Opinionista Graham Westcott 24 July 2018

Overcoming years of addiction by running a new route

One of the more painful memories I have is of my father standing over me in the emergency room crying, telling me it would be better if I died, it would be easier for them. He’s the most gentle and caring parent a person could ask for and driving him that far is almost inconceivable, but I managed to do it.

I had a vague memory of running 10km when I was younger and feeling that runner’s high so I thought this could be something that I could do and enjoy. The problem was I couldn’t afford a pair of running shoes and nobody believed anything that came out of my mouth. I had to beg my father to help me and he refused at first, having been down this road many times before. This wasn’t the first time I’d left treatment with a new and bright idea, it wasn’t even the second or third. He eventually relented and a few weeks later I found myself on the promenade in Sea Point attempting my first run.

My mornings are different now. Three years ago, in the last days of my drinking, I would begin my day by reaching under my bed with my eyes half-open, searching for the bottle of vodka I knew would be waiting, and gulping down those first few glorious mouthfuls. That stinging heat would travel down my throat and into my empty stomach, lighting me up from the inside.

I’d be lying if I said the memory was painful. Parts of my alcoholism will be with me for the rest of my life.

Next would be the two or three lines of coke that I’d saved from the night before and then I’d feel ready to face the day. I could just about find the courage to leave the flat but it was only to visit the bottle store as it opened and to see my dealer to pick up the day’s cocaine.

Being outside was painful, I felt sure the whole world could see how sick I was. Watching people living their lives hurt me. I felt so far apart and removed from humanity that all I wanted to do was scurry home and be alone with the booze and the drugs.

I felt hopeless.

I was deposited into my first rehab the day after my 21st birthday in July of 1999 and so began a pattern that would repeat itself many times over the next 15 years. In and out of rehabs, in and out of jobs. Always on the move, trailing chaos in my wake while inflicting a steady dose of pain and suffering on my family and friends, with a growing sense of entitlement. I cringe now when I think of the man I used to be and it still astounds me that I wasn’t completely abandoned by every person in my life.

One of the more painful memories I have is of my father standing over me in the emergency room crying, telling me it would be better if I died, it would be easier for them. He’s the most gentle and caring parent a person could ask for and driving him that far is almost inconceivable, but I managed to do it.

After that, I managed a few clean weeks, but that wasn’t my last visit to the hospital for an overdose. Years went by, some clean, some not. I would give my family and few remaining friends a glimmer of hope only to relapse spectacularly. I needed rescuing often.

My world kept narrowing. Luckily there were people prepared to help me. Without them, I would’ve ended up on the street or worse. By rights I should be dead.

Statistics were not on my side. Anybody suffering from an addiction has every reason to be pessimistic. Over the years I’ve met many alcoholics and addicted persons and relapse and death are all too common.

Most of the treatment centres I attended over the years agree that generally around 10% of the population addicted to some sort of substance and approximately 10% of those people will access treatment when they need it. Of the people who manage to get help, many will relapse. This disease kills; it kills indiscriminately. It’s terrifying.

I wish I could say that I was driven to some moment of clarity, that one night my reality crystallised and I vowed to change. It wasn’t like that at all. I found myself just unable to go on hurting the loved ones left in my life but I also lacked the will to take my own life.

I’d been clean before and I knew it was possible for me to at least stop using and be abstinent. This was not a prospect that filled me with any sort of hope but I knew I would at least stop hurting those who cared about me. My experiences of recovery in the past had always been ones of struggle and difficulty and eventual relapse. I had no expectation of joy, happiness or fulfilment. What life there was left to live for me seemed bleak and dark but I refused to do any more damage by using and drinking. My expectations were low.

I am quite often asked what it was that finally changed, what moment made me choose a new path. It’s taken a long time to find that answer. Even now I can’t be sure but I’m beginning to believe it was that first selfless act that may have been the key. Deciding to look outside of myself opened a new door but I didn’t know it at the time.

