“The running community in general is probably
the most well-educated community on addiction and recovery.
Lots of people use running or some sort of physical exercise
to help them with their recovery.”
worldclass ultrarunner and sober warrior
The addict within
“It took me a long time to figure out that I can not, and should not, kill my addictive nature. Instead, my challenge has been finding a way to use the addict within me for positive, purpose-driven pursuits,” says adventurer and ultrarunner Charlie Engle.
“… Running, and running far, is at the core of my vitality and enduring sobriety. It lays a foundation for goals that keep me focused and it gives me the freedom of movement that I love. It keeps my body and mind sharp, and it refines and smoothes out my most jagged edges.
When I run hundreds of miles through jungles, in deserts, or on the local trails starting from my front doorstep, I learn something new about myself and even about the world,” Charlie says.
At university Charlie Engle was known as a popular, star athlete who served as student body president but inside he felt insecure. Addiction gradually took over his life and finally he dropped out.
Several jobs and a successful dent repair business enabled him to finance his crack cocaine and alcohol addiction for the next decade.
He hit bottom two months after his first son was born in 1992. A near-fatal six-day crack binge in a motel room ended with a robbery attempt in which drug dealers shot at him.
Engle found his way to Alcoholics Anonymous and sometimes went to three meetings a day in that first year of recovery.
He had been running off and on since 1989 and when he got sober running became his lifeline, his pastime, and his salvation.
He began with marathons, and when marathons weren’t far enough, he began to take on ultramarathons, races that went for thirty-five, fifty, and sometimes hundreds of miles, traveling to some of the most unforgiving places on earth to race.
The Matt Damon-produced documentary, Running the Sahara, followed Charlie, Ray Zahab (who used to be a heavy smoker with an unhealthy lifestyle) and Kevin Lin during 111 days through 6 countries: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Egypt. The three runners started on November 1, 2006, and traveled over 4,300 miles (6,920 kilometers) across the Sahara Desert, while raising millions of dollars for the Clean Water charity H20 Africa. They fought through injury and extreme fatigue to reach their goal, which changed them and the lives of many Africans forever.
Turning adversity into positivity
Even during his 16 month “federal holiday” following an unjust conviction for mortgage fraud in 2010, Charlie pounded the small prison track, running in circles. His imprisonment wouldn’t stop him from running the Badwater Ultramarathon. He couldn’t join the race but he could still run the distance on track. So during two days he kept making circles until he covered the 135 miles. Soon his fellow inmates were joining him, struggling to keep their spirits up in dehumanizing circumstances.
He made good use of his time in prison by turning his adventures in the bestseller Running Man: A Memoir.
Although Charlie lost his right to vote after his time in jail he found other effective ways to take a stand and make himself heard.
Taking steps towards mental health
In 2016 Charlie and 5 other runners with a history of mental illness ran the Icebreaker Run to help bridging the gap between mental illness and mental health, especially when it comes to addiction, depression, and PTSD.
In 3,5 weeks they traversed 11 states of North-America to break the ice of talking about a once-taboo subject, to make it easier for other sufferers to find help. As a 6-person relay team they covered over 3,100 miles from Santa Monica, California, to the Mental Health America’s annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia.
Engle used social media to share his message “but that is nothing compared to being with someone face to face and sharing our experiences,” he says. “The more I do that, the greater chance I have to stay sober. If I am not helping myself and improving, I won’t stay sober or be able to help someone else, and that is what this is all about.”
Throughout the challenge not only his two sons joined him, but also complete strangers.
A woman shared her story of alcoholism and drug addiction and what it did to her family.
“It is crazy,” Charlie says. “But I understand. I have been there. I don’t know if it helped her, but it helped me. That is so much one of the reasons behind this. Mental illness affects so many people.”
This year, Charlie ran 26 hours for his 26th year being sober. He wanted to run on a route that might encourage locals to jump in rather than be scared off, so he chose a three-mile loop around the Healing Transitions recovery center.
