How Running Made Me Whole
By Chaski Athlete Eric Harrison Riddle
Three months sober. I somewhat have a mind again. What about this body I inhabit? Years of neglect and poison- is it broken now? My long term relationship with alcohol and substance abuse gifted me with five seizures, four compression fractures in my back, chipped teeth, a dislocated jaw, wrist fracture, and that is to say nothing of the human wreckage left in my wake.
I am a 31, overweight, out of shape- smoker. Do I even have a shape at this point? COVID is in full bloom and I am locked at home, glued to the computer to pay the loan sharks.
I bought an Apple Watch in hopes of getting a better idea of where my physical health stands, and for motivation. Plus it looks cool. There’s a free app it promotes called the Nike Run Club (NRC).
Running. I don’t need a personal trainer to do that, and I don’t have to go to the closed gyms and be watched by physically superior people either. But smokers can’t run. What’s the worst that could happen, coughing up the tar in my lungs? I decided to test this out, and went on my first run, after 13 years on the couch.
Twenty minutes in the blistering Florida heat, with choking humidity, felt like an eternity. I ran a mile through - a whole mile.
The NRC put together a 4-week “Get Started” plan. It seemed crazy to me to run for .35 miles, but hopefully, that would be less than the 20-minute first run.
There were also some nice guided runs. Some by time, some by distance- but they were always very encouraging.
I liked having a plan, especially since I didn’t know what I was doing. The structure gave me reassurance that there would be progress.
Insert the word that began the mantra I borrowed from some recovery literature: “Progress Not Perfection”.
Life on Life’s Terms
Being young in recovery, I was learning how to live life. Living sober isn’t like tucking your head underwater, and seeing how long you can hold your breath- because you have to come back up for air. It’s more like learning to breathe, to breathe differently.
Every breath of every day was fresh. Not just because it was hangover-free, but because I actually felt things. No more emotional numbness; it was sensory overload!
But as I counted moments, minutes, and days dry- I counted my runs. A minute running was a big deal, and a mile even bigger.
I stuck with the plan religiously, I ran no more or less than prescribed. If perchance, I had more energy after the run, I walked. A fifteen-minute run, and a fifteen-minute walk, and I felt accomplished. Gradually, the walks became longer.
I did that plan twice. My numbers looked better, but was I a runner? Was what I was doing actually considered running, or light jogging? The comments on forums said I was basically crawling, and that my walks were a waste.
With running, I learned quickly that I was the person I was competing against. These were my times, my progress, and my effort- no one else’s.
Regardless of other people’s metrics, for me, this was running. I discovered how deeply personal the sport of running is, scrapped the comparisons, and resolved that I was in fact a “runner”.
Figuratively, I always had been, my direction had simply changed. But literally as well. Yes, like a child, I started with walking but likewise, running naturally followed.
One Run at a Time
I had committed my life to self-betterment, but I needed patience. I didn’t become an alcoholic overnight (alcoholism is a progressive disease), and I would need to hold on to my mantra if I wanted to progressively become better.
Progress also requires maintenance. In order to keep building, the foundation must be taken care of, and the foundation was more than just my body.
I longed to be a complete, whole person. Each part of me had to be taken care of- mind, body, and spirit. On a daily basis.
Wake. Pray. Meditate. Run. Work. Repeat.
Interestingly enough, running touched all three parts. My mind pushed my body to endure, and my spirit was the essence of the process.
The process led to progress, so I began to learn the power of living in the present. After all, yesterday was gone and tomorrow wasn’t promised. It has been said that “now” is truly all that exists.
But putting the existential philosophical stuff aside, I could rest easy knowing that I did my best on that run, and whatever life threw at me next, I could do my best with that as well.
Like life, running isn’t easy. To be sure it’s downright hard and often painful. There’s gravity, inertia, dirt, rock, mud, sand, hot air, cold air, rain, snow- even people. Sometimes it feels like the whole universe is a hindrance.
Psychologists tell us that the emotion of anger at its base is rooted in hindrance. Standing in the way of myself, the greatest hindrance. I just wanted to get there and fast.
My brain said I could-should move faster, but my breath couldn’t keep up, and my heart was out of control. Then I’d be angry for not going longer, and eventually, just stop out of exhaustion. Like my sobriety could not be rushed, neither could my running. This was going to be a one day, and one run at a time deal.
Six months after that first run, and 320 miles later, a dream comes true. I’m officially being coached by one of my heroes (Jes Woods), and on a team of runners, that was equally as intimidating as it was humbling. They referred to me as an “athlete”. This was bizarre to me. Athletes were either young people in high school or college or professionals. Not 31-year-old, accountants. But unlike many sports, running is one that can be picked up later in life, and can also remain into late life. So though it still feels odd, I suppose I am now a “quadruple A”, Alcoholic-Accountant-Artist-Athlete.
Slow To Move
For much of my life, I have been paralyzed in the planning stage of action. I needed to consider every possible scenario so I would be prepared for any outcome. Invariably, there was something I didn’t consider, which led me to the conclusion that I needed to spend even more time planning.
Running has given me the gusto to get up and move. It has created a momentum that has changed my level of risk aversion.
Going for a run when the weather is dreadful, I feel weighted, and my emotions unstable has shown me that not everything must be right for the movement to still be forward.
In fact, any movement is better than no movement; no movement often leads to reverse direction and retreat.
These days I spend more time doing, than thinking about doing. Oddly enough, I can still think while doing.
Running is an expression of my sobriety. I train daily to be whole, just for that day- but the larger picture is to show others that life isn’t fixed, nor determined.
I believed the suffering of active addiction was my fate, doomed to depression until my last day. I see now that the reality of the lows enables me to embrace the highs.
Life is still out of my grasp, but by grace, I can control myself, the gift of choice restored.
Today, I choose to run.
— Eric Riddle
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