Off I went to rehab; everybody had written me off including my father. If it wasn’t for my mother being willing to risk one more glimmer of hope, I wouldn’t have had this last chance. As it was they were so fed up with my behaviour that I wasn’t welcome anywhere and I had to spend a few days detoxing on my own at a youth hostel in Sea Point while a bed became available at a local treatment centre.

I knew how to “rehab”. It’s a system that’s easy to manipulate if you’ve been through it before but one of the earliest decisions I made was to be as honest as I could be about what had happened and about my internal world. I let it all hang out and even though this made the process harder it did help me to deal with much of the trauma I’d been through. If there is one universal constant when it comes to addicts and alcoholics, it’s that we’ve all had some sort of trauma.

Something shifted. I don’t know when and I’m not sure how, but I started to feel the beginnings of hope. It was subtle at first but by the end of my stay I could see a way forward.

That feels like a lifetime ago, but it was only a few years, not much compared with the almost two decades of active addiction and alcoholism.

Two months later in June of 2015 I found myself clean and sober again but hardly in great condition. I emerged from treatment on a daily regimen of depression and anxiety medications, I was smoking 40 cigarettes a day and I gained weight – tipping the scales at over 110 kilograms. I wasn’t using substances but I was still a mess.

If it’s one thing that a steady diet of vodka and cocaine will do is keep you malnourished and underweight.

I had a vague memory of running 10km when I was younger and feeling that runner’s high and I thought this could be something that I could do and enjoy.

The problem was I couldn’t afford a pair of running shoes and nobody believed anything that came out of my mouth. I had to beg my father to help me and he refused at first, having been down this road many times before. This wasn’t the first time I’d left treatment with a new and bright idea, it wasn’t even the second or third. He eventually relented against his better judgement and a few weeks later I found myself on the promenade in Sea Point attempting my first run.

I was desperately unfit. My body had taken a real battering over the past 20 years and my first attempts at running were excruciating. Running even 1km was impossible. I would run and walk and then drag myself home exhausted – huffing, panting, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. Not in what I would call “showroom condition”.

In the weeks that followed I would try to go a little bit further until I managed 2.5 slow kilometres without stopping. I then built towards 5km without walking, always trying to push myself further, run a bit more and walk a little less. That drive has served me well over my short running career and has translated well into the rest of my life.

I remember running 10km without stopping for the first time. Back then I had no idea how fast I was going and I couldn’t have cared less. Ten kilometres felt like the farthest any person had ever run, I told anybody who would listen.

I felt a real sense accomplishment and it had been a long time since I’d last been able to say that. My health was improving, I’d stopped smoking and was in the process of reducing the medication I was taking. I was heading in a new and unknown direction and starting to find real enjoyment in my life.

I ran my first race in December of 2015, the Growthpoint Sundowner 10km at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. By this point I was running regularly and beginning to build a routine. At around the same time I found my way into a yoga studio and had begun to practise meditation. Running, yoga and meditation continue to be the cornerstones on which I’ve built my recovery.

I can’t remember how fast I finished but I loved it and then decided to run Bay to Bay at the end of January 2016. The longer version – 30 km — was an inconceivable distance. I couldn’t imagine anybody being able to run that far. The 15km, from Hout Bay to Camps Bay, seemed just about doable if I trained hard, but even that seemed overly ambitious.

Race day was a disaster, it remains the only race-day abandonment I’ve had. The wind was howling, I was late for the start and I felt ill. I dragged myself up Suikerbossie in a foul mood only to stumble over a cat’s eye, tearing the skin off my knees, hands and elbows in the process. I stopped running and caught a taxi home.

After the dust had settled I decided to run a half-marathon and entered the Gun Run in 2016. I had no training plan and was running alone at that point. I prepared myself as best I could for the race, slowly ramping up my long runs to the 20km mark. Time goals were becoming important and what I wanted more than anything was to finish 21km in under two hours.

That day remains one of my most treasured memories, running or otherwise. Conditions were perfect. It was a gorgeous spring morning on the Promenade. I was filled with pride and wonder and some disbelief. My father by this point was right behind me, having seen the changes in my life and was starting to allow himself to believe.

