Running Before Daylight: Getting Clean and Staying Clean

Michael Lebowitz’s journey from runner to addict to clean runner.

By on May 2, 2012 | Comments

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
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.