The man who’s run more than 500 marathons: “My family think I’m crazy”
The image of a young girl was the start of what were to become terrifying hallucinations for Todd Crush.
“I was completing a woodworking project in my dining room, which had a big window that looked out over the driveway,” he recalls.
“I happened to look up and there was a girl who was about 11 years old outside, and she was saying something. I couldn’t hear her because I was inside, so I went out to see if she needed help. When I got there, she was talking but there was no sound coming out of her mouth.
“I thought that was a bit weird, so I went inside to call the police. But, when I went back to check if she was still there, she’d gone.”
Crush tells Saga Exceptional that he didn’t think much of it until a few days later.
“I was at home with my daughters and wife, watching TV. I got up to get a snack and went into the dining room, where the same little girl I’d seen in the driveway was standing. She was wearing the same clothes that I had seen her in before.
“I tried talking to her, but again, no sound came out when she moved her mouth. I turned away from her for a moment and when I looked again, she’d disappeared.”
Scared and confused, Crush says it started to dawn on him that he was hallucinating. “My first thought was, I’m going to get locked in an institution forever.”
It was 1997 and the 25-year-old Crush was living in the US state of Wisconsin. A keen runner, he was covering more than 160km (100 miles) a week. It helped him to process his difficult childhood, throughout which he was exposed to abuse and neglect.
“I had a hole in me,” says Crush, now in his fifties. “Some people fill theirs with fancy houses or drugs – I filled mine by running.”
Over the next two years, Crush’s hallucinations became more frequent. He had visions when he was running and he started to hear voices that were demeaning, cruel and aggressive.
His life began to unravel; he couldn’t work consistently and he had to constantly make up excuses for his strange behaviour. “I couldn’t bear it anymore. I made an attempt on my life and then I went to the emergency room to get some help.”
Crush was immediately admitted, and not long after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The doctors were unable to pinpoint exactly how or why it developed, but suggested it could have been due to the trauma in his past.
During this time, Crush and his wife separated.
Crush started doing short runs to help overcome his schizophrenia and agoraphobia
Crush decided that he couldn’t be in society any longer. “I loaded up my backpack and walked away.”
He headed west to Idaho, where he spent the winter of 2005 in the mountains. Crush then continued backpacking, hiking on his own all over the western US, including Death Valley.
“It was hard”, he explains. “I had to decide what was real and what was not because there were a lot of random people out there in the woods.”
By 2010, Crush says he couldn’t remember his own name. He had plans to continue travelling east, but stopped at a hospital in Arkansas – where he stayed for the next two months.
Crush tried to adjust to society in Arkansas after his time away, moving in with a friend. Then he lived and worked at a campsite, before being granted disability benefits and finding his own place.
But Crush started finding it increasingly difficult to face the world and stopped going outside. He was then diagnosed with another mental health condition: agoraphobia, a fear of being in situations from which it’s difficult to escape. For many, it can make it hard to leave their dwelling.
“Agoraphobia is weird, because everything in you is screaming to get out of where you are, but you can’t because you’re scared,” Crush says. “And each day you’re in that same place, the more afraid you get of leaving it. I was stuck in my home for years.”
He says the only time he left was when he had to get his medication once a month, which he says was a “horrific experience”.
The subsequent years were a difficult time for Crush. He became isolated and gained weight. But when he realised he was more than 136kg (21st 5lb), he knew he had to do something for his health.
“I started walking laps around my apartment for hours, then I started running a little bit up and down the hallway. I gradually added in some push-ups and sit-ups and when I was feeling stronger, I started walking and jogging outside for small periods of time.”
Crush built himself up over the ensuing months, gradually regaining his love for running – but little did he know a new love was about to give him even more hope for the future.
After his diagnosis, Crush says he kept everyone at a distance for years, but in March 2020 that changed.
“My therapist told me to reach out on Facebook to someone I didn’t know very well and tell them that I have schizophrenia,” he explains. “So I pulled up my contacts and messaged the first person on the list – Lesli. I’d talked to her casually before, every few months, but nothing more than that.
“I told her about my diagnosis, then we started generally chatting. The closeness I felt with her was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.”
Crush with his new love, Lesli
Things moved fast for the couple from that moment. “We had our first kiss on March 14, 2020, we moved in together on April 1, got engaged May and got married September 20,” Crush beams. He tells Saga Exceptional that she’s the most caring, compassionate, understanding person he’s ever met.
As his relationship with his new wife progressed, he found he wanted to run outside again more frequently. In November 2021 he started a running for beginners plan to get him moving regularly again and build up his endurance.
Now Crush says he runs by feel rather than time or distance. “Sometimes I’ll go for 40 minutes, other days I’ve gone for as little as eight. I go by how I feel that day and how long I think I need. I don’t ever think about beating personal bests or how many miles I’ve done.
“For me, running is about making myself feel better.”
However, his condition can make running challenging. “I went for a run earlier this year and was joined by a vision called Fred,” he says. “He’s zany and wild and he wears a checked shirt.
“I’d only been running for about 30 seconds when he showed up. He started running up to people’s front gardens and ringing their doorbells. I ran for about 20 minutes with him messing about in front of me.”
Crush says part of him knows it’s a hallucination, but his brain tells him that it’s real, which makes it scary. “But I get through it,” he says. “Now, if I wake up with voices, the first thing I do is run. Sometimes when I start I can hear them, but by the time I’m done running, they’re gone.”
Crush credits running with helping to overcome his agoraphobia
Being physically active has helped Crush manage his symptoms of schizophrenia, and because of that, he’s now able to pursue his love for music.
“Running got me to the point where I knew I was able to do things outside of my home again. I’m a musician but for a long time I played my bass and jazz instruments indoors. Then, just over a year ago, I started playing at open mic nights.
“Now I’m in a band, which was something I was afraid of doing because I thought if I heard voices then I wouldn’t be able to do it and I’d let everyone down. But running has shown me that I’m capable of doing more. I’ve played shows when I’ve heard voices and I’ve gotten through it.”
Crush says he performs once a week, sometimes solo, and attributes running to giving him the courage to do it. “I now know that I can do almost anything if I decide to,” he says. “I’m 51 in November and I’m going to keep moving forward.”
However, he has good days and bad days.
“Having a mental illness of any kind is like being on fire. If you’ve never been on fire, you can sympathise that it hurts, but you don’t really understand what it’s like.”
He says if you want to help someone struggling with their mental wellbeing, then a bit of compassion goes a long way. “If you’re in a situation where someone you know has a mental illness, be patient, be kind and seek to understand as best as you can.”
Contact Mind if you’d like further information on mental health and support. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd Crush is currently writing a book about his life. If you’d like to receive updates, you can email him: email@example.com
Written by Rebecca Frew she/her
Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier.
When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.
Outside of work Becky is practicing her Finnish (Hei!) for her dream holiday to Finland next year, and writing her 3rd book while cuddling her cats Giggles and Rebel- the latter of which really lives up to her name!