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Running Proof: Addicts Can Redefine Possibilities

Last year, Walter Bortman watched the LA Marathon from his rehab facility in Southern California and he said to himself he would be running it the following year.

And that he did. The 2015 LA Marathon was just one of 19 races Bortman ran in the 17 months following rehab. His next big event? He recently announced he’ll be joining Runwell Founder Linda Quirk and newbie runner in recovery, Patrick Bowles, for the 2016 4 Deserts Roving Race, a 155-mile, 7-day ultramarathon in Sri Lanka.

“I have been invested in something every day since I finished treatment. Not one day has gone by that I don’t have a race coming up. It’s kept me focused, in shape, and around new friends that are positive influences. I feel physically amazing.”

November 29th will mark his second year sober.

Walter grew up in the suburbs of Detroit with two sisters and parents, “to be quite honest, there wasn’t much to my life before addiction. I started using when I was 15 and that has dominated most of my adult life. As a kid I played sports, skateboarded and did well in school. But there was something that started to go sideways in my teens. Not quite rebellion, but there were problems and a need for social acceptance.”

For the he last 25 years, Walter has battled addiction with periods of sobriety and great success with treatment. “I made mistakes. Relapsed countless times. Lost a career, a marriage, custody and visitation of my two children. It tore my family apart. I have lived on the street, in hotels, lived in my car, not a single aspect of my life has not been affected. About 18 months before I got sober, I started IV drug use, using both methamphetamine and started with opiates. I knew there was no coming back from that, shooting up was a death sentence, and at the time I was okay with that because I had lost the desire to live.”

Just before Thanksgiving in 2013, Walter was arrested on drug possession in Orange County, CA. In addition to the new charge, he had an outstanding warrant in LA County for violating his probation on another possession case. On Thanksgiving that year, he got high in jail. "There is no worse hell. The next day, during my transfer to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown LA, I could not believe what was happening. I knew it was over, the game, the lies, the life I had accepted as normal. I knew I could not manipulate my way through anymore situations. I spent 77 days there, housed with inmates that had mental conditions because I was pretty far from reality–sick, strung out and delusional–that woke me up. I decided in jail that I needed to change everything, or I was either going to die, or worse, be in and out of jail for the rest of my life.”

On his first morning in rehab, a county-funded 90-day lockdown facility, he walked his first mile.

He made the decision not to replace drugs with food, he wanted to look and feel good. He wanted to get better. Eventually one mile turned into two, “I began to feel better, it gave me a goal, some drive. It made me tired and I slept better. I could pass the time. For me, running has changed everything. But I can’t say I love it. There are a lot of times I have fun running, great highs and feelings of exhilaration, but it’s hard. My girlfriend and I often joke either just prior to a race or long run ‘running is dumb’ and we get a good laugh. It’s how running makes me feel, I like the challenge, what it does for my body, the commitment to training. I like the feeling of accomplishment, knowing I can call myself an ultramarathon finisher. I also really like buying new running shoes.”

“Mostly though, I’ve never worked all that hard to achieve goals, but now, picking a race, coming up with a training plan and doing the work to achieve the goal is what I find most appealing. The goals just keep getting bigger, races longer and my pace goals faster.”

Sri Lanka, he says, is a powerful platform to help deliver the message he is carrying: that an addict can redefine what is impossible, and possible, in real time. “Running 50k was impossible for me two years ago, both physically and mentally, but I just completed my first 50k. Not shooting up one day was impossible two years ago, until I was clean a day. My life is now more amazing, rich and colorful than I would have allowed myself to imagine, so I want to show people what can be done. Sri Lanka is far reaching right now, but it won’t be by the time I get there.”

Walter is confident in his ability to train physically and mentally but finds it challenging to keep a balance between training, working, treatment and social commitments. His mental toughness is a combination of willpower, skill and resilience, “I know I have to put in the work, the time and the miles. I know it’s hard but it’s not going to kill me. The competition is within me, I’m not racing to win, just to finish. While there’s nothing heroic about it, I have done the most scary, unbelievable things to get drugs. I have chemically tortured and poisoned my body to the point I should be dead a thousand times. I am capable, it seems, to withstand horrific situations and events, I think I am built to survive. Standing in the start corral of a marathon was terrifying to me, so was talking to my current girlfriend for the first time, completely sober. The thing is, it’s all in my mind. It’s fear, an emotion. It doesn’t have to accompany the unknown. You can experience and embrace new things without fear, and that’s what I try to remember.”

When asked what things kept him sober, he said nothing but his own decision to stay sober. “I could walk to the gas station 500 feet from my house and buy a beer, it is clearly a choice. I have removed it as an option for me. I no longer have the compulsion or desire to get intoxicated, thankfully. There’s a difference between not getting loaded and not wanting to get loaded, and I do not want to be that man anymore. Initially in recovery, the pain of the past is enough to keep you sober, then the memory fades and we forget. If humans couldn’t forget pain, we would be terrified to leave the house. Women would never have a second child, a car accident victim wouldn’t want to get in another car. We are conditioned to forget. But when the pain of the past fades, I think a few important things come in. Building a life that’s worth living, doing things that are enjoyable, rebuilding a healthy social network and most importantly, finding a way to give back, to help others. This is the cornerstone of any 12-step based program, ”carry the message”, help the man with less time than you. This is why Runwell appeals to me, this is a way I can really give back.”

There aren’t many better ways to prove the validity of something than to actually show it being done. Kudos to you, Walter, Runwell is grateful you’re making the journey with us.

Walter is pulling double fundraising campaigns too, one of which is to help him get to Sri Lanka, and another campaign to help fund addiction scholarships as part of Runwell’s mission. Please consider a charitable donation to help him, and those in need, achieve their goals. For every $2000 that any Runwell participant raises, Runwell will give back $500 to go toward the participant’s travel and registration expenses.

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