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Methadone to Marathons

I was a chain-smoking junkie, then clean but chubby. Then I found marathon running—another addictive high altogether.

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By Jaime Neptune

06/04/13

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Nine women are seated on the floor of the running store. Early Sunday morning—it’s always early Sunday morning. Their coach, standing, picks her way through the tangle of toned arms and legs. She’s giving the women the usual pre-training-run pep talk. The women are all the same sheeny, prosperous color: hard caramel candy. They range in age from 16 to 73 and what body fat they do have is cute, pinchable, slappable. All of them, coach included, are wearing hundreds of dollars of top-shelf running apparel.

The running store has a huge plate glass window looking out onto the street. One of the women (me) stretching on the floor of the running store is idly watching the shitbox cars pull up in front of the business next door. Men and women of indeterminate age are prying themselves out of the cars, stubbing out cigarettes on the sidewalk. The women lug baby carriers, strollers. Smeary forearm tattoos, wrinkles, pallor. Scowls. They range in age from 16 to 73 and what body fat they do have is either blanched beef jerky or suety rolls of fecal rot. Those without shitboxes lurk out of the shadows from all directions, coughing smoke, converging on this next door business like day of the fucking dead.

“You gotta throw your disease a bone,” said an NA old timer with his own long-distance running habit. It’s true.

This business next door is a methadone clinic. And I, one of the cosseted long-distance runners, watch the junkies go get their daily git up and think something like this: You pieces of shit scurrying like rats to get your methadone, set my clock to them, how can you afford cigarettes at what $10 a pack and you can’t feed your kids anything remotely nutritious...God I’m so fit so healthy so rich so...

To the experienced reader and diviner of resentments it will make sense—judging by my vitriol—that I am a recovering heroin addict, cigarette smoker and methadone user. Thirteen years ago I was that blanched beef jerky hobbling across the street toward the same little plastic cup. The only difference between my side of the plate glass and theirs is that I got off the methadone after a few months (not years) of use. I could still be on that poison. A miracle, if you believe in miracles. I also got off cigarettes after a terrible struggle that almost made the methadone kick seem like a tickle. Another miracle.

Recently I’ve imagined what my first training group must have looked like on those same Sunday mornings, when we converged, singly or in twos and threes, on the running store. Some of us are limping, yanking at our stretchy tights, itching, farting, eating packets of glucosey energy goo. Later, some of us may be puking, peeing or crapping by the side of the road at mile nine of a 15-mile training run. I had a hideous flash of insight. What sayeth the motorists and passersby? You sows limping back to take another beating, could set my clock to you, just stay off the road, run and run and always end up in the same place... Can’t outrun death or old age....

Fact: Long-distance running releases endogenous morphine. Endorphins. Those fizzy natural born painkillers that make death and old age seem far away, at least for a few minutes or hours after a great run.

“You gotta throw your disease a bone,” said an NA old timer with his own long-distance running habit. It’s true.

The latent disease needs to gnaw on something or else it will eat you alive. Recovering addicts can get that hit through shopping, shoplifting, yoga, sex, S&M—or they can run. Long. Out there on the road or trail (or treadmill, if you’re a true masochist) for two, three, five hours. And it hurts—but it hurts so good. Hurts in a “I used to be a hamster on a wheel, but now I’m a hamster on a wheel with insane cardiac output who has cheated death” kind of way.

I’ve seen pictures of me post-race, minutes after I staggered and retched coming over the finish line. I’m beaming in that old-fashioned way. Similarly, if I can’t run for, say, two days in a row, or I’ve had a low-mileage week, I get restless, achy and depressed. Once a junkie, always a junkie.

I became a runner nine months into my recovery. I had quit smoking two weeks earlier simply because I could no longer inhale cigarette smoke without being kicked from within by spastic coughing fits. After the misery of active addiction I was content to join the plump and happy club of Narcotics Anonymous—the pleasant land of stretch pants and 10 pm dinners after the meeting. Pleasant, that is, until someone bends you over and you finally notice the cowl of fat draping across what used to be your midriff.

So I found a pair of what I imagined were running shoes and I put them on and ran down the sidewalk. I turned around and came back, coughing, hyperventilating, cradling my boobs in my arms. I had run 800 yards. I did the same thing the next day. On Day Three I was crippled—I thought I had broken my shins. I had to edge backward down the stairs. The following day I limped out again, ready for further punishment. Four days in and I was caught up already.

The time after that gets blurry. With a girlfriend, another recovering addict, I would run and walk over one bridge, run the boardwalk, and back over another bridge to home. We had started naming routes. Two Bridges, a sweltering straightaway bracketed by water crossings; The Key, because it was shaped like one when plotted on mapmyrun; and the Benny Hill a mad zig-zag on side streets. I started logging 50-mile weeks and things got lonely.

I started working in a running store. Then it was the middle of the night at Epcot and I’m crouched in the swale, peeing and getting peed on, outside of a start corral at the Disney World Marathon. I knew it then: Nothing reduces you to an animal level faster than active drug addiction and marathon running, and there isn’t much difference between the two. Both have kept me from going to meetings and contributing in any meaningful way to a homegroup, my step-work, or to a sponsorship family.

Twenty-three marathons, 12 states and counting. Tens of thousands of dollars sunk into race fees and travel. Thousands of miles and hours spent in training, lifting, spinning, preening, sleeping, eating, and talking. About running. Steer the conversation toward running after a meeting and watch newcomers and oldcomers alike focus their eyes in the middle distance and back away semi-politely.

I recently shared at a meeting that I wanted to find balance in my life. Whatever that means. It probably means I want to find a way to run more, get faster, stay clean, continue to improve in my recovery, finish writing my 11th Step, be a hard worker, a decent wife, daughter, granddaughter, friend.

Have you heard it said, “You will lose whatever you put in front of your recovery?” I don’t want to lose running. At the same time, I don’t want to be thinking I’m cured while I sneer at the people slumping into the methadone clinic. What separates me from them?

Jaime Neptune is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about her detox romance.

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