Exorcising the Demons
Andy Bruner finds peace, healing on the trails
Bruner gets air at the Hot to Trot 8-Hour Race in Lithia Springs, Georgia, 2012.
This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.
On May 8, 2008, Andy Bruner went for a jog—his first in 10 years. Struggling up a steep hill near his apartment in Augusta, Georgia, in a beat-up pair of Pumas, he felt his lungs “burning like Chernobyl,” the consequence of his pack-a-day smoking habit. Ninety-degree temperatures and Bruner’s history of asthma piled on the pain—but he refused to turn back.
Earlier that day, Bruner’s father, had received a lung transplant. Bruner’s evening slog up the hill was an effort to celebrate his father’s new life, as well as honor the anonymous donor. Though he had no inkling of it that day, a few years later, Bruner would be finishing 100-milers and snagging podium finishes at ultras throughout the South.
Bruner, now 32, grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The youngest of three children of a pharmacist father and a radiologist mother, he says he was a “nervous little kid.” His earliest memories are of imagining worst-case scenarios, such as the Earth plunging into the sun. An overactive imagination caused sadness and fear that, as he grew into adolescence, evolved into low self esteem and depression.
“[The depression] was all encompassing,” Bruner says. “No single event would trigger it. It’s just how I was built.”
Afraid of burdening his parents, he kept his problems to himself. But as a sophomore at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, he spiraled out of control, drinking every night and blacking out routinely. Alcoholism fueled his depression. In high school, he had begun cutting his wrists with a razor, which became more frequent in college. One day, his roommates discovered Bruner bleeding deeply and contacted his parents.
Bruner returned home “disgraced” to a bewildered family. He spent months in a psychiatric ward; recovery programs were helpful, but he’d often slip back into depression, drink, overeat and cut himself. The pattern continued for six years.
“It seemed that he’d start to show some progress, and then he’d relapse,” says Betty Bruner, Andy’s mother. “Each time, it was heartbreaking, just horrible to watch. You feel so helpless.”
After retiring in 2004, his parents moved to the rural community of Lincolnton, Georgia. Bruner followed them, enrolling in courses at Augusta State University and later working as an administrative assistant in the library—all while continuing to drink, smoke a pack and a half a day.