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Running From the Ruins

Written by Jason Duaine Hahn (@JasonDuaine)

How recovering addicts use running to avoid relapse and chase new beginnings.

A small group of runners pass just under the tips of barren branches in Manhattan’s Central Park as a frigid spring wind chills the sweat dripping down their faces. Oversized sweaters and baggy sweatpants bounce off the older runners’ bodies with each step. The younger ones, many in their twenties, wear tight-fitting thermals and shorts that hug toned physiques.

Near the front of the pack is Mike Kalos, a 28-year-old with blue eyes, short-cropped dirty blond hair and a physique so skinny it’s hard to believe he’s an ex-Marine. Walking briskly at the rear of the group with a pink scarf wrapped around her neck is 49-year-old Sarah Jordan, a registered nurse who joined the group last December. Her short curly hair is gray in front and black toward the back. She’s struggling to keep up with the pack when an older man in a long soiled jacket emerges from another Central Park path dragging a black trash bag behind him. “Miss!” he calls to her with a proud smile. “How are you?”

“I’m good, I’m good!” Sarah replies without breaking stride. The frail man is staring now, trying to engage her in conversation but she waves goodbye, turning his smile into a puzzled scowl. “I haven’t seen him in years,” Sarah says as the man walks away with a wobbly gait. “He was someone I knew from my using years.”

Like all the other runners in the group, Sarah isn’t just here for the fresh air and exercise. She’s a patient at the New York City drug rehabilitation clinic, Odyssey House. Sarah checked herself in last December after she relapsed and used heroin, and soon joined “Run for Your Life: Turning Addicts into Athletes,” Odyssey House’s marathon training program. As part of their treatment for addiction, the group takes twice-weekly runs through Central Park to help escape their demons.

Now going into its 13th year, Odyssey House’s Run For Your Life program is one of a number of programs around the country that incorporate roadwork into drug treatment programs, as recovering addicts replace the euphoria of drug abuse with an exercising “high.” Groups like the Ohio-based Racing for Recovery, Back On My Feet from Philadelphia, and New York’s Odyssey House have all developed regimens that help people stay clean through endurance running.

As Sarah crosses the finish line, coach Andre Matthews gathers the runners for one of his “seminars,” motivational speeches meant to keep them focused. The sun is setting behind the buildings overlooking the Jackie O Reservoir, and while the runners are anxious to escape the cold, they listen to their coach’s deep, gravelly voice with rapt attention. He reminds the group to stay organized, stay together, and to be each other’s keepers, adding that their Saturday run will now begin an hour earlier at 9 a.m.

After the seminar, the runners walk to the subway, splintering off toward their respective housing units. Many of the men head to the Mabon facility on Ward’s Island, while some of the women head to the Lafayette building in the Bronx, two of about 10 Odyssey House residential and outpatient centers throughout New York City.

The next morning at Odyssey House headquarters in Harlem, Andre’s running shoes and neon-orange New York City Marathon workout shirt are replaced with a blue collar shirt, dress shoes, and a red and blue striped tie. The computer screen reflects off of his black-framed glasses as the 53-year-old types away responding to emails that have accumulated overnight. His official title at Odyssey House is Recreational Coordinator, and it’s been a long journey since he was a patient here almost a decade ago. When Andre says “those chemicals change your mood,” he knows what he’s talking about.

Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Andre joined the Army out of high school in the 1980s, spending time in Japan and South Korea. After returning to the states in the ’90s, he was in and out of jail for petty larceny, unauthorized use of vehicles, and possession of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Jumping from one drug to the next, he fell deep into what he calls the hustle: “selling any and everything that you could” for the next fix. Though he had a son, Andre felt that being a father while on drugs was impossible, so he gave up having any meaningful relationship with any of his family members.

Since then Andre has reestablished a relationship with his son and the rest of his family, and he’s a grandfather to two children. “The moment you tell yourself you want to make the change,” he says, “there are no more clouds, there is no more fog. You’re able to see more clearly.”

