sometimes be in that position where I’m like, “Oh my God, I used to be able to hit this time for 400 meters. No problem. Like five years ago.” And I’m also just like, “Well, yeah, that was also like five years ago. So why would I think that I could do that now?”

I was, so I was 39 at the 2016 trials. And then, 2020, I like totally blew up. I had a really rough day. I think in hindsight I probably should have known that was coming because I wasn’t really enjoying the training I was doing. And was really just going through the motions.

It probably would have been better for me to honestly not have run the 2020 trials just because I was not in it mentally.

Physically, I was kind of there, but if you’re not in it mentally, I think there’s really no point.

It just got to a point where I was like, I don’t think I’m really even doing this for me. I think I’m just doing this because I’m quote, unquote, “supposed to be doing this.”

It was clearly, “I don’t like writing right now.” Like that’s very obvious. I had to really step back and be like, “Well, what do I like? And what can I do now that I have all this free time, because I’m not running 110 miles a week.”

I can kind of do whatever. I’m an adult.

I can be whoever I want to be. Having that realization and then being able to do whatever I wanted, and, then being able to come back to running in a way that felt good to me — and in a way that wasn’t my entire identity — I was like, okay, this feels right.

Pro tip: People should go into therapy prepared with what they want to talk about.

It felt right to talk about it because I had wished when I was first diagnosed that there were more people who were open and honest about being like, yeah, I have bipolar.

And sometimes it really sucks, but generally it’s under control. So I think a lot of times in social media or on TV, whether it’s a documentary or a TV show, you see these characters or these real people who have bipolar disorder just off the rails and either it’s like a gross characterization or they’re using a really specific example of someone who did something terrible. And they’re like, oh, they had bipolar. That felt bad to have those kinds of examples out there, where I’m like, “Well, no people live with it and people can have successful lives.” So it’s kinda my own personal rant about Netflix shows showing people with bipolar disorder.

Because of all of that, I felt a little strange sharing that part of me, but now I feel better about it and I feel more open. Who knows, if like one person hears this who has bipolar and they’re like, oh, cool.

And I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of either. It’s just a part of who I am but it’s not my entire identity.

There are some things that I do and I don’t do because of my bipolar disorder and that’s okay with me. If I tell you [I have bipolar], that’s just because you need to know or I feel comfortable letting you know.

I’m just trying to be more present, but my dad talks about all the time how he would just go into the Sandia Mountains and just sit up there and listen to the wind whistling through the trees. That gives me a lot of peace and comfort, just to think about that.

My creative process is a hot mess. Somehow it all gets done. There’s like a rhyme and a reason to it, but it just can be kind of chaotic.

My dad is now 16 years sober, but some of the things I do as an adult and some of my habits were shaped around having a parental figure who was drinking a lot.

My dad and I have a really great relationship, but there were some very, very difficult conversations in the writing of that book. I’m glad that we had them and it was really, really helpful. But, there were some days where I was just like, I don’t know if I can do this.

I know that some people are like, I went through X, Y, and Z, and it’s made me the person I am today. And it’s like, well, well, yeah. But also you don’t have to hold on to that. If it was bad, you know, you can let it go and still be a successful person. That’s where the ketamine therapy came in for me honestly.

I just need to be in a head space where I can be like, yes, these things did happen, but I don’t have to let them continue to happen to me over and over again.

I need to be happy with me and what I did.

The Boy Behind the Door (e-book)
The Boy Behind the Door (paperback)
The Boy Behind the Door Podcast
Rags Consignments in Boulder 
Ketamine in Bipolar Disorder: A Review 
World-Class Running is Still a Hobby for Keira D’Amato 
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris 
Indy runner who ‘crashed’ Olympic trials is exactly who you think he is (about Noah Droddy)
Real Fit podcast with Nicole DeBoom (another athlete who met her husband on a plane going to/from a race)
Nike Invincible running shoe
Calm the Chaos journal

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