Running – an addiction or a cure?

This blog is all about the stories of why people run – what makes each of us pull on a pair of running shoes and hit the road, trail, fells, forests and deserts of our world? It’s these stories which enable us to connect as people, which is why readers of this blog who are non-runners keep reading – we can all relate to each other, and running is just the vehicle for the story. Some argue that running is an addiction, and this story, from an old friend of mine, Nick, could perhaps be argued that way. We went to school together, he was one of two Best Men at my wedding, and as fate would have it, despite us both moving away from our home towns, we still live within a few miles of each other. His story runs deep, the origins of why he runs born in his childhood and tightly woven throughout his life to burst forth now in a powerful shock of released pressure. I asked him why he runs, and here is what Nick said…

Why do I run?

I’m 38 and I’ve just had the worst year of my life. In December 2015 my marriage broke down. I had been battling with addictive behaviour for decades. In spite of my wife being incredibly forgiving and understanding with me throughout the 10 years of our relationship, I continued to act out. I destroyed her trust over and over again and eventually, understandably, she had to ask me to leave. We are now coming to the end of the divorce process and although I would give anything to be reconciled with her I am having to come to terms with the reality of my situation.

I have never endured a time like the first part of this year. It was the darkest, coldest, most miserable and desperate period I have ever known. It felt as though days lasted for weeks as I wrestled with questions that seemed to have no answer – why had I done this to the woman I loved more than anything in the world? Why didn’t I stop the addiction, stop the behaviour, that was causing such destruction? What hope was left in life? Would the future just be a painful, disappointing, pale and sad version of that which I had always taken for granted? Could I ever recover from addictive behaviour?

I was forced to finally tell my parents and sister about my addictions. They were incredibly supportive and enabled me to access therapy through an amazing organisation that began to change my life. I had some wonderful friends who spent time with me, encouraged me, listened to me and kept me going. And then, I had a conversation with Tim – my old friend from school who I hadn’t really been in regular contact with for some time.

Tim and I live relatively near to one another and we’ve been friends for 25 years. Although we haven’t been really close for periods of that time, Tim has always been there for me and I’ve always valued his friendship. However, at the start of 2016, things were about to reach a new level. At the end of January we sat in a pub and I told Tim the whole story of my separation and addictive behaviour. In the course of the conversation, I explained that I was starting to do a little bit of running.

Transforming the addiction

I had started running in October 2015. I would run once a week and was up to about 6km by Christmas. I started to run a little more often in January and had aspirations of one day running a half-marathon. I had an idea that running might be something that I could focus on during what I hoped would be my recovery from addiction. I explained this to Tim. I told him that I’d love to run a full marathon one day – maybe in a couple of years. Tim responded with a statement which completely changed my life – a sentence that I will never forget. As I come to type it out I know that it won’t appear to carry the magnitude or profundity that it did when he spoke it in to me that Thursday evening. This statement was a moment in time, a cataclysmic occurrence which interrupted the previous flow of my existence and set me on a radically different path. Tim said:

“You could run a marathon this year if you wanted to.”

I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he was serious, but I knew that he was:

“You could definitely run a marathon this year. Where are we now? The end of January. You just have to run a bit further each week. So, er, where would that take us to? Well you could definitely do one in September.”

And do you know what? I did. In September this year, just eight months after that conversation with my incredible friend, inspiration and guru, Tim Vincent, I ran my first marathon. And, I absolutely loved it. Running has transformed my life.

Running can really help to kick addiction
Running has played a crucial role in helping Nick (left) to deal with his addiction.

The therapy which I’ve had throughout this year has helped me to finally understand why I’ve been trapped in addictive behaviour since my adolescence. I’m sure that my understanding is not complete and I’m confident that I’ll continue to grow and develop this understanding in the years to come. That being the case, what I understand at present is that my addiction grew out of feelings of inadequacy, emasculinity, anxiety and a lack of control. The addictive behaviour was a way of coping, of soothing this pain, of making myself feel better. However – and this was the most startling revelation of all and probably one of the single most important elements in my recovery – rather than easing the pain, the addiction actually exacerbated all of those negative feelings. The thing that I turned to in order to escape, actually caused me to feel even more anxious, lacking in control, emasculated and inadequate. You can imagine how it becomes a vicious circle.

