Why Sobriety Is a Marathon

By Will Godfrey 10/21/12

Running Ransom Road is one man's story of confronting his alcoholic past through a series of grueling marathons. The author tells The Fix how it works.

Running man at rest: Caleb Daniloff

There may be many roads to Damascus, but few involve pounding out as many lung-busting miles as Caleb Daniloff's. His newly-published book, Running Ransom Road, is a compelling account of how the 42-year-old journalist—now nearly 14 years sober, after a damaging drinking career of similar length—has used marathon running to face his past and help him "navigate sobriety," as he puts it. 

Years after quitting alcohol, he writes, "the anxieties and insecurities I'd tried to cover up with booze still remained. Only they'd morphed into radiation. Shyness had become panic. Self-doubt was self loathing." But instead of going back to AA, where the courts had sent him after a DUI, he hit the road: "when I took up running, I found not only a new central pattern to my life, but a forum in which to confront myself."

He's certainly maximized his opportunities for self-confrontation. He chose to run his first five marathons, plus some shorter races, through the very places where his drinking and drug use had inflicted chaos in his earlier life—including Boston, Vermont, New York and Moscow (he spent a chunk of his teenage years in the Soviet Union after his father, also a journalist, was posted there). Running Ransom Road comprises some intense descriptions of these exhausting slogs, interspersed with vivid, painful flashbacks to the previous sufferings and humiliations that the runner's surroundings evoke.

Daniloff, who comes across as thoughtful and considerate—a far cry from the younger self who proudly answered to the nickname "Asshole"—speaks with me just after the publication of his book. He describes that achievement as "one of the mountain peaks you aspire to climb" as a writer. "The process of writing a book was very similar to the process of training and running marathons; it was grueling, and it’s only now that I feel I’ve broken the tape!"

So how many marathons have you run now?

Let’s see, I’ve run six marathons and four half-marathons—and I’m running Philadelphia next month. Running is still very much part of my life. After running all those marathons [in 2009 and 2010, the period covered by the book], I thought about cutting back to around one a year. I find marathons very compelling, still, and hard to resist.

You write that your early years of sobriety saw you overeating and gaining weight. Then, of course, you got into running and pushed yourself extremely hard. Were you trading old addictions for new ones? Did you get addicted to running?

At one point I sort of thought like that. I did become very consumed with running: With the Boston marathon I became obsessed with numbers, and with getting my weight down, and that taught me that I still have this inclination towards obsession. Running showed me I still had to watch out for becoming consumed by things: by calories, fat grams and all that stuff, depriving myself of food in order to get down to the weight where I could break four hours. So that addictive personality did feed into my marathon training.

"I’d already broken the symbolic sub-four—I just hadn’t realized. It wasn’t the sub-four; it was making peace with my limitations."

But addiction is a negative thing; it’s something that rules your life to the detriment of your mental and general health, and I don’t feel running has that. It’s more along the lines of a religion—like Prozac, therapy and religion rolled into one. So it’s more than trading one addiction for another. I mean, when you get sober, when you quit, there’s a lot of angst and energy and anxiety, depression, and they all need a place to go. Running started filling the hole. But I wouldn’t quite characterize running as an addiction for me.

Symbolism is an important theme of your book: you choose to race through your old “sinning grounds;” you claim a pie after competing in the traditional “pie race” at your old boarding school, and you’re preoccupied with running a sub-four hour marathon. How important is symbolism, really, to your sober life?

I guess I’m of two minds when it comes to symbolism. On the one hand, it can be dangerous if you invest too much of your hopes and dreams in things that are symbolic, like a sub-four—which I still haven’t broken, by the way. Or like winning the pie, which became much more significant to me than the high school diploma that I didn’t get. It can turn these things into very literary moments. But it’s what you invest in those symbols; I guess I look at them as literary or poetic markers of progress. But the true measure is really going to be internally. Of course, when I was writing the book, I thought, “This is going to be perfect; I have to break the sub-four to make this a good book.” And I invested so much in that sub-four, and I got together with an MIT scientist, and put this formula down that would allow me to do it. But I’d already broken the symbolic sub-four—I just hadn’t realized. It wasn’t the sub-four; it was making peace with my limitations.

You’re not in AA, but write that your recovery includes elements—like spirituality, and making amends—that feature in the 12 Steps. You list “religious-tinged language, the intense gratefulness, the slow, plodding work, the surrender” as aspects of the program you couldn’t connect with. What else can you say about your relationship with AA?