Many addictive drugs produce their “high” from dopamine, a chemical that triggers feelings of pleasure. During recovery from addiction, the dopamine produced during exercise can be a good substitute for the feeling of drug use. Exercise has shown to improve cognitive thinking over time, helping to clear the fog of a drug user’s mind. Running has become a strong component of drug treatment programs because of its potential to heal both body and mind, fending off a recovering addict’s worst nightmare: relapse. “It’s not an easy thing to come back from any type of struggle,” Andre says. “Let alone years of substance abuse. We call it Run for Your Life because that’s literally what they’re doing.”

 

On the morning of July 11, 1998, Andre Matthews—then in his late 30s—stepped out of a room in Brooklyn, NY, where he’d just purchased a small baggie of heroin from a dealer who operated from behind a hole in a brick wall. As Andre walked back to his car, he noticed a black SUV creeping up behind him. He quickly tossed his baggie to the side just before the police closed in. The officers got out, patted Andre down, and mumbled to each other about where they saw Andre toss the drug.

“Here it is!”

“That’s not mine!” yelled Andre, just before officers slammed him against the SUV. The police placed the bag of heroin on the hood of the car, and Andre’s desperation took over. He grabbed the bag and raised it to his mouth. Just before he could swallow it in a flawed attempt of destroying the evidence, the officers restrained him. “C’mon man, let it go,” said an officer, who raised his flashlight in the air as if he was about to strike Andre. “Let it go.”

Andre did let go. As he was placed in the black vehicle, Andre knew he had to let go for the last time. While in jail, Andre was given the choice to serve his time at a rehabilitation clinic. He joined Odyssey House, which has been around since 1967, when Dr. Judianne Densen Gerber of New York’s Metropolitan Hospital became frustrated with drug-replacement treatment for addicts—using drugs like methadone to block the high that comes from opiates such as heroin. Soon after checking in, Andre began running to nurse his body back into shape, making use of a small yard behind the clinic to run laps. “Running became my primary high,” he says.

His workouts caught the eye of Odyssey House vice president, John Tavolacci, who asked Andre if he would be interested in training for a marathon. He agreed, and soon after Andre completed his first New York City Marathon, the first person to do so from Odyssey House. From there, the Run For Your Life: Turning Addicts Into Athletes program was established with Andre at the helm. That was more than 10 years ago. Andre has remained clean since and his program has helped more than 300 students do the same. He’s also competed in the Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles marathons, and run the New York City Marathon 14 times. His students learn diet and discipline techniques as they prepare for their own marathons, with qualification for the NYC Marathon being a top priority for much of the team. “It’s about getting these guys back into shape and teaching them how to live healthy lives,” says Andre.

“Many people recovering from addiction come from a life full of tragedy and trauma,” says John Tavolacci. “Running a marathon is an amazing thing. It’s the antithesis of being addicted to drugs.” The 26.2-mile race is a grueling challenge even for experienced runners. Originating in ancient Greece, marathons are now held in more than 800 cities around the world, drawing many different types of participants from the far corners of the globe: you’ll catch world-class runners, the impaired and disabled, and people of all ages who simply want to meet the challenge they’ve set for themselves. That’s one of the key ingredients to completing a marathon: dedication, which begins long before the runner takes their position at the starting line.

Andre tries to pass on a running philosophy to his students that he has refined over the years. For one, members of Run For Your Life won’t have any type of earbuds in their ears—a big contrast to the white earbuds implanted in the ears of many of the other runners in Central Park. “I just like to take in everything that’s natural when I run, the sounds of the things around me. I’d rather talk to someone than listen to music. It almost seems rude to do that,” Andre says.

After Superstorm Sandy devastated the city during the end of October 2012, the NYC Marathon was canceled for the first time since its founding in 1970. This year the race is back on—but not without added security in response to the terrorist attack during April’s Boston Marathon. Upwards of 48,000 runners are expected to make the trek through each of NYC’s five boroughs, starting on Staten Island and ending near Columbus Circle in Central Park—the Run For Your Life team’s stomping grounds. Those who qualified for the 2012 marathon had the option of automatically qualifying for this year’s race, and members of the team will be running this Sunday.

