Running Before Daylight: Getting Clean and Staying Clean

Running Before Daylight… taking the long way home.

I’m an addict/alcoholic. Pretty much everything I do reflects this part of me. Perhaps the best way to describe the nature of me in the world is to say, in a phrase from the Eagles, that I’ve wanted “everything, all the time.” It was a hard way to live. For folks like me, and there are an awful lot of us, addiction is best described as taking a normal activity and doing it abnormally in response to what’s going on inside. One such activity for me has been long-distance running.

I started running the way all kids do, down the block, around the corner.

In college I ran on the track team in order to stay in shape for swimming. Running was about fitness as much as it was about competition and courage. It was the ’60s. I was free, obligated, to indulge in drugs and alcohol and sex if for no other reason than to try to be included in my generation. I certainly did my part.

Running changed for me—it became my way of balancing the hard living, of “sweating out” the whisky, of clearing away the cobwebs of the drugs. The more I used, the more I ran, 70 miles a week for years. The inevitable disaster took the form of a cocaine-induced heart attack at the age of 50. The irony of it is that my heart sustained very little lasting damage—the result, the doctors said, of all the running. I was invulnerable, bullet-proof. And enormously foolish.

I went right back to the drugs and hard living. Complete collapse—broke and jobless, out of time, out of hope, alone, beyond despair—came five years later, in 2001.

I went to treatment in Texas. The facility frowned on running as an activity in early recovery because the activity itself was part of the disease; the endorphins created a masking effect, a running away from self. Maybe this was true. It didn’t really matter. The loss of running, while poignant, was simply one more loss among many.

Two months into my stay I went out one morning to do hill repeats, which require running up and down a hill many times. After all, what did the doctors know, Running is good for me I thought. Repeats are an activity that requires training, fitness and care. I had none of those. My choice to do them and my attitude are absolutely typical of addiction and early recovery. I not only didn’t run very well, I finished in the ER of the local hospital, having pulled my Achilles tendon. The weeks of limping and moaning that followed made a strong case for the recovery doc’s point of view.

The lesson was clear enough. My way wasn’t going to work. I was going to have to start from scratch, to re-invent everything in sobriety before I could return to even the most benign of activities.

Two and a half years into recovery, I was ready to run long again. I was aware, finally, of the need to invest the activity with the lessons of recovery that I had learned. I set out to train for a marathon, six months away in June 2004. I had to start slowly, take it a day at a time, follow a plan, allow myself the opportunity to succeed, have the discipline to overcome a poor day. My running had to be an addition to my recovery; running had to be running for itself, for its restorative quality, a time for reflection, an opportunity for gratitude. For the most part it worked out that way.

In the course of training for the marathon, I found myself thinking back to the days in Toronto when I ran in the early morning with a group of guys and gals. We thought of ourselves as the Road to Ruin Runners Club (RRRC). My addiction took me away from all of it—the running, the friendships, the feeling that life would be all right for me.

Early on in the Texas training, it came to me that I was the Texas chapter of the RRRC. It got me out the door most mornings. I reconnected with most of the RRRC and discovered that the running and the friendships had survived the worst I had done. I ran the marathon in Anchorage; not well, not fast, but all the way to the end. Along the way I made a promise to myself to write about it. Not long ago my article about the RRRC was published in a running magazine. I have run six more marathons since Anchorage.

Running is different now. I’m older and I’m slower. The other morning I realized that things had changed in a more meaningful way. I was out for a run before 5, as is my habit. Rain-wet morning streets used to be my battleground, backdrop to my desperate search for any means of escape. Here I was, running before daylight, in a cathedral of my own choosing, a place of prayer, meditation, gratitude.

I run now because running enables me to fight my limitations, to endure pain, to fight the desire in me to hide; it teaches me every day not to give in, to keep on keepin’ on, to believe that if I give the day what I’ve got, it will give me the chance to make my life shine.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this story previously appeared in Newsweek. Some of you many know the author as the LongRun Pictures guy who photographs races around the American West. For the record, Michael is still clean and still running.]

Michael Lebowitz

is a writer, a photographer, and a runner in Eugene, Oregon. His grown children who have taught him damn near everything that works for him in his life.

He writes and takes pictures because it’s his way of telling stories. He runs because it reminds him that he’s here. He has no idea where the writing comes from. Nor the images. But he starts with what he knows and he imagines the rest. Sometimes it starts as fact, sometimes fiction but it is always true.