Well, as I was drinking and drugging I got into a fair bit of trouble. I was ordered to go to Narcotics Anonymous in school, and multiple times I had to go to AA for a court order. And I very much at the time saw it as a punishment, so it always had a negative connotation for me. So when I got sober, it wasn’t the first thing that I thought to turn to. You know, I started drinking pretty young, and you just don’t form in a moral way; you’re a bit stunted. And when you quit, you realize that you don’t really know who you are, there’s a corruption that has taken place. So I found it scary to give myself over to AA, to say, “I’m an alcoholic and I’m a member of AA,” when I didn’t know who the hell I was.

I felt I needed to define myself to myself. I was compelled to make this my own personal journey, part of my own self-empowerment process. I’m sure that there are AA people who would say I went about it the wrong way—and maybe I would have progressed farther, faster if I’d done the AA move; I don’t know. I think AA has a lot to offer and is a great program and has helped a lot of people. I think that community support is great, and there’s definitely a lot of wisdom in those rooms. But maybe it’s just part of my personality to do it on my own.

Of course, running is essentially a solitary activity...

Right—and as I was running, I began to start drilling down and to access memories and feelings. I was able to have a sort of pure, unadulterated conversation with myself. It helped me figure out who I was and why I behaved the way I did, and that was healthy for me; it was working for me. And running made me feel great. I used to run in the dark, and at the end there was the sunrise, and this transition—okay, now we’re talking about symbolism again!—from darkness into light. And I definitely knew that making amends was an essential thing that I needed to pursue. That is a central tenet of AA of course, but generally, people would apologize to people that they’ve wronged. And I do believe that you need some sort of spiritual conversion to be successful in recovery.

In the book you recount telling your Russian friends in AA that you can be your own Higher Power—much to their disbelief. Is that something you hold to?

I do believe you can be your own Higher Power. That’s not to negate the idea that there could be a Higher Power above that, but the problem I had with AA was with fully turning over my life to a Higher Power. I couldn’t bring myself to say that my life now belongs to, is in the hands of, an entity that I don’t know or understand. But my familiarity with AA, I think, allowed me to draw on some aspects of it: the Serenity Prayer is one thing that has kept with me. Like people say in AA, take what you need and leave the rest.

A trick question based on your book: are you a recovered alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic?

Ha! I mean, “recovering” I don’t like much, because it has that feeling of never arriving, that you’re always in a state of transition. “Recovered,” also—I feel like people don’t ever really recover from anything. So I wouldn’t say I’m fully recovered, but recovering doesn’t feel right either. Even the term “alcoholic” isn’t my favorite. I always prefer “former drunk.”

As a non-initiate, I found one of your more troubling flashback scenes to be the one where you’re huffing stolen cleaning fluid as a teenager in Moscow. Does that rank with the craziest shit you ever did?

Um, no! I mean, that was something that Russians did, and something we did. I kind of wish I hadn’t done it, just because of all the brain cells that I fried; I feel like maybe I’d be a little bit smarter, maybe my memory would be a little be sharper than it is... But actually, I have quite fond memories of that. We couldn’t get drugs, and we all wanted to get drugs. And that’s maybe why I kind of went nuts when I got back to the states. But there were things that were crazier.

You write about how you used to be a shy, socially awkward person. Have you changed now?

I think so. There are still times when those feelings crop up, but I think those are being left behind. When I first quit drinking those feelings were very sharp, feelings I’d probably never dealt with when I was drinking, because I was always escaping from them, so they had to be dealt with. I think people probably consider me somewhat quiet and reserved, but I don’t grapple with shyness and social anxiety at this point.

So you feel okay about exposing yourself so publicly in a memoir?

It’s fine. Maybe shy and reserved is a bit strong. It’s weird: when I was a drinking man, I was quite out there and open, shoving my traumas in people’s faces. I’d try to push the envelope and I’d always cross lines. When I got sober I didn’t have a lot of trouble—I’ve written about my past before, in essays and so on. So I’ve built up my immune system. It’s part of who I am: I’ve evolved from it, I can’t say that I regret it and I haven’t closed the door on it. So it didn’t cause me real emotional trouble. There are things that I’ve left out of course...

What about the other side of it? Your book shares intimate information about the roles played by others in your life, sometimes in unflattering terms; have you had any qualms about that, or any negative reactions?

I did change names. I worried a little bit about some of my Russian friends—definitely my good friend Kosh, who was in a bad way when I saw him in Moscow [in 2009, as the book relates]. It was a really depressing, unpleasant experience, seeing this guy who I was very close with. So I sometimes wonder what he’ll think, if and when he reads this. I didn’t send anybody the stuff beforehand; I just thought that would be opening cans of worms. I stand behind everything I’ve written: people may remember things in different ways, but this is how I remember them. I’ve tried to be honest, and certainly not to skewer anybody, and to be fair. I hope that I was.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix.

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