Whatever model or program or approach or belief system you employ, your recovery is made better by the presence of fellow travelers. In other words, people who share your diagnosis are prepared to listen to your bullshit and talk you off your personal ledges. This is true of every affliction. Whatever your diagnosis, you need your own kind to survive it: alcoholic, addict, writer, parent, moderate-leaning democrat. Even those suffering from Prius ownership have their own culture and treatment norms. You have to find the others to feel less like an other.
This is also true, of course, of those of us who run.
I need to stop and clarify, if I may, how I run, not because I assume you care, but because it’s relevant to events I’m about to share. I’m slow. I’m really, really slow. If I break the 11-minute-mile barrier, I take it as proof of a benevolent Goddess-of-tailwinds-and-downhill-stretches, and I fall on my knees in thanks. (And pain, because 10:40s are actually too fast for me, and there’s a price, in both running and sobriety, associated with trying to outrun myself.)
So, naturally, I joined a running club. Let me introduce you to some of the other members. There’s J, who once qualified for the Olympic time trials. There’s British-accent-J, who recently referred to a ten-mile loop as a “warm-up lap.” There’s D, who runs long-distance races barefoot. There’s K, who qualifies for Boston every year. And then there’s M, who started running three months ago, but already runs 8-minute miles.
I wrote in a post earlier this year about the role of running in my sobriety: about how it helped me shake off the crazy. It still works, and now that the crazy has become less, the running has become more focused. Now that my sobriety goal-setting involves more than surviving one more hour without a drink, my running has shaped itself into a thing with goals of its own. I’m running in races. I’m signed up for a half-marathon. And I joined this running club because I like to talk about shin splints and ice packs and mud and repeats and intervals and tapering. It makes me feel like the athlete I’ve never been, and maybe-just-maybe it will help me learn to run better.
At first, joining the running club merely meant writing a check for ten bucks, being added to an email list, joining a secret Facebook group, and posing in a group photo after a race. (I ran the three. They all ran the ten. Of course.) These things were all well within my skill set, and I felt cool just reading the emails. Mission accomplished. Eventually, though, Olympic-time-trial J seemed to think it was reasonable for me to consider showing up for a group run. The club runs together every weekend: they choose a location with multiple routes, British-accent J provides maps, and they all meet for breakfast afterward to talk about shin splints and ice packs and mud and repeats and intervals and tapering.
I said I would go, but simultaneously started lining up excuses to offer after-the-fact to explain my absence in the event that anyone even noticed I wasn’t there. The run was at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and the weather was grey and misty, so excuses were easy. In a standard trick of alcoholic behavior, though, I set an early alarm clock and packed a running bag anyway. When I was drinking, I worked hard to keep every option open. My fear of missing out was stronger than my interest in committing to a thing and making it work. My fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time forced so many aborted landings that I started to fear runways entirely, seeing them as traps instead of safety. Making commitments only to avoid them was also an excellent way to cultivate the self-loathing I lived on for many years. Self-loathing is high in emotional calories and protein, and people can eat it, drink it, shower in it, and stir it into their coffee for years without needing much else.
At 5:30 that morning, as I microwaved a slice of leftover frittata, I knew two things. I knew I was most certainly not going running with this group because I would be revealed as a fraud. And I knew, therefore, that I was, in fact, admitting to this fraudulence. I drizzled Siracha over this truth frittata and washed it down with coffee. And then I laced up my shoes and drove to the trail head.
In between the last drop of coffee and the clatter of my plate in the sink, I had remembered this: there is no courage without vulnerability. This sentence was delivered in the clear voice of Brene Brown, whose Netflix special I had watched the day before. This one idea had stood out as the truest thing ever. As true as gravity and rain and the solar system and climate change and evolution. True in sobriety and staff meetings and writing group and parenting and driving in the snow. And true in running. Courage involves risk. Risk makes us feel vulnerable. Vulnerability makes us feel weak. Feeling weak is the opposite of feeling strong. Finding strength sometimes requires borrowing some muscle from others. It comes down to finding the others.
They all ran the ten. (British-accent-J ran twenty.) I ran the six. Over eggs and toast, my fellow sufferers all told me to keep coming back. You get better if you show up.