Trudging up a brier-covered mountain in freezing temperatures with a dying headlamp, Nickademus de la Rosa knew his attempt to finish the Barkley Marathons, a 100-plus-mile race in Tennessee, was coming to an end, as it eventually would for most other entrants. The race has no trail markers, an elevation gain comparable to climbing Everest twice from sea level and a finish rate that hovers around 1percent.
Earlier in de la Rosa’s career as an ultramarathon runner, he most likely would have been stricken with an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and shame for not completing a race. But in the Tennessee woods in March, he saw the upside.
“Instead of hitting myself and telling myself how worthless I am, I congratulated myself on what I was able to accomplish,” he said. “I realized I did not have anything to prove at Barkley. I had no more demons to slay and I was happy to finish early and spend time with my wife.”
It was a significant moment for de la Rosa, who has been grappling with a serious mental illness that has imperiled both his running career and his life.
In a sport dominated by people in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s, de la Rosa was a prodigy. At 19, he finished Badwater, an infamous 135-mile race across Death Valley in California in the brutal heat of July. When he was 21, he completed 135 miles in Minnesota with temperatures of minus 35 degrees. The next year, he became only the 13th person to finish Barkley since it began in 1986. And at 24 he placed second at Tor des Géants, a 205-mile race through the Alps. During that 76-hour race, he slept less than two hours and hallucinated that his running partner’s intestines were hanging out of his body.
De la Rosa said he always ran races to win them, but he now realizes that his motivations were more complex. He spent much of his youth and young adulthood in emotional turmoil, and instead of seeking treatment, he essentially self-medicated by keeping a brutal training schedule and participating in some of the world’s most grueling races. In 2019, at 29, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which can cause sudden shifts from intense sadness to deep fear to shame or joy. Those with the condition often have an unstable sense of self and struggle to keep jobs or maintain relationships, and many, including de la Rosa, attempt suicide.
The illness affects about 14 million Americans, according to the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder. That’s
The New York Times