You see, the thing is…

I should explain at this point that I am blind. I was partially sighted from birth, lost the sight in my right eye at the age of 15 and then gradually lost my remaining sight in my mid-20s. For the last ten years or so I have had no useful vision at all and now just see black unless I stare directly into a very bright light source. The addiction and negative feelings I describe above developed out of my experience of sight loss and the reaction of others to me being visually impaired. On the surface I was a confident, relatively independent professional and an acclaimed public speaker. Deep, deep down though, often buried to the extent that I wasn’t aware of them, lurked feelings of fear and anxiety, self-loathing and insecurity. I increasingly developed an unhealthy emotional dependence on my wife, became socially isolated and suffered massive mood swings. Such negative emotions and behaviour were in part due to my sight loss but massively increased by the addictions that I had turned to.

So, in the midst of the worst pain I’ve ever known, during life changing therapy, as I began to make some of the most important discoveries about myself that I’ve ever made, I started to run. I’d never taken sport seriously at any stage of my life. At certain times I’d attempted to exercise and lose weight – sometimes for a prolonged period – but I had never encountered anything like the range of feelings and benefits that I began to experience through running.

I can remember the incredible feeling of running six miles for the first time. The sense of achievement, elated exhaustion, victory, power, confidence and joy was just amazing. I remember slipping it in to every conversation I had that evening – oh yeah, I just went for a run after work and did 6 miles. I was so proud! I find it interesting that, months later when I completed 26.2 miles, the feelings were the same. I think this is one of the greatest joys of running. Whether you’re just beginning and managing a couple of miles for the first time, you experience emotions that are the same as the most hardened ultra-marathon runner. I think that this is perhaps why runners are some of the most encouraging and welcoming people I’ve ever met. I think it’s because we all know the same joy and satisfaction of achieving something – that sense of savouring the intense pleasure of crossing the finishing line. Its wonderful to feel so good about completing a distance you’ve never completed before or running a time that is faster than you’ve ever run. But, what is equally wonderful is when your friends who are way, way more experienced runners than you, seem to take an almost equal pleasure in your achievement. I remember Tim marvelling at my progress and ability a few weeks in to us running together, my friend Sam guiding me in my first half-marathon and being so excited when I finished, my friend Joel claiming that guiding me to a time of 1 hour 45 in my second half was one of his best sporting achievements – the list could go on. Tim runs ultras, Sam is an experienced marathon runner, Joel is the fastest and most talented runner I know and yet, they were thrilled and genuinely excited by my achievements.

There are so many benefits to running

When I run I hold a 30cm blue strap and my guide holds the other end. I also follow their elbow a little bit for extra guidance. My guides tell me to tuck in if I’m going to hit a lamp post, inform me of steps up or down, direct me left or right if the turn is any more than slight, and advise me if the underfoot terrain is uneven. Although I need someone to guide me, I find the experience of running incredibly releasing. It gives me a powerful sense of independence. I can’t quite explain why. I used to ride a tandem with my Dad as a kid and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t give me the same sense of independence and freedom.

Over the last 10 months I’ve lost so much weight. I don’t weigh myself so I’ve no idea exactly how much but my trousers have gone from a 34 / 36 inch waist to 30 inches. As well as becoming slim for the first time in my life I’ve also developed the strongest arms I’ve ever had. I can suddenly pick up and carry my 4 year old son and 6 year old daughter again. It’s like running has transformed my physique, and with it, my body confidence.

I thoroughly appreciate how running makes everything else in my life seem more purposeful and enjoyable. Because it makes me feel so good, I’m a better father, a better friend and a better employee. Eating suddenly has this brand new importance and significance. I have to eat to refuel or to prepare myself for a run. Every meal tastes so much better because I’m hungry and my body is desperate for the goodness. It’s much easier to eat well because you can immediately feel the nutritional impact when you’re next out clocking the miles. Drinking is vital, sleeping is vital – its wondrous to feel such purpose and necessity in the most basic and fundamental activities of life.

I love the sense of progression that running brings. I love that it doesn’t take particular talent or ability – its just about doing it. If you run regularly you can go a little further each week or a little faster. As soon as I did my first marathon I was desperate to do another and see if I could better my time. After another few marathons I’m going to start ultras with Tim and am booked in for my first 100 mile event next September. I’m slightly scared by the prospect but hugely excited. Its just about going a little bit further each week, right?