For those in recovery, weaving themselves into a running community offers a chance to be judged by how fast they can complete a mile on a given day, rather than by their past. “From the starting line to the finish line, there’s no discrimination,” says John. “No one is looking at you because you were an addict.”

Though research into the connection between running and addiction is fairly new, studies with cocaine-addicted rodents have found that exercise can decrease chances of a relapse. “Exercise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other aspects of one’s life, is a good thing with respect to both physical and mental health,” says Robin Kanarek, professor of psychology at Tufts University. “As with food intake and other parts of life, moderation seems to be the key.”

The move toward running therapy also has celebrity backers. When Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, was recovering from his addiction to prescription meds like Valium, Vicodin, and Ambien, one rehab counselor turned him onto long-distance running. “I started running like a fucking maniac,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010, soon after the release of his album, Recovery. “Seventeen miles a day, every day. Just replacing one addiction with another.”

 

Dirt rose into the air as Mike Kalos’ feet struck the ground. The sun was hot, his combat boots were heavy. It was late 2007, and he was stationed atop a mountain in Korengal Valley, northeastern Afghanistan—also known as the “Valley of Death,” an outpost crawling with al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. Mike and his best friend, Joe, had orders to walk around the village with four other Marines and make friends with the locals. “We had to let them know we weren’t there to hurt nobody, that we’re there to bring them to freedom,” he says. “Or something like that. I couldn’t even tell you why the fuck we were there.”

Mike had been a Marine for just over a year—enlisting because his parents were urging him to do something with his life. After years of working supermarket jobs and abusing prescription meds and marijuana since age 13, he needed a new start. Joining the Marines at 22 was his chance to get clean.

As the Marines walked past stone and brick homes, two men appeared over a hill in the distance. Bullets began to hammer into the soil around Mike and his group, and they began returning fire. Two Marines flanked to the left of the hill, two others flanked right. Mike and Joe provided covering fire as their enemy advanced over the hill. With a barrage of ammunition flying through the air, one bullet hit its target.

Joe fell beside Mike, blood draining from a wound in his neck. Mike killed the insurgent who shot Joe and the other Marines killed the second. Mike returned to his friend on the ground to be with him for the last moments of his life. “That… that was the toughest time I had,” Mike says. The two had been friends since basic training, and got matching tattoos—a single word in cursive, with Mike’s placed on his left forearm. It reads “Loyalty.”

Joe’s death still haunts Mike, and it’s been a contributing factor to his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a mental health condition affecting an estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Symptoms range from jumping at sudden noise to vivid nightmares and excessive emotions. From time to time when Mike tries to sleep, he feels like he’s right back in combat.

During his time in the Marines, Mike stayed sober. After returning to New York City in 2012, he started hanging out with old friends who shared a love for producing hip-hop beats. Before long, Mike was back to using alcohol, marijuana, and eventually heroin. After being pulled over and caught with marijuana and a loaded gun in his car, Mike was placed in jail and the judge offered him the choice of staying in jail or going to a drug rehabilitation center.

Mike chose rehab. Living at Odyssey House’s Mabon facility on Ward’s Island, he wakes up at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, eats breakfast by 7:00, and attends meetings at 8:30, 1:00 and 5:00 to discuss treatment and maintain morale. “It feels like a jail in there,” he says. “But that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be like, you’re not supposed to want to come back to this place.”

Mabon has its own gym, where Mike works out every day. He has a strict regimen, even tougher then during his days in the Marines. At 160 pounds, Mike can bench almost his own weight: 150 pounds. Or, as he puts it, “A buck-fifty.”

To help relieve his PTSD, Mike attends a veterans’ group every Thursday. Though he’s rid himself of the pain medication he used to abuse, Mike now uses prescription drugs to help him get a night’s rest. “It’s creepy,” he says of the nightmares that wake him. “Sometimes they’re vivid, and they feel real. It’s really strange, I’ll be right back in the fighting, or someone from my family will be over there with me.”

“It’s torture,” he adds. “I hope they stop.”

