From time to time, I see stories about people addicted to drugs or alcohol who have discovered running as the antidote to their addictions. The most recent story I’ve seen is about Walter Barrera, whose path from drug addiction has led from his first 5K to longer and longer runs, more and more mileage, and an upcoming attempt at finishing the Leadville 100, one of the most punishing 100-mile races in the world.
As depicted in the article, Walter’s life story is harrowing and, on one level, he is to be admired for facing down his demons and finding an escape hatch from his hard past and his drug addiction. On another level — and the article does at least attempt to address this issue — is he merely running away from his demons, rather than truly confronting them?
The story mentions a lot of what are, for me, warning signs: the sense that a daily run must be finished no matter what, the urgent necessity of not only finishing the run but logging it in a record book and comparing it with past efforts, the feeling of personal failure if a specific run or a week’s mileage totals do not go as planned, and — perhaps most troubling of all — a lengthening series of nagging injuries. Is Barrera merely trading one crippling, enslaving addiction for another?
It’s easy for any runner to fall into that kind of trap to some degree. The point is not that you can’t be competitive, but that you have to be aware of the shadowy side of your competitiveness and, as the sutras say, “guard the sense-gates.” When you lose sleep over an upcoming training run, when you grow bitterly angry and frustrated if this week’s interval workout falls short of last week’s, when you take off on a 20-mile hills workout knowing full well your right hamstring could really benefit from an extra day or two of rest, when you snap back at your significant other or children if a race or run doesn’t go your way … be aware, back off, and realize that once was once a joyful, healthy activity could be heading down a darker path. It’s always helpful to ask yourself at those times: why am I doing this, exactly?
Every choice we make about running can affect not only our next day’s run but possibly our running for the next year or even years to come, our general attitude about running over decades, our interactions with our family, and our own sense of self. And once the run’s over, our life problems are still there, waiting. We can run for our health, we can run meditatively and positively expand our connection with ourselves and our world, but we can’t simply run from our personal challenges by trying to exhaust ourselves past the point of feeling them.
Perhaps Barrera is encountering his problems while on the run, and engaging with them constructively. I hope so. It’s certainly possible to do so through running. On the road and on the cushion I finally came to terms, real confrontation, with my father’s death. But I also know it’s possible to simply hope to outrun the issue at hand. No, your issues aren’t stronger than you. But they can be much stronger and more persistent than you might be willing to at first believe.