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Rocky Mountain High: Running & Addiction

Rocky Mountain High: Running & Addiction

About five years into my running life, mostly solitary back-country road work, I started to come across stories about other troubled souls who had traded in chaos for running shoes: a meth-head-turned-Ironman-competitor; a recovering crack addict who once ran 350 miles in a week; an ex-convict alcoholic who would tackle the equivalent of almost six back-to-back marathons across the Gobi Desert. – Anonymous

Most of us know at least one person, a relative, a friend, a client or a colleague, who has struggled with chemical addiction. Perhaps we have ourselves. Addiction to alcohol, nicotine and various pharmaceutical and recreational drugs is rampant in the U.S. as well as in many other cultures.

Recovering from an addiction, whose dynamics include mental-emotional as well as physiological elements, can be a long and challenging process. And this makes Caleb Daniloff’s story, of using distance running as the primary support for overcoming an addiction, all the more inspiring. Mr. Daniloff learned to substitute a Colorado Rocky Mountain runner’s high [cue: John Denver] for the alcohol-induced “highs” that for many years wreaked havoc in his life. And it has worked wonders!

He tells the story, in turns heart wrenching and heartwarming, of his transformation from a “hopeless drunk” back into a generally content and well-balanced member of his human communities, in his book Running Ransom Road: Confronting The Past One Marathon at a Time as well as in the more condensed article The Runner’s High, a special report by Caleb Daniloff. In the latter, we learn some of the scientific answers regarding how and why running can be used as support for overcoming chemical addictions. For instance, aerobic exercise such as running can:

  • rebalance neurotransmitters (such as glutamate) that the addiction had disrupted;
  • increase levels of the feel-good brain chemicals dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin (similar to the effect of taking Prozac along with Ritalin);
  • help to reduce cravings, and so also reduce the likelihood of falling off the sobriety wagon;
  • and even repair drug-damaged parts of the brain.

We also learn how certain behavioral patterns formed by an addict can actually translate into mental-emotional skills that support success as a runner: things like single-minded focus, pain tolerance, and being able to navigate and even feel relatively comfortable with isolation and humiliation. All these, when properly applied to the extreme conditions of an endurance event, can yield positive results.

What makes Caleb Daniloff’s story particularly epic is that he decided that he would run a marathon in each of the cities within which his “addicted self” had wreaked the most havoc. This became his ritual of purification, his way of making amends, his “hero’s journey” (a la Joseph Campbell) which allowed him to emerge from the dungeon of addiction, into the light of a new life, anchored — and taking exhilarating flight — in a pair of running shoes.

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Mr. Daniloff also explores — and for the most part, debunks — the suggestion that running simply becomes another addiction, replacing the previous addiction to alcohol or other drugs. He concedes a similarity between alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms and the yearning a runner might experience after a couple days of not getting onto the trails but maintains that the latter hardly qualifies as an “addiction” per se.

There are, however, other runners — Jenny Shephard, for instance — whose relationship to running became something that she was quite willing to acknowledge as being an “addiction.” What were the signs that it had become an unhealthy relationship? If she took a day off from her running routine, she felt anxious and depressed. She found herself running on an ankle injury — against the advice of her doctor. Her running regimen became so all-consuming that other areas of her life (family, work etc.) began to suffer.

Being an elite athlete — or a world-class artist or musician — or a ground-breaking scientist, for that matter — requires passion and dedication. And there’s often a fine line between a healthy, productive enthusiasm or even “obsession” for an activity that we love; and, on the other hand, a compulsion or addiction that ends up being mentally, emotionally or physically damaging. When is “too much of a good thing” a good thing — and when is it simply too much? 

Perhaps a middle ground point of view — such as that expressed by distance runner Tarquin Cooper — is worth considering:

Yes, there may be an addictive element to all this. But recently I was told by a doctor that I have the lungs of someone ten years younger. As addictions go, I can think of worse.

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