I was a little over a year out of rehab and lining up for my first half marathon.

I snuck home in one hour and 59 minutes. My dad had waited for me on the route and I remember shedding more than a few tears as I ran past him to the finish line. He was proud of me for the first time in many years.

Some real changes started to happen in my life. My weight was coming down, I’d managed to successfully wean myself off all the medications that had been prescribed to me in treatment. I felt healthy, vital and strong. I started to believe that I’d found a new way to live.

I began to build on my successes. I believe that great things are accomplished one small step at a time. That, and the desire I had to push myself to see where my boundaries lay, led me to enter the 2017 Peninsula Marathon, a taxing route from Green Point to Simon’s Town (42,2km). I was still running and training alone and I arrived at that start line woefully under-prepared and over-confident. I was in for a rude awakening.

The wind was blowing a gale and I started way too fast, hitting the dreaded wall at around 30km. I arrived at the finish line in just under five hours, beaten, exhausted and more than a little humbled. Those last few hours on the road consisted of some of the hardest running I’d done, but I did discover a well of determination and was starting to learn how to push myself when every fibre of my being was screaming at me to stop.

Running was still a solo affair but after the shock of how poorly I’d fared at the Peninsula I decided to join a running club, not realising how much that decision would change my life. Broadening my social circle and learning from more experienced runners seemed like just the prescription but it turned into so much more.

Loneliness and isolation were two of the more unfortunate effects addiction continued to have on my life. I was by no means unique. Rebuilding social networks is one of the toughest challenges anybody in recovery must overcome; without that healing is impossible. I’d tried alone and alone didn’t work.

It’s only looking back now, when I think about all the wonderful people in my life, that I realise just how separated I was.

I love my club, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Those first few uncomfortable dawn runs with strangers have turned into some of the dearest friendships I have. We run together, socialise together and I feel connected to them. They’re my tribe and not a day goes by when I’m not grateful for them. It’s not hyperbole to say they saved my life; I wouldn’t have made it without them.

I organise my days and weeks around my running. It’s a routine and consistency after so much chaos and uncertainty.

There are a great many theories on what causes addiction, I don’t feel there’s one specific answer but I do know that connection is the key. It’s a feeling of separateness and disconnection that drove me to drink and use drugs. It’s the feeling of being heard and a part of something that keeps me sober now.

By now I was starting to take my running seriously, drawing advice from the experienced marathoners around me and training consistently. I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes for the CT Marathon that September. Peninsula had been a real shock to the system. I’d been confident of a strong showing. The mistakes are easy to see now, hindsight being what it is. I’d found the respect I needed for these distances but that wasn’t going to be enough.

I found myself a training plan and stuck to it rigorously. I loved the commitment and the structure, ticking off the training runs and slowly building up to race day. Small steps, one run at a time. Every time I laced my shoes I had a purpose and a goal. That feeling was intoxicating.

Yet the Cape Town marathon was another disaster. This was meant to be my qualifier for Two Oceans Ultra but I was so nauseous at the 25km mark that all I could do was walk and vomit. Even a gentle jog was beyond me. I stumbled across the finish line, failing to qualify within the five-hour cut-off time. That well was deeper than I thought and I was tired of having to draw so deeply from it.

Most races that are longer than the standard marathon (42.195km) require a qualifier. Any person who wants to run a Comrades or a Two Oceans Ultra needs to finish a shorter race within a certain time. I had failed to do that by a few minutes.

I remain deeply indebted to one of my club mates who picked me up, drove me home and later that same day convinced me to enter the Winelands Marathon.

That very night I paid for my Winelands race entry. I wasn’t giving up. I just hoped I’d made the big mistakes, knew what not to do, and could get myself a result to be proud of. The challenge of learning how to run marathons – and beyond – had bitten. Something inside me wanted this more than just about anything else in my life to that point. The harder it became the more that desire burned.

I finally put it all together at Winelands. I managed to run a decent race and qualify for Two Ocean’s Ultra with a 4:17 time.

