From marathon binges to marathon running, heres why former substance users find release in hitting the pavement
Even in his cocaine-bingeing years, which culminated in his car being shot at by drug dealers, Charlie Engle was the top salesman at the fitness club he worked at. You might call him a high achiever.
Now Engle is an ultramarathon runner in some of the worlds most inhospitable environments, and author of the memoir The Running Man. He tells Guardian Australia that, for him, part of the attraction is the pursuit of novelty.
In my view, drug taking is very much about chasing firsts, he says. The absolute best I ever felt in relation to drugs was actually the acquisition of the drug. Theres nothing more powerful than having the drugs in my pocket; the idea of what it can be.
And, in a way, running is the same because theres this weird idea that youre going to enter a 100-miler and this time its going to be different. This time its not gonna hurt so much, and everythings going to be perfect.
Swapping substances for running over any other sport is common. The addiction and recovery website the Fix regularly publishes running articles, and memoirs about this lifestyle swap include Catra Corbetts Reborn on the Run, Caleb Daniloffs Running Ransom Road and Catriona Menzies-Pikes The Long Run.
In the case Menzies-Pike, the former gin-addled bookworm used to eye runners with suspicion as she nursed her lattes and hangovers. Shed spent a decade adrift after the sudden death of her parents before it struck her that shed been preoccupied with distance and endurance and running away, so perhaps the logical answer was actual running.
Now the Sydney-based editor has run five marathons.
I was not at a great point in my life, she tells Guardian Australia. I really hadnt dealt with the death of my mum and dad at all, but when I started running there was this quick conversion, and then a whole lot of other things started to fall more into an orderly shape. I started to sleep better and eat better, and I started getting trashed less. There was structure that came into my life.
Its an outcome echoed in new film Brittany Runs a Marathon, released in Australia on 31 October. Its title character a heavy drinker who is overweight and has low self-esteem hasnt processed the death of her father. She goes to the doctor hoping for a quick fix of Adderall but is instead prescribed exercise. Brittany decides to aim for the New York City Marathon and her training helps her get her life on track.
Menzies-Pike says: Running gave me a space to deal with the fact that I fucked up the grieving process. I found tremendous emotional variety in that space, and I would have these periods of total relaxation as I looked at a beautiful Sydney waterside view, and then other periods of experiencing physical resistance. Then there were periods of total emotional turmoil, where all of these suppressed feelings would rise up and Id be running against them.
When a person gives up one dopaminergic behaviour, such as taking substances, theyre likely to experience cross-addiction and chase the same sense of stimulation in something else. But why long-distance running in particular? Both behaviours require a capacity for endurance, provide a sense of release, can instil the intoxicating feeling of being an outlier, and can be solitary pursuits.
The Sydney-based journalist Paul Maley is a trail runner who knocked his heavy drinking on its head four years ago to focus on his more active pursuit. He has now ticked off ultramarathons including the Blackall 100 and the 250km Big Red Run.
It became increasingly difficult [to run] as my drinking got heavier, to the point where a choice was required, he says. And I chose running. You dont have to be Sigmund Freud to see the relationship there. In both cases youre chasing that dopamine or endorphin rush.
Running produces boosts in dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin in the first instance, with the more hard-earned runners high of endorphins and some researchers think an endocannabinoid called anandamide coming later.
A person might reasonably expect that, when they give up substances their behaviour becomes less self-centred but, as Maley points, out: You need to find other ways of coping with stress and managing your emotions. After I stopped drinking I was much more self-absorbed and spent much more time in my own head no one tells you how self-absorbing the process is. Running was really good for stilling my mind because its quite meditative.
By her own admission, Menzies-Pike used to view runners with suspicion and, as Engle notes, extreme training can elicit more comments of concern from people than getting wasted ever did.
People regularly ask me, Do you think thats healthy? he says, laughing. Im going to sound very judgmental, but I think people who criticise very likely feel badly about themselves. In my experience, its rarely based in true concern. Because if theyre around me enough, theyre going to see how running makes me happy.