The Dark Grind: My Battle with Mental Illness and Triathlon

Tomorrow is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month and I thought it’s the perfect time for me to finally speak out.

In triathlon, everyone is constantly talking about numbers. What’s your pace, heart rate or FTP. I thought I’d write about a blog about numbers no one really talks about. Did you know 1 in 5 adults suffers with some type of mental illness? That’s about 51.5 million Americans. 

That’s right, on average, one person on every triathlon podium suffers from some form of mental illness. Fast, average or back of the back, mental health doesn’t discriminate. 

I’m writing this blog to let people know it’s okay to talk about and discuss. Mental health is often this taboo topic that people are afraid to admit or bring up in public discussion, especially  among athletes.

Outside my family and close friends, most people would’t know or suspect that I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for over 15 years. I first started experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression early in college – dismissing it often as a “case of the blues” that I just needed to get over. Those unaware of mental health issue that try to help often say “hey man just get over it” or “just move on”. Man, I wish it were that easy.

Lake Mills Triathlon Race Report - Eric Engel

Mental health is different for everyone. We may share a common diagnosis of anxiety or depression, but our experiences vary on a large spectrum. The best I can describe it is a “crippling exhaustion.” I’ve ran marathons, have done 15+ IRONMANS, but there’s nothing more debilitating and exhausting than that of what I’ve experienced with anxiety and depression. I’ve skipped more workouts and made more excuses to see friends/family than I can even count. Some days I just lay in bed unable to get up.

For the longest time, I didn’t talk about these feelings with anyone else. I was ashamed (and at times I still am). It’s often not rational. I know I’m fortunate to have a great family, stable job and friends who care about me – but mental health doesn’t care about that. The “happiest” and most “out-going” people you know often deal with silent battles. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for the better part of a decade. At times I’ve quit it cold turkey, thinking I no longer needed it or felt ashamed for having to take it – this only made things work. I’ve switched medications 3-4 times and now I feel like I’m in a pretty good place with my medication and dosage.

Now back to triathlon. I’ve had my best results when I’ve been able to be consistent with training. Prior to 2019 (which I consider my breakthrough season) I dealt with periods of inconsistentcy or just flat out lack of training due to mental illness. It was never comfortable telling a coach “hey I’m depressed” or “hey I’m just having bad anxiety this week”, so I’d make up excuses of being sick or dealing with other issues. 

It’s important when working with a coach to be open and honest. Just like you would with an injury – let them know about any mental health issues you are dealing with. A good coach will work with you through these issues and help you navigate triathlon and mental health in a positive way.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’ve struggled with this for 15 years and still continue to struggle to this day (albeit not to the same extent as previously). The hardest times for me are post-race. I dedicate so much of myself to this sport – and when the “big event” or motivation no longer exists I often feel a lack belonging or questioning all the time/money/effort I put into the previous race. People often ask why I like to race so much and a big part of the answer is because I like to keep my mind occupied with the thoughts of an upcoming challenge/race.

Here we are. 7 days post IRONMAN. Going into this race I felt probably the most fit I’ve even been in my life. Having the best swim and bike numbers of my triathlon career. Yes, I had some unfortunate luck with flat tires on bike. That doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed or upset. I’m proud of how I fought back and finished the race, but I’m still super pissed and frustrated. 

Dealing with the disappointment after such a investment up of emotions, money and time is something I’ve continued to struggle with. After the physical soreness goes away, the mental fatigue still stings. 

I’ve often thought, “if I have success in triathlon, it will solve all my other problems.” I’m 33 years old and most who know me know that I would love to be married with kids and have my life figured out. That’s just not in my cards so far. Mental health is a daily battle and not something that ever goes away completely. Mental health doesn’t care about money, love or success. 

Most days the last few years I do great, but then there’s those days where it’s just brutal struggle. I’ve learned to take those days in stride and not let them snowball into a week or month of negative feelings and emotions. 

I don’t write this blog to get sympathy from others saying “Oh Eric I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.” I’m writing this to those other athlete ands people who may be dealing with similar thoughts. It’s normal and it’s okay. Talking about mental health is actually the best therapy I’ve found. Honestly, without triathlon, I think my life would have taken a dark turn. College turned into binge drinking to fit in and “feel like myself”. I always felt like I had to be this happy person who was always the life of the party. 

Triathlon has been my escape to push myself physically and mentally. Have I given up a lot of time, money and effort? Yes, but I’ve always invested all that in myself to become a better person. Honestly, I think my time in triathlon is nearing its end. I believe that lessons I’ve learned from the sport will carry on with me way beyond the swims, bikes and runs.

This blog has been a bit of a mind dump of my thoughts over the last 10+ years, but I hope someone reads this and feels comfort in knowing that someone else has similar thoughts and feelings. 

Let’s keep the conversation about mental health moving forward and continue the conversation. 



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