01/29/2015 08:22 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

How Running Helped Me Overcome Addiction

Stanislaw Pytel via Getty Images

I can't really nail down when it exactly happened, but there was a precise moment when I ceased being a "jogger" and became a "runner." It's hard to deny the fact that right across North America we are in the throes of another running boom. Although average finishing times for the marathon and half-marathon have crept up a little, the number of finishers in both events has seen a steady increase year after year.

The most popular distance is still the half marathon and the greatest influx has been the huge number of women who have decided to lace up their shoes and join the running community. Of note is the fact that as of 2013, females comprised 56% of race participants. When we add in ancillary events like the Tough Mudder, Spartan and adventure races, we zoom the lens out and capture an even broader appeal of our sport.

Our identity has its roots in our family and ethnicity, but the expression of our inner being, our creative and emotional soul, is found in the tribes we align ourselves with. It's within our tribes that we attain a sense of validation and a relief from the alienation that's part and parcel of our modern life. I refer to the word "tribe" not in its anthropological sense, but having more to do with a fluid entity that is less defined by its structure and more in keeping with a feeling of shared passion or purpose of being.

If I look at a snapshot of my life 18 years ago, I see a young man ravaged by a spiraling alcohol and drug addiction, a man fractured in spirit desperate to claw his way out of the darkest hell of a deep depression. Shortly after entering a treatment program to deal with my addiction issues, I took my first tentative steps into the world of running. Before I knew it, I had found my "people." I had stumbled upon my "tribe."

With each passing year, the more I realize that life is less about striving for your goals and realizing your dreams, and more about brushing up against boundaries and learning how to navigate those spaces, and hopefully that comes with the help of a supportive community. What is a "boundary" other than simply an artificial barrier, a crux moment in which you can recoil to safety or embrace the dissonance that comes with moving beyond your comfort zone.

Unlike so many other sports, running is pure in its abject simplicity. It asks only that you put one foot in front of the other, and in return it will be a vehicle to take you away from yourself, and if you're fortunate enough, bring you back to your true self. It doesn't make any difference whether you're a novice runner building towards your first 5k race or an elite runner toeing the line at the start of the Olympic marathon.

Every runner must come to the same artificial boundary--The place where you ask yourself how can I quiet my mind and silence my doubts, while enlisting all my inner fortitude to keep moving when all I want to do is quit? There in lies the beauty of running, a metaphor, or a manifestation of how we can slay those nay-saying demons in all aspects of our life.

Having completed over 100 marathons and ultra marathons, I'm more motivated today than ever before to not only make space for running in my life but also reflect upon why it as been such a faithful companion these past 15 years.

When I first came to running, it was as an escape--quite simply, a magic aerobic delete button. That's what running was for me for many years: a not so subtle way of pushing away residual hurt from years spent abusing drugs and alcohol, and the subsequent toll they took on my mental health.

I don't think it's any surprise that endurance sports are populated by quite a few recovering addicts, those who look to replace the destruction wrought by one addiction with a "healthier" addiction to an endorphin rush brought on by extreme physical exertion.

There's a great analogy that explains this early phase of running in my life. Imagine you are walking around, and you discover you have a little stone or piece of grit in your shoe. You really have only two choices of how to deal with this problem. You can take a painkiller or some other drug to distract you from that discomfort in your foot, or you can stop what your doing, take off your shoe and remove that stone. My first ten years of running was all about the former, using running as a distraction from what was really causing me discomfort in my soul.

With time and a lot of training miles behind me, running became less about escaping and more to do with making my world bigger -- pushing the boundaries I continually brushed into. Every runner can identify with these moments, however fleeting, as it's within these moments that we discover what we are really capable of. It's that razor thin edge that separates mediocrity and new-found growth.

I know I've reached this threshold when the butterflies are dancing in my stomach as I stare ahead into the great abyss of an uncharted territory. For me these transformational moments arrived at various points of my running career: my decision to jump up from the half-marathon to full marathon distance, the first time I broke three hours in the marathon and arriving in South Africa to run the prestigious Comrades Marathon, an epic 90 km race up and down the most beautiful, yet unrelenting terrain I'd ever seen.

Most recently, running has become my sanctuary, my spiritual oasis. This past year I logged over 9,000 km and at no time out on the roads and on the trails was I distracting myself with an iPod or other device. Running is my spiritual practice, so I am desperate to stay completely in tune with the natural noises and rhythms around me, be it the gentle trickle of a stream or the rumbling of a garbage truck making its way through the urban core.

The best thing about running for three or four hours is that you are alone with your mind and the worst thing is that you are alone with your mind. Somewhere in the middle of that dichotomy lies the "sweet spot," the place where in losing yourself, you actually come to find yourself. Without a doubt, running has been a gift in my life, and like any gift gratefully received, in order to keep it, I must be willing to give it away.

In addition to being a guest speaker at running clinics across the city, in 2014 I ran the Boston Marathon twice in the same day to raise funds and awareness for survivors of child sexual abuse, an issue that is part of my past. Later this fall, I will be running a "Triple" Scotia Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that's 126.6 km all in one day, to raise awareness of the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign.

I have no idea where running will take me next, but I'm confident that wherever I end up, I will find a better "me" than I am today. For that, I am eternally grateful.


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