Mike joined Run For Your Life in December 2012. “We ran all the time when I was in the Marines,” he says. “It’s such a great opportunity to be here and help everyone with proper technique and show them what I know.” For Mike, the running group feels like a platoon of sorts, a team whose chance of success grows stronger as the bonds between its members solidify. The feeling is contagious, a chain reaction that starts before their coach arrives, one that’s easy to get swept up in. As the team arrives at their meeting spot off Fifth Avenue, the conversation turns toward their goals for that day. Will they beat their time from last week? Who’s had a rough day and needs to run off some steam? If someone has had a difficult day or week, others joke around until that person can laugh things off and get focused.

The collection of running shoes grows more colorful as the members gather around to warm up. Mike stretches until his fingertips touch his bright yellow Asics shoes, which stand out between the dark gray Nikes, navy blue Adidas, and classic white running shoes of his teammates that are splashed with reds, purples, and greens.

Neither Mike nor his new platoon is in need of any camouflage. The Run For Your Life team has put in a valiant effort to come out of hiding, running away from their addictions and back into the lives of their friends and families. But even for Mike, being removed from the battlegrounds doesn’t mean he is far from a different kind of danger that can sneak up when least expected.

As he waits on a Central Park bench, the lingering smell of marijuana from a passerby hovers in the air. “That doesn’t do anything to me now,” Mike says. “You just have to think about something else, anything else. Think about the past, then get mad at what it’s taken from you. There’s a consequence to it. That’s what they teach us here, that there are consequences in the real world.”

“But it sucks,” he admits after a pause. “I’d love to get out of here and go get drunk, that’s what I thought was ‘fun’ for so long.”

Mike says he won’t be leaving his new platoon any time soon. He plans to continue running with Andre after his treatment is over and act as a mentor to newcomers. His connection with Run For Your Life runs as deep as his camaraderie with the other members. The crew may not have matching tattoos, but there are other ties that bind them. For Mike it’s still about loyalty.

 

Sarah quietly watches from a Central Park bench as the Run For Your Life team gathers around, talking and stretching. The guys freeze mid-stretch to admire two attractive brunettes as they walk past. Gary Salva, a tall 22-year-old, whistles at the girls. “Ladies! Where you going?!” The girls smile but continue walking. Just as another young Run For Your Life member attempts to say something to them, Gary stretches out his hand, and yells, “Whoa, whoa, aren’t you not allowed to be 200 feet from schoolyards?!”

Away from the chatter, Gary reflects on the passing of his grandfather a week earlier, which caused him to pick up a cigarette for the first time in seven months. “I started going into a little panic,” Gary says. “I can’t get high anymore, and I can’t get drunk, so I said fuck it, I’m going to smoke a cigarette,” he pauses. “But that’s same attitude could get me fucked up.”

Instead of dwelling on his setback, Gary uses it as motivation. “I was disappointed in myself… Coach would have been pissed at me. So I push myself harder during the run… Got to give myself a little pain.”

Sarah doesn’t talk much while everyone mixes together. She doesn’t really like Odyssey House. It’s a constant reminder of how far her life has drifted off course. An NYU graduate and registered nurse, Sarah suffered injuries to her legs and back in car accidents, and turned to drugs to soothe the pain. “Nurses make the worst patients,” she says. When asked what drugs she took, she pauses for several seconds, and her bottom lip begins to quiver. After minutes pass, she finally brings herself to admit that her first drug of choice was marijuana, then cocaine.

This began in the ’80s and into the ’90s, during the time where her husband left her and gained custody of their son. “Cocaine took me away from the world,” she says. Her son, Michael, who is now 26, has not seen her in over a decade.

After checking in and out of almost 14 different rehabilitation centers, Sarah entered Odyssey House after she relapsed and began to use heroin, a drug she hadn’t tried before. “My life was mandated by a disease, by drugs” she recalls. She has stayed clean since being admitted to Odyssey House in December, but like most people there, she isn’t in the clear just yet. During a recent Run For Your Life meet, she arrived in her normal workout attire, but said she had no intention of walking the course.

