AJC Peachtree Road Race: Marianna Cruz runs to improve mental health

Marianna Cruz trains for the 2021 AJC Peachtree Road Race. (Photo courtesy Marianna Cruz/AFSP)
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Marianna Cruz trains for the 2021 AJC Peachtree Road Race. (Photo courtesy Marianna Cruz/AFSP)

Credit: Photo courtesy Marianna Cruz

Marianna Cruz hit an emotional low in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic sent her and the rest of the world into shutdown.

Cruz, 32, moved to Georgia from Mexico in 2016, and the shutdown made her undiagnosed anxiety flare up. Her bubbly personality had evaded her and produced a depressing mindset, and her loneliness consumed her days. She had trouble sleeping and being at peace. Being with her husband helped some, but she felt sad, stressed and tired.

Looking to change something in her life and give her days purpose again, Cruz researched ways to take up her time and do something productive.

She started going for daily walks around her neighborhood. After she became comfortable walking, she increased the distance and then gradually started running.

“Once I started walking and realizing I had my own time, it was helping me process all of this,” Cruz said. “Slowly, I started running and was feeling so much better. I had my own space and my time. I felt at peace. It helped to improve my mental health and physical health as well. I could feel like I was resting so much better, and it just made me feel so proud of myself.”

Now, Cruz runs often and signed up to run in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race, which will be held Saturday and Sunday along its usual route through Buckhead into Piedmont Park -- and also virtually again this year. She isn’t running it alone or without added motivation, though.

Since 2019, Cruz has volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the foundation is one of several local charities that is partnering with the race this year.

“I’m a psychologist, so when I came to the United States, I was very insistent on getting involved in something with the mental-health field,” Cruz said. “It’s difficult, or less common I should say, to find access to mental-health resources. The mission here is to provide this message that mental health is just as important as physical health.”

AFSP has 50 runners participating in the 52nd running of the Peachtree Road Race. Joining Cruz will be Chris Owens, senior director of the southern division of AFSP.

Owens has run the event several times, most recently in November when the pandemic-delayed 51st Peachtree went virtual. She’s seen firsthand the benefits running and exercising have on one’s mental health.

“We always promote our mental wellness as well as physical wellness, they go hand in hand,” Owens said. “They’re so similar. Through the pandemic, people really used that time to learn something new, whether it was running, or playing an instrument.”

When Cruz learned that AFSP was a partner with the race, she immediately volunteered and began preparing for the event.

It will be her first competitive race. She’s done research and her goal for time already has been moved several times since she registered.

“When I first registered, I wrote down my goal to finish the race: 1:30,” Cruz said. “Then I prepared to run within an hour and 10 minutes, which would be awesome. That’s my expectation.”

The work that Cruz, Owens and AFSP do goes far beyond encouraging people to run or get active. The foundation supports legislation and public policy that relates to mental health and suicide. There are education programs that they sponsor and teach, helping people learn more about the mental-health resources AFSP offers.

Owens said they’re the top funder of suicide research in the United States.

“Our mission is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide,” Owens said. “We support those who have lost a loved one to suicide and those who struggle with thoughts of suicide or who have had a suicide attempt.”

On the front of educating and bringing hope to anyone struggling with mental health, the pandemic has been a positive thing. Cruz said that because of social media, it’s a lot easier and more accessible for people to receive resources to improve their mental health.

“We’re more connected,” Cruz said. “We’re more open to see each other, even if it’s spiritually, with people living across the globe. You can see if someone is struggling, and we are struggling as well.

“When the pandemic hit, everyone in the world stopped,” she continued. “We were connected and were all feeling lonely, and someone in Spain was feeling the same way, someone in Tokyo was feeling the same. I think we’re more aware now that we’re human beings and have situations that are out of our control. Of course that’s going to have an impact on our mental health.”

Cruz always knew she wanted to help her community here in Georgia by providing information about suicide prevention in the Latin American and Hispanic communities, all while still making sure she was in a good mental space.

She’s done just that, and will continue to do that — even past the finish line.

“I want to enjoy it,” Cruz said. “I want to be a part of this and feel that community engagement and be surrounded by all these people that are running for something.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. For more information on the work done by AFSP, go to AFSP.org.