When Christopher LaMagna started running, he couldn’t even make it one mile. Now he’s going to run 130 — at once.
The 29-year-old executive chef has long struggled with depression and anxiety and discovered running as an outlet at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic’s temporary closure of the restaurant industry gave the Barrique Kitchen and Wine Bar chef time to prioritize his mental health away from his high-stress job. Between the Babylon restaurant and his gig as a culinary teacher, he frequently clocks 90-hour work weeks.
LaMagna, who lives in West Islip, recently completed a 105-mile ultra marathon. It took him 26 hours, and he finished sixth. Now he’s preparing for his longest run yet: 130 miles from Montauk State Park to Central Park in Manhattan. He'll make the run alone, but teammates will join him on stretches after he begins his trek at 6 a.m. on Jan. 8.
He’s raising money for the Long Island Crisis Center, a nonprofit that provides free crisis support and professional help for a variety of issues. LaMagna hopes to raise $3,500 for the center, a goal he has nearly met.
It started with a run on Montauk Highway in April 2020. LaMagna estimates he made it a quarter of a mile before he gave up. But with daily attempts, he slowly saw himself improve — and said running helped his anxiety and depression.
"It became addictive — but the healthy choice of addiction," he told Newsday. "When I keep pushing it’s just amazing to see. Wow, you know, I thought I couldn’t do 10 miles in the beginning, and now I’m doing 100."
Dr. Scott Krakower, a psychiatrist at Northwell Health who works with competitive athletes, encourages his patients to include exercise in their routines, along with medications or other treatments recommended by their doctors. Exercise, fresh air and sunlight are things he recommends to help mental health.
"I think just in general exercise is a really good mental health booster," he said. "It's clear that exercise does actually help to improve overall longevity, health and wellness and mental health as well."
LaMagna likens running to meditation. Running keeps his mind centered and undistracted. It quiets his mind, strengthens his body and improves his self-confidence — a change that he said bettered his relationships.
It also showed LaMagna something he didn’t realize he was missing: self love.
"When you spend time alone, no distractions, no phones, no music … you have to enjoy who you’re with," he said. "Because you’re with no one else, you learn to love yourself. I’m happy I learned to love myself, because it’s like that one person I’ve been looking for my entire life and it’s been me."
Just as food provides him a way of connecting with others, so does running. He joined a training team — the Ohana Endurance Tri Team of Long Island — where he’s found support and community among other athletes.
His coach, Andrea Kay, whom he’s worked with for eight months, described his determination to run the ultra marathon as a testament to LaMagna’s character.
"I just know him as being an extremely determined athlete and a very generous spirit," she said. "That’s how I think of Chris: As somebody who is determined as an athlete, but also community focused and isn’t afraid to speak about issues that affected him and wants to bring awareness and wants to bring it into the vernacular that it’s OK to have issues in this way."
The Long Island Crisis Center
The Long Island Crisis Center's hotline is available 24/7 to those struggling with their mental health. The center fielded more than 10,000 calls last year from Long Islanders in need. Do you need help? Reach the hotline at 516-679-1111.