The road has good ears

Running is an amazing metaphor for life. As I continue to recover from addiction (which is going amazingly well, by the way), come to terms with the divorce and cope with the emotional roller coaster of it all – often rather extreme highs and lows – you just have to keep going. Sometimes on a long run you feel exhausted and wonder how you’ll keep going. Sometimes there’s a really painful twinge in your leg. Sometimes the prospect of a very hard hill-repeat session feels overwhelming. All you can do is just keep going. And, when you just keep going, its remarkable how the exhaustion often fades, the twinge recedes and the sense of being overwhelmed by something you can’t do is transformed into the elation of achievement. I feel as though running has made me stronger, not just physically but emotionally too. When I feel as though life is too hard and I can’t keep going, I remember that first 6-mile run, the first half-marathon, crossing the line after my first full marathon – I remember the pain and difficulty I felt on all of those runs and I remember that the key is just to keep going.

So, why do I run? I run because it gives me an incredibly helpful paradigm for living, especially through difficult times. I run because it makes me incredibly fit and I now like the way I look. I run because it brings a sense of vitality to some of the basic elements of life. I love to run with my friends who guide me – it’s amazing to share such experiences with wonderful people. I run because of the sense of independence, control, power, joy, masculinity and achievement it provides. You see, everything that I tried in vain to find in the addictive behaviour, I now find in running. And, there are no side effects – only more and more benefits.

Finally, whilst all the above is true, there’s something more. There’s something about running, in my experience, that I can’t explain. There’s something that goes beyond rational explanation and reason. I find running a spiritual experience. Religious people talk about sacraments – a means by which God enacts His grace. For me running is a sacrament. I feel as though God meets me, heals me, renews and energizes me as I run. If this makes sense to you then that’s great. If it doesn’t make any sense, then no worries, its kind of inexplicable.

I run because my friend Michael started taking me running just over a year ago. I run because Tim told me in January 2016 that I could run a marathon in September. I am so thankful for all my friends who take me running and particularly to Tim who continues to be one of the most inspiring, encouraging, wise and courageous men I know.

Surprisingly common

A powerful story from Nick, I’m sure you’ll agree. I think that before I started running properly, I had a subconscious notion in my head that elite runners tended to be of the classic ‘pure body, pure mind‘ breed. The Herculean, strapping heroes of old, pushing their bodies and minds to the limit in our present age.  In hindsight, I was right about the latter part of pushing the boundaries, but the pure of body and mind elements were misguided. People, me included, often get into running through adversity, and addiction within runners is surprisingly common. There’s Nick’s story above, my own reasons detailed in this post ‘More on the Why’s?’, and this one from a hero of mine – and one of the world’s top ultra runners – Tim Olson. There’s also this great short video (7 mins) where double Western States 100 winner Rob Krar talks of his ongoing battle with depression. Running is an incredible salve. It could be argued in the cases of addiction that running becomes the new addiction, replacing the old unhealthy, negative addiction with a new, healthy, positive hobby. In Nick’s case, I genuinely believe this to be true. He’s got himself a treadmill which takes up a good third of his kitchen, and he blasts out the miles on that – when he’s not out running with various guides. We do all sorts of sessions together – sprint, hills, long runs, and Nick is already a match for me. He’s a talented, determined runner, and a talented determined guy. I’ve known him for a long time now, and he’s always been somebody that I’ve looked up to and admired. But for many years I had no idea what was really going on underneath. Since he opened up, broke his addiction down into its component parts and started to talk openly about it and get help, he’s healthier, happier and more at one with himself than I’ve ever seen him. Running has given him self esteem, confidence, and new direction in life, and I for one could not be more proud of him. Comments are more than welcome below.

5 thoughts on “Running – an addiction or a cure?

  1. Finally got around to reading this blog post Tim – and what an inspiring one it is. I think I need to read your blog every day to give myself a kick up the backside. It’s very motivating 🙂

  2. Only found your blog, but find Nicks story so inspiring. I can kind of understand when he says there is something more to running, the extra bit that is unexplainable – I have often joked to friends that running is my religion.
    It gave me such a huge smile reading to the end, to find how much running has changed his life in so many ways.
    Pass on my regards to Nick and good luck with all his future events.

    1. Thanks, Kirsty. I’ll definitely pass your regards onto Nick! Thanks for reading, and for your comment, I really appreciate it 🙂

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