Earlier that day a woman back at the Lafayette facility had tripped Sarah after the two had a disagreement. The anger simmered within Sarah all day, leading to a brief moment of vulnerability. “I just want to get high so bad right now,” she said, staring at the ground and breathing heavily. Andre convinced her to walk a shorter, more scenic part of the course that day.

If there is one thing Sarah enjoys the most about Odyssey House, it’s walking once a week around that Central Park track. That walk during the sunset, which lasts a little under an hour, lets her recall her healthier days, before drugs and injuries took their toll. Despite the obstacles the come with being nearly 50, reinvigorating the body she has long neglected keeps Sarah motivated to set goals, then push even further. “Walking around feels refreshing, I feel free,” Sarah explains. “I get tired, but it’s a good kind of tired.”

During May’s 10K Healthy Kidney Run in Central Park, Sarah showed up with the rest of the Run For Your Life crew who qualified for the event. “After two miles I heard another older person saying that their hip was hurting,” Sarah says. “They turned back, and I wanted to as well. But I pushed myself.”

Even Gary struggled toward the finish. Around the 5K mark his face was bright red, and the bulging veins in his arms were visible from the sidelines. A fellow Run For Your Lifer named Louis took hold of Gary’s hand and guided him through to the end.

Before the start of that race, Mike had set a goal of completing the race in 50 minutes. He finished just four minutes over, but he didn’t seem to mind. “I was just starting to warm up,” he said. “I could have done it twice!”

After the race, Mike and a few of the guys posed for a picture to be taken with one of their cell phones. Most of them are dressed in cut off t-shirts, and flex for the photograph. After the picture is snapped, they huddle together and zoom in on each person. “I look bigger right?” Mike asks. “Send it to me right now!” the biggest guy of the group yelled excitedly.

The members of Run For Your Life are making their best effort, and though coach Andre says he has seen people relapse, most go on to lead better lives after finishing the program. Twelve alumni routinely visit to run even though their stays at Odyssey House are over. But living a life of drug abstinence is an everyday struggle, and it’s not unusual to experience many failures before you finally succeed.

Exercise isn’t a cure all for addiction, but with exercise communities like Run For Your Life, running becomes a lifestyle. It develops something that comes from inside: the will to keep going, even after the supervision is gone. “When it comes to substance use, you can’t jump in and think ‘I’m going to save this person,’” Andre says. “If they’re not invested in themselves, and if this is something they really don’t want to do…” he says, before trailing off.

“Look, I’ve seen many relapses,” he continues. “Of good people, of people you’d never even think were using drugs. The first couple years are always shaky. I pray, and I try to be an example. But in the end, it’s really up to them. I’ve seen many cases where someone seems to be doing well, started working, and then left the program. Then a year later you find out they relapsed. In some cases, they even die.”

It may take few twists and turns, but whether one chooses to run or walk, the more they keep going, the better their chances are at moving their life in the right direction.Two weeks after her bout with an urge for drugs, Sarah is back with the group and ready for their Tuesday meet. Though, something has happened in the time since then.

“I finally called my son,” Sarah says while walking the course. She found his workplace phone number, and had been hanging on to it for weeks.

“It was strange to hear his voice,” she says. “It was so deep. I haven’t heard him since he was a teenager.” They only spoke for a minute, and 26-year-old Michael told her he wasn’t ready to have her back in his life. Sarah is hopeful that if she continues to stay clean, he may change his mind one day.

Each painful step she has made along Central Park’s course has helped bring her to this point. It’s somewhat fitting: having to go through one kind of pain to overcome a different pain. Though she can never regain the time that was lost, with every step she gets closer to happiness. As Andre showed with his rekindled relationship with his family, it can happen.

Toward the final turn of the course, a young woman wearing headphones, pink Spandex pants and a grey shirt, runs toward Sarah’s direction. Sarah glances at the words on the woman’s shirt as she passes.

“Redefine Possible,” she reads aloud. “I like that.”

*Some of the names have been changed for privacy reasons.