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Julio Salazar is running across Minnesota to inspire conversations about mental illness

It took Salazar years to figure out how to treat his depression. Now that he’s discovered a strategy that works for him, he wants to tell as many people as possible.

Julio Salazar on a training run from St. Paul to Stillwater earlier this week.
Photo by Alex Eichman

It took Julio Salazar years to figure out how to treat his depression. Now that he’s discovered a strategy that works for him, he wants to tell as many people as possible.

“I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been,” Salazar said. “I feel like I want to tell everybody that you don’t have to accept being depressed. You can do something about it.”

But Salazar wasn’t always so open about his struggles with mental illness.

“I was very depressed for a long time,” he said. At his annual physicals, the 45-year-old judicial court clerk avoided telling his physician just how sad he felt, until one year when he screwed up his courage and checked the box on a form that said he was having suicidal thoughts.

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“The doctor was very good,” Salazar recalled. “He approached the whole thing in a way that made me feel like it was OK to talk about it. I had been ashamed to admit my depression, but he helped me realize that it was good to seek help.”

For Salazar, help came in the form of a therapist, and eventually a prescription for the antidepressant Prozac. That helped clear the crushing sadness from his mind, allowing him to better work with a therapist. His recovery was further buoyed by exercise; Salazar, who ran for fun when he was a kid growing up in Costa Rica, laced up his sneakers and started logging the miles, ultimately building up the endurance to run ultramarathons.    

This combination of therapy, medication and intense exercise has been enough to keep Salazar’s depression at bay for three years.

“Before, I had so much pain inside,” he said. “When I finally started talking with others about how I feel, started working on my mental and physical health, I finally became happy with my life.”

Spread the word

Salazar, who is married with two children, knows that many other people face depression or other forms of mental illness but feel too ashamed to ask for help. He wants to let others know that it is possible to get better.

To spread the word that mental illness is a common, treatable problem that shouldn’t be kept secret (“Too many families lose a loved one to suicide and say, ‘I never knew he was struggling,’ ” he said), this spring Salazar is planning to spend a week running across the middle of Minnesota — a distance of 240 miles. Along the way, he’ll stop and share his story at small-town schools and community centers, organizing fun runs and inviting people to run alongside him for a mile or two as he makes his way from the South Dakota border to Wisconsin. 

Salazar came up with the idea for the project in 2013 while on a long-distance trail run. He decided that he wanted his route to cut through the state’s mostly rural midsection. In bigger cities, he figured, people are more comfortable talking about mental illness, but in small towns, mental health is still mostly a private affair.     

“I’m not focused on running across the whole state at once,” he said. “I’m going to take my time. Along the way, I want to stop and reach out to people and bring awareness to communities.” 

Support from fellow runners

As he was planning his cross-state run, Salazar, who is also a recovering alcoholic (“My drinking was self-medicating,” he said), talked to friends in the Minnesota ultradistance running community. His fellow runners were enthusiastic about the project; he recalls having detailed discussions on long-distance runs, eventually coming up with a name for the project — Break the Stigma Run — and even recruiting several board members for the nonprofit. 

One of Salazar’s biggest supporters is John Storkamp, owner of Rocksteady Running, an organizer of ultradistance races.

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“I thought it was an absolutely wonderful idea,” Storkamp. “I think running is a very therapeutic endeavor. A lot of people, whether they realize it or not, gravitate toward the sport for its therapeutic benefits. Physical activity has proven to be beneficial in combating mental health issues and depression.” 

Storkamp said that many of his fellow ultradistance runners have faced mental health and addiction challenges. A self-described “recovering alcoholic and drug addict with mental health issues,” he says that many people like himself have found that the significant physical challenge of long-distance running helps fight depression and addiction.

Though Salazar’s run is clearly a big distance, Storkamp is confident that he will be able to see it through to the end.

“Running 240 miles is huge challenge,” he said. “There’s room for all kinds of things to go wrong. But Julio’s spent a lot of time planning logistics. He’s come up with a solid plan that will set him up for the best success. He’s been mentally training and preparing himself or the task at hand. I believe he will have a great chance at success in completing the run.”

Run logistics

As he prepares himself for Break the Stigma Run’s May 4 start, Salazar has been keeping up his usual training regime of shorter one- to two-hour daily runs combined with regular 40-mile weekend runs.

During the six-day run, he will average 35 miles a day, stopping each night to sleep in hotels or private homes. He’s carefully mapped out his route, planning to start on Highway 212 at the South Dakota border and run toward Montevideo.

After Montevideo, Salazar said, “we’ll take Highway 7 to Willmar to 12 to Litchfield then on to Maple Plain. When we come to the city, we’ll go down Lake Street to Marshall to the Capitol. Then we’ll leave St. Paul, and run to Stillwater and then on to the river and Wisconsin.”

He knows that his knees could start to ache or the state’s unpredictable climate could throw him a curveball, but Salazar said that come what may he’s determined to see this project through to the end. 

“Weather doesn’t matter,” Salazar said. “I’m prepared to hurt, too. I won’t quit. I am going to do it. It’s just that important.”