Obituary of Thaddeus Kostrubala, M.D.

“I was like an explorer who traveled to a faraway land and returned with what others thought were outlandish tales of wonders and beauty.”

Thaddeus Kostrubala, M.D. stormed the gates of heaven on September 4, 2020. He was a physician in the truest, most classical expression of the word: he was a healer and a teacher. He was an always faithful Marine, a dauntless sailor, and a better friend than a man could hope to have. The hearts of all his children lived in his heart. He was a loving and devoted husband to his wife of 42 years, the former Teresa Clitsome.

His appetite for life was ferocious, his dedication to motion—physical or spiritual—was an inspiration. He could sweep you up in whatever idea or exertion he was contemplating and take you body and soul for a ride you’d never forget, nor want to. Like the dawn run in preparation for an even longer, impossibly longer, run. Like slipping into the wild ocean at dawn and waiting for The Wave we knew would come. Like the night, after his long and tiring drive from San Diego to Lake Mary, he coaxed us all out into the night to look for owls. Like all the times he coaxed us to look deeper into the life around us and inside us, on a quest for angels. 

He was perhaps most well-known as “The Running Psychiatrist,” but that term fell far short of describing the impact he had on runners, running, and our views of mental and physical health. If you have discovered or been told by your doctor, therapist, or friend that exercise will not only improve your physical health but your mood and mental health as well, you have Thaddeus Kostrubala to thank. 

In the mid 1970s, Kostrubala was deep in research and clinical studies about the effects of slow long-distance running‚ not just on a person’s mood but on a person’s life and how that life fit into society and the history of human consciousness. Running wasn’t just about biology and psychology. It was about anthropology, sociology, politics, war, peace, love, hate, courage‚ creativity, freedom, and the future. The result was The Joy Of Running, one of the books that inspired the first running boom.

That book, The Joy of Running, is as alive and relevant today as it was the day it was originally published, in 1976. It is still the book you hand to someone thinking about starting to run, jog, or walk to improve their fitness or to just feel better. It is still the book you read to discover how running can save your life—and your soul. 

The link between exercise and improvement in mood, so firmly established now, was neither widely accepted, officially recommended, nor seriously investigated over 45 years ago, when Thaddeus was doing all three. Having discovered the powerful transformative effect of running in his own life, he wanted to know more, understand more, and develop this amazing tool to help heal others. He quickly progressed from helping himself‚ to helping others‚ to training others to help even more people.

The early years in which Kostrubala was active in running therapy were anything but easy for him. He had a difficult time, accompanied by ridicule and scorn. Within the psychiatric community, he put his excellent reputation at risk. A therapist who jogged and perspired with his patients and declared that this activity represented a serious treatment for mental disorders—not only was not taken seriously by the establishment, but his actions repudiated generally accepted Freudian and Jungian principles and practices. Nevertheless, Kostrubala was encouraged to continue by virtue of the results generated by his work. 

Words such as those spoken by Jack H. Scaff, MD, Director of the Honolulu Medical Group and President of the Honolulu Marathon Association, soothed his soul: Kostrubala’s book was “a bright new light at the end of a long tunnel of ignorance about the effects of slow long-distance running on the mind and body of man. Books like this are long overdue.” 

Kostrubala’s ideas have had far-reaching impact. Those who wanted to add substance to their own publications on running quoted him or asked him for a guest contribution; these persons included Michael H. Sacks, Michael L. Sachs, and Gary W. Buffone, who brought out, in 1981 and in 1984, the social science anthologies called the Psychology of Running and Running as Therapy. 

Dr. Kostrubala was sometimes called “The Running Doctor” or “The Running Psychiatrist” by the public. New York Magazine declared that he was even “a kind of high priest of long-distance stepping.”

The sustained impact that Thaddeus Kostrubala has had is shown by a glance at running and sports publications, the how-to manuals of the past 37 years. Here one finds numerous references, citations and commentaries about him. One passage reads: “Sports psychology has also gained recognition through the popularity of such books as Thaddeus Kostrubala’s The Joy of Running.” 

Kostrubala’s historical significance is also underlined in the publication of Loping (Oslo 2008) by the Norwegian Thor Gotaas; in the English translation called Running: A Global History (2009) the chapter dedicated to him is entitled “Away from the Psychiatrist’s Couch”. In Germany, Kostrubala’s work helped inform a thriving practice of running therapy.

Thaddeus Lewis Kostrubala was born September 22, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois.  He was graduated from Northwestern University, B.S., Anthropology, with honors, in 1952. He served on active duty as a Marine Corps 2nd to 1st Lt. until 1954. He received his M.D. from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1958 and was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha (medical honor society). He completed his internship at Tripler Army Hospital, Honolulu, HI, in 1959 and his residency in psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School, Evanston, Illinois, where he became Chief Resident, in 1962. He was Board Certified in Psychiatry.

During his long career he was Director of Mental Health for the city of Chicago, and started the city’s first Suicide Prevention Center, named “Call For Help.”  He served as Medical Director, Chief of Psychiatry, and Director of Psychiatric Education at Mercy Hospital, San Diego and Medical Director, Napa State Hospital, Napa ,California. He served on the faculties of several schools, including Northwestern University Medical School, Tufts Medical School, United States International University, University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University.His publications include The Joy of Running, Lippincott, 1976 and Ora Press, 2013; Paleoanalysis & Running Therapy (with Teresa Kostrubala, PhD) Ora Press, 2013; and numerous other articles and contributions to books. 

Kostrubala was the veteran of 40 marathons and a 50-miler. In 1977 he founded the International Association Of Running Therapists.

He is survived by his wife Teresa Clitsome Kostrubala; daughters Emily Claire Kostrubala, Annika Kamberelis, Christine Kostrubala, Alexandra Kostrubala, Giovanna Meek, Anastasia Kostrubala; sons Nathaniel Kostrubala, Tadz Kostrubala and Kazimir Kostrubala; 15 grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.

“Everything’s for the best… in this best of all possible worlds.”