There are 21 comments

  1. Drew

    Great article – heartfelt and with an important lesson, that while running can be redemption it can also be used to hide other problems.

  2. Heath

    Powerful stuff! It's amazing that something as seemingly simple as running can be so incredibly healing. Your story makes me want to put down my morning tea and get out the door!

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jeff Faulkner

    Quite a story there. My congratulations on getting clean and staying that way. I know how hard that can be, someone close to me is an addict and it's a lifelong battle to stay clean.

    Keep running Michael.

  4. Patrick Cawley

    Thank you for sharing, Michael. Keep following the Doctor's Opinion. Even if there are addictive qualities to long-distance running, the discipline involved and the way that it works out emotions and stress make it a healthy antidote to more insidious addictions.

  5. Jacques

    Great article. As an addict myself, I've spent some time analizing my running which I started after being sober 5 years. Sure, running is addictive but it also was teaching me disipline and provided much needed meditative quiet time as well as strong camaraderie. It became a big part of my sober life and in medical terms my therapy. I realized early that if I treated it like just another addiction it would be self destructive and I would lose the gift to injuries. thanks for sharing, Michael.

  6. adam

    i can relate to every word of this and this article couldn't have been published at a more perfect time. i am a addict/alcoholic/ultrarunner that has VERY recently made some serious life changing decisions. here's to getting better and HEALING ourselves…

  7. Tony Mollica

    Congratulations on your sobriety! Thanks for sharing your story!

    I recently participated in a 24 Hour Run. In the early morning hours I was with a couple of runners and we were moving very slowly. Our mantra became "One Step At A Time" , modeled after "One day At A Time". One of those with us was a lady who said she was in one of the 12 step programs. She said it the early morning experience and determination reminded her of the program. (I am not saying that what we were going through is anywhere close to the difficulty of battling addiction! Plus we knew our battle would be over after 24 hours, and not an every day fight.)

  8. Jeremy in PDX

    Great article. My first high was late night in college; however, I was alone at 1 am and rather than stopping at the end of my run I was charging in bliss for a second 7k loop of that night's run. After college, I found another high. One that has plagued me for a couple years. I continued to run until last year an Achilles pull halted my running for over ten months. During that time, I clung to my new way to get high. After months of physical rehab, I just completed my first five consecutive days of running with little pain. That said, I have not entirely bucked my other habit; although, I am developing a great sense of control and restraint. Running is my cure and no high can compare to the satiation of knowing your physical and spiritual prowess, and then comfortably exceeding your limits. It is like sliding into a gear that is not marked on your stick shift. A discovery and something you rarely get to experience. This is a grand high. Having experienced this can make you a fiend for other highs. It was the catalyst for my addictive personality. My solace, or optimism to buck my habits? Knowing that I will not be able to run like I have in the past, if I am filling my lungs, my body, my vehicle, with junk.

  9. CJ

    Awesome Michael! Your story is very inspiring and powerful. Lord bless you as you continue to live clean and find "positive" addictions.

  10. Go Dog Go

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate the recent commentary on addition in athletes. I have noticed that these stories garner far fewer comments than do the traditional race reports, gear reviews, previews, etc. I think that is unfortunate, but it is also a reality. In the sport of ultrarunning, you have to wonder what drives someone to go that far. If you are reading this, then you know that it goes beyond the athletiscm and into the philosophical. It is no surprise then that the people who turn to crazy distances for the philosophical/spiritual/transcendent reasons may also have concurrent issues with substance abuse. Alcohol, drugs and other things have been attractive because they give us an opportunity to temporarily leave the pain of existence, or they simply offer an alternative to "reality" and serve to quench curiosity. Unfortunately the use may turn into an addictive pattern, as is the case for me. I never thought I would have a problem with alcohol, because I used acid, cocaine, heroin, marijuana all on a recreational basis for years. And I also have a search for something beyond me, something spiritual, which led me on many epic adventures in the backcountry, and now, not surpisingly, ultrarunning. But, my curiosity got the best of me and my physiology took control, and I now have a sudden and tragic relationship with alcohol. So, I just wanted to become one more voice in the community who struggles with this sort of things, because the things that lead us down the road to seek the transcendalism of running are also located precisely on the other side of the double-edged sword.

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