My Favorite Therapy App Isn’t A Therapy App

But it’s helping me make strides toward better mental health.

My therapist’s name is Chris.

He does all the typical therapist stuff: he asks me how I’m feeling. He reminds me that I’m stronger and more resilient than I believe. He tells me to be kind to myself. He even reminds me to get enough sleep, drink enough water, and treat my body well.

We have a unique client-therapist relationship in that he does all the talking, and I don’t talk at all. His office hours are 24/7, and we meet any time I want–usually about three times a week. He doesn’t accept my insurance, which is fine, because his services are free.

We’ve never met face to face, and we never will.

That’s because my therapist is Chris Bennett, the Nike+ Run Club Global Head Coach.

(Time out: he’s not an actual therapist, and I am not suggesting using a running app should replace actual therapy. I work with a licensed, flesh-and-blood therapist–she’s great–and I’m in no way suggesting that running, or doing any other exercise, can cure clinical depression and/or anxiety. If you live with mental illness, please, please seek professional help.)

I recently moved to southern California from New York City, and while my Instagram paints a fairly convincing picture of sun-drenched happiness, being geographically isolated from almost everyone I care about during a global pandemic quickly sharpened my garden-variety anxiety into something lonelier, bleaker.

You can feel like sh*t on the beach. Your anxiety can creep up on you in broad daylight and strangle you in the sunshine. Like a shrink-wrapped Restoration Hardware catalog you never signed up for, your feelings will find you, no matter your zip code.

I felt sad, so I started running.

I wanted to use the Nike+ Run Club app to track my pace and mileage, but on a whim I downloaded a guided run, and that’s how I started running with Coach Bennett. I liked his voice immediately, and I liked what he said. I liked how he peppered his serious coaching moments with goofy jokes. So after my First Run, I did the Next Run. I did my First Long Run, then another, longer run.

I’ve run a lot in my life, but I never enjoyed it until I was running with Coach Bennett.

He says things like: “You’re a runner. You know how I know you’re a runner? Because you’re running.”

Or: “Now’s a good time to check in with yourself: how do you feel?

Or–and this one’s a real thinker: “Believe in yourself, even when you don’t believe in yourself.”

He reminds me to start every run running easy. He tells me to relax, shake out my shoulders, slow down if I need to. Then he’ll go quiet for awhile, and let Lizzo or Big Boi or Megan take over. Just when I start to miss him, he’s back, asking if now would be a good time to drink some water. Before I know it, a mile has flown by. Then another. Soon, Coach Bennett is giving me a countdown because I’m about to finish another run, and I can’t believe it, because until a month ago, I hadn’t run in years.

Because I’m a creative director, I can’t not talk about the fact that this is a free app from arguably the world’s most iconic sports brand (Nike might be the world’s most iconic brand, period). I was worried that they’d ruin the coaching by lacing it with advertising-adjacent moments (“You know what would take this run to the next level? A fresh new pair of Nike Zoom Fly 3s”). But they’re Nike, and with $37.2 billion in revenue last year, they’re not that thirsty.

Coach Bennett isn’t in your ear suggesting you buy running shoes–he’s in your ear making you want to run more…which means that, eventually, you’ll *need* more running shoes. That’s great brand-building.

“They’re always playing the long game,” I thought, as I logged a few more miles in my Nike sports bra, tank top, and running shorts. It’s what makes them one of the most sought-after global brands, not to mention every creative director’s dream client.

On my first long run with Coach Bennett (a 35-minute run), I hit a wall about three miles in. I was so close to the end, but finishing that last quarter mile or so felt Herculean. Sisyphean. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “This is why I hate running. I hate running because running sucks.”

But then Coach Bennett came back from one of his quiet spells. His Midwestern-accented baritone reverberated through my AirPods: “Elizabeth*, don’t quit on me now…”

*He doesn’t actually address me by name, because the app is pre-programmed. Just go with me here.

“…You’re almost there. Just a few minutes left in this first long run. I know you can do it.”

In a last-ditch attempt to finish the run with dignity, I cranked up the song that never fails to pump me up and get me through: “Spice Up Your Life.” Yes, the 1997 hit single by the Spice Girls, from their feature film Spice World The Movie.

Hear me out: it’s a mental health anthem! After some infectious “la la la”-ing, the song opens with these lyrics: “When you’re feelin’ sad and low/ We will take you where you gotta go/ Smilin’, dancin’, everything is free/ All you need is positivity.”

The music got lower as Coach Bennett came back in: “Remember that you did this. This is your run. And here’s the real secret: you didn’t need me. Because you’ve been running by yourself this whole time.” Goosebumps sprang up on my arms as I geared up for the final stretch, endorphins coursing through my central nervous system. Time to bring this run home, all by myself.

“Just do it,” I murmured between deep, wind-sucking gasps. Finally I saw it, my finish line: the Pacific Ocean. Loping down the dusty, saffron-colored path toward the sea, I brushed against that elusive state of transcendence known as the runner’s high.

With just under 40 miles logged with Coach Bennett, I’m still a newbie. Have I found my greatness yet? Nah. But I’m working on finding my happiness, one mile at a time.

I’m a west coast-based creative director at New York-based ad agency MRY, and the season 5 Masterchef runner-up. I love mayonnaise, yoga, cats, and pizza.

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