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On Recovery | First Year Sober vs. First Marathon

My first year sober and my first marathon were both met with fearful trepidation. Questions for both filled me with self-doubt, and the challenge seemed impossible, like I was a fish asked to fly or a bird asked to swim.

There's an AA saying that the first year sober is a gift. This is certainly not true. The first year is the hardest; this statement is out there to keep you humble. It's easy to get cocky and assume that you've made it just because you have a year sober. There is something special about going through all the dates of the calendar without picking up, but, like running the first half of a marathon, the real work still lies ahead.

Both of the goals of staying sober and running a marathon were achieved by doing smaller, previously considered impossible tasks. By performing what felt like tiny little miracles for me, I mutated myself into a different being. My spiritual and physical self started to not only believe but to expect to conquer the next herculean task.

Watch a hockey game without drinking? Oh my gosh, I did it. I did it and survived. Go to a party or spend a New Year's sober? Go a week sober? Live off of food and air and water and not vodka and gin and beer? Wow, I can do that too, and I will.

I may look a bit pathetic, I may exude fear and uncertainty and step with trepidation in your presence, but with each step I gain confidence, and 20 years later, that is me you see by your side or even passing you with a confident gait.

It seems like the ones who stay sober are the ones who are the most strung out, the ones others have given up on, the ones who seem forever lost. I believe it is because you have to be pretty far gone to get the needed doses of desperation. And it is the desperate who get sober, otherwise, why bother?

And eventually you get used to being in a state of desperation.

Channeling that sense of desperation at times is what running does for me. Being challenged and straining and testing myself becomes a new comfort zone, something not to fear.

I was so terrified that first marathon morning. What the hell had I got myself into? This was big, too big, and much bigger than me. Maybe I should just stay home.

I imagined hurts in my body that weren't there; phantom injuries appeared everywhere because of fear. Everything around me seemed so much more intense, and I don't mean people, I mean simple things like a chair or a lamp or a paper clip all seemed to go from two-dimensional to high-definition. Everything was more real, more intense, spinning like crazy, and it made my stomach ache and my mind whirl.

This intense reality was much like my first year sober, where the whole world was so much more alive and my emotions were firing on all cylinders. I had to deal with a heightened reality 24 hours a day for the first time since I was 12. How the heck do people do this without using substances? It seemed impossible, but with every mile I walked dry and sober through the world, I was training myself. I was learning how to handle whatever feelings drama the universe could throw my way.

SOBER is just an acronym that stands for: “Son Of A Bitch, Everything's Real.”

There are so many stone cold sober psychological imprints from that first marathon. I ran it in Detroit, and the vision of the sun rising as I made the climb up the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River is stuck in my memory. Golden rays like eyelashes shot out of the horizon as if God had just woken to watch over us. After a mile or two in Canada, the run descended down a tunnel underneath the Detroit River, and it felt like harrowing the earth. Water dripped down the sides of the underground tunnel as if the whole thing was about to cave in, and thousands of footstrikes echoed around me. I crossed the United States/Canada border and started back up the underwater canal as if being reborn. Thousands of United States spectators awaited as I emerged from the depths, back home again but forever changed.

I describe both of these scenes best I can in The Jade Rabbit, adding just a touch of magical realism, since that was certainly how it felt.

I think I was about 15 miles into this marathon when I finally had the confident, instinctual feeling that I was, indeed, going to finish. My lungs, legs and spirit felt infused with strength, and I ran my first marathon with negative splits. My joy could perhaps only be matched by young Charlie running home to his grandparents, holding the golden ticket to the chocolate factory in his hand. 

“I never dreamed that I would climb, over the moon in ecstasy! But nevertheless, it's there that I'm shortly about to be! ‘Cos I've got a golden ticket! 'Cos I've got a golden ticket!”

The golden ticket in sobriety is those little coins or keytags that you gather in your pocket. The marathon medals represent the hours and months of training, but the golden tickets of sobriety are the currency for living life on life's terms and hours lived sober. 

About the Author

Mark Matthews is a 13-time marathoner, a Boston qualifier, a recovering addict of 21 years, and a substance-abuse counselor in Detroit. In 2014, he became a Runwell advocate, and is currently training to run the 2015 Walt Disney World Marathon to support the mission of Runwell. The above story is an excerpt from his book "Chasing the Dragon: Running to Get High"

Mark is currently raising funds to help those struggling with addiction have access to quality treatment for the disease of addiction. Click here to support Mark and Runwell as they make strides toward ending the stigmas associated with addiction. 

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