“… sounds terrible, but the point is I didn’t want people to be intimidated,” Engle says. “In my mind, most anybody can run three miles. I wanted it to be a distance that anybody could see this thing.”
More than 300 people showed up to run with him, cheer on or volunteer. People came who were fighting a variety of issues: addiction, homelessness, PTSD, eating disorders, and more.
“The running community in general is probably the most well-educated community on addiction and recovery,” Engle says. “Lots of people use running or some sort of physical exercise to help them with their recovery.”
Dr. Mike Stroud, world scientist on human endurance and nutrition and survival under extreme conditions and record breaking adventurer, explains in his book Survival of the Fittest how opiate drugs like heroin create artificially what the body produces naturally.
The drugs the body produces include the pain relievers endorphins and dopamine, the anti-depressant serotonin and the hormone adrenalin, which increases strength and concentration.
“A cocaine high apparently lasts a mere 15 minutes. Big deal. After a race I can be high for days, surfing on a wave of euphoria,” says ultrarunner Tarquin Cooper.
The safest level of drinking is none
Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for disease burden worldwide, accounting for nearly 10% of global deaths among populations aged 15–49 years, and poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today.
The Global Burden of Disease Study 2016 researched alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories between 1990 and 2016.
The conclusion was that the widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analyses continue to show how much alcohol use contributes to global death and disability.
“Our findings,” says senior study author Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou, who currently works at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, “are consistent with other recent research, which found clear and convincing correlations between drinking and premature death, cancer, and cardiovascular problems.”
“The myth that one or two drinks a day are good for you is just that – a myth.
This study shatters that myth.”
Dr. Emmanuela Gakidou
Results of a systematic analysis for this study show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day.
“Worldwide, we need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programs, and to consider recommendations for abstaining from alcohol,” professor Gakidou said in a statement.
“These include excise taxes on alcohol, controlling the physical availability of alcohol and the hours of sale, and controlling alcohol advertising.”
Sober Running Communities
THP Runs is a network of individuals and families who run, walk, share, heal and grow together as we raise funding and awareness for The Herren Project. Every dollar raised will support The Herren Project’s mission and programs.
The New York Heroes race is a unique 6K run/walk presented by the Transcend Recovery Community. They support their members with an abundant 12-Step community as well as other evidence-based recovery meetings to help them create a new and healthy lifestyle.
Addiction and mental illness often lead to homelessness.
Back on My Feet is a US organization operating in 12 major cities coast to coast and expanding overseas, that combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.
Their success is measured not only by the health impact of miles run, but also by how many individuals obtain education, employment and housing.
Back on My Feet recruits members (individuals experiencing homelessness) at homeless and residential facilities around the country and begins with a commitment to run three days a week in the early morning.
After 30 days in the program, members with 90% attendance earn the opportunity to move into the second phase of the program called Next Steps, which provides educational support, job training programs, employment partnership referrals and housing resources. Almost 80% of individuals who start the program move into Next Steps.
“There is no greater gift than sharing recovery with others.
Watching the trust build and healing start. Wellness starts within each of us.
It is a choice to live, make positive decisions and be better.”
– Chris Herren
Getting more help
September is USA National Recovery Month to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover.
The annual theme is Join the Voices for Recovery: Invest in Health, Home, Purpose, and Community.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Their website offers information, help and treatment.
Alcoholics Anonymous is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere. There are no age or education requirements. Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.
Sober Nation strives to give the suffering addict all the resources they need to get sober and to support the recovering addict along their path.
Resources / further reading
DVD: Running the Sahara by Matt Damon
Book: Running Man: A Memoir by Charlie Engle
This Time, It’s Personal: Charlie Engle’s Newest Cause Targets Mental Illness
The ‘safest level of drinking is none,’ says alcohol study
The Opioid Diaries: a visual record of a national emergency and it demands our urgent attention
60 Living Sober Blogs and Websites To Follow in 2018
Also published on Medium.