Standing in the predawn Moab darkness eager to run a distance equivalent to nine back-to-back marathons and riding an early morning NYC subway after a wild night out in Spanish Harlem typically wouldn’t normally be mentioned in the same sentence, but here we are. The former represents my life as I know it today. The latter represents a former life, but one that has shaped me and continues to shape me. It has led me to endurance, it has brought me to where I am today. It defines part of who I am as a person and helps me be a better coach, a loving family man, and a dedicated athlete. It’s been the better part of a decade since this former life. 7 years sober. This milestone is one for reflection, one for celebration, and one for forecasting.
Back to the early morning hours before the Moab 240. I know what lies ahead of me. I know how it will feel. It’s a feeling we, as endurance athletes, can relate to. No matter how many starting lines we toe, we get that all-too-familiar mix of excitement, nerves, and wonder for the challenge that lies ahead. We know how this feeling turns into focus, then exhaustion. It’ll bounce back and forth before we get into ‘the zone.’ This zone features a tired body and racing heart, but a calm and focused mind. This is the zone that I crave. I feel invincible when I’m here. While I check off miles, bombing down the trail, I’m fully in control. These moments bring me joy and add fuel to my life. I’m thankful for where I am and I’m excited for the journey I’m on.
I wasn’t introduced to this feeling after finding endurance sports. The racing heart complimented by a calm mind isn’t something that I first encountered halfway through an ultramarathon. These feelings were with me while I was high on the NYC subway 25 years ago. These feelings drove my former life, chasing the same ‘zone’ marked by the balance of fear and invincibility.
In both lives, I’m calm and focused while surrounded by chaos and speed. In both lives, I felt at home in these situations. As I look back at the 7 years separating these two lives, I’m fortunate to have traded the former for the latter. It feels amazing. Looking back, I relate this feeling to the first 13 years of my life. There is a joy to them and an excitement. These formative years were my first 50 miles on this ultramarathon journey. There are 240 miles ahead, but these early miles are ticking by filled with movement and enjoyment.
This milestone gives me the opportunity to look back in time. The struggle with substance abuse has been a marker of my life for quite a long time. Some periods were better than others, but this struggle always lingered just below the surface. During these times, I was functional, even thriving at times. On the surface, I had great jobs, I was a high-performing athlete and I balanced family life. My ability to perform during this time in my life probably made it easier to endure. This was mile 50-150. I was enduring, I was pushing forward.
Despite this, I knew that change was needed. I’ve lost friends to this disease. I was aware of what it could take from people. The knowledge of the change made the struggle harder to endure. This knowledge brought me to miles 150-220. This is the depth of battle. During these hard miles, I’m painfully aware of the severe change that was about to happen, despite not being ready to leave the now fleeting comfort of the earlier miles. In my struggle with these substances, I recall waiting for a sign, an event, that would signify the shift from enduring the battle to fighting it head-on. Like hitting the major climb in your race or the midday heat setting in at mile 150, this sign came into my life on a Friday night. That night ended in a bike crash after a night of drinking. That night ended in surgery. That night ended with facial wounds so severe that my young daughters were scared of me. That night delivered the sign I needed to make the change I’d been needing, wanting, and dreading.
Initially, I thought this decision to stay sober would lead me back to ‘normal’ life by the end of the year. I quickly realized that this assumption was far from reality. The three decades of abuse and mental damage will take much more than 12 months to repair. On one hand, these past 7 years of life & sobriety represent that pre-finish high you get before the finish line, miles 220-240. It feels amazing and represents the most significant part of my life packed with the most growth. On the other hand, these 7 years of sobriety represent me toeing the line at Moab all over again. It is a journey with 240 miles ahead of me. These first 7 years have been me focusing only on the first few miles because the goal is so daunting, so intimidating. But, like my training, each day involves learning and growth that can be absorbed, applied, and built upon for the greater goal.
Sobriety is a process. Like running the race you’ve trained for on a course you’ve studied. Sobriety involves reading, listening, relating, and sharing. It is a journey, It is my journey.