My plan had been to enter the Ultra after the Cape Town Marathon but my sights were set higher. I wanted to do something remarkable. There was a deep need inside of me to achieve a goal that wasn’t predicated on my history, that could stand alone as an accomplishment. I wanted to run the Comrades Marathon.

I found myself sitting at my desk, punching my credit card details into the Comrades Marathon website, conscious that there was nobody standing behind me with a gun to my head, that I would be well served to remember this was entirely my own idea. Nobody knew what I was planning to do. I was afraid of the nay-sayers who would tell me it was too early in my running career to enter and that I didn’t have enough experience. I knew that if I trained smart and hard then it was possible.

I run with many experienced Comrades finishers who range in ability and they spoke of the experience in reverential, hushed tones. Nobody came even close to encouraging me with stories of triumph and joy. Most spoke of how brutal the training was, never mind the extreme challenge of race day itself. I tried to ignore that and decided early on to find an impartial professional to assess my abilities and design a training programme specific to me. There was no room for mistakes, I couldn’t afford the kind of novice errors I’d been making so far.

I arrived in January of 2018 with a plan and my qualifier behind me. Every training run was planned out to race day, each one having its own mini-goal. Broken into manageable chunks it didn’t feel overly daunting. A slow, steady and incremental process fit my new-found love of routine and accountability.

I felt I had a partner in my coach and we remained in constant contact. He helped eliminate the noise I was hearing and alleviate my concerns about preparedness

Every step I took was done with one thing in mind – getting to the finish line in Durban on 10 June 10. I respected this race, I’d heard the stories and I was leaving nothing to chance.

Preparations could not have gone better. By May I was as ready as possible. I had avoided being sick or injured, my fitness was peaking and had only missed two or three short runs. By my last 50km long run my body was tired and a few weeks of rest and recovery arrived at just the right time.

There is an oft-repeated sentiment that just getting to the start line of Comrades is an achievement; that no matter what happens on race day, just lining up and pinning on that number is an extraordinary feeling.

All the early mornings, the long weekend runs, anti-social bedtimes and exhausted afternoons, the sacrificed social events add up. With Comrades, there are no short-cuts; you can’t buy your way to the start.

The last four weeks before race day were excruciating. Waiting for race day became a torturous chore. Paranoia around getting sick, the constant vigilance, and the minute-by-minute self-assessment of my body started to wear on me psychologically.

I kept waiting for the nerves to subside and the excitement to take over but that didn’t happen. I was in a mess right up until I awoke at 3am on 10 June. Again, it was my club mates to the rescue. Their assurances that these feelings were to be expected helped to soothe my anxiety. I went to bed on 9 June feeling like a half marathon was beyond me but I had faith in my training and preparation. I had a plan and I was going to follow it as best I could.

You only get one first Comrades. I had been told this over and over. Everybody has a reason to be there. Scratch the surface and the most astounding stories of personal achievement are just waiting to be heard.

Comrades is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Every person on that road is in it together with one goal in mind – getting to the finish. I felt deeply connected to complete strangers, there was a sense of belonging and commonality that I can’t imagine anywhere else. As a metaphor for life it is without parallel.

I had a plan for race day and that involved two things – hold back and keep moving forward. I looked at myself in the mirror that morning and made myself those two promises. I’m lucky, time was on my side. I had enough raw pace to not worry too much about being cut-off.

Comrades can be brutal that way. There are several points along the route where the race organisers will stop you from continuing if you fail to reach them within a pre-determined time. I could run conservatively and still be confident of getting to the finish before the dreaded 12 hour gun was fired. Falling metres short is not uncommon and there are many athletes who fail to achieve a medal with the finish line in sight.

The day worked. All the hard work paid dividends. Conditions were perfect and once I realised I was far ahead of cut-off not to worry, I relaxed into my routine and started ticking off the kilometres.

All the landmarks I’d heard about came and went in a flow of new and wonderful bite-sized chunks. I took the time to drink it all in. I talked to strangers and friends alike, high-fived until my hands were raw, shed more than a few tears and saw some scenes of real heartbreak and difficulty.

They describe it as the ultimate human race; they aren’t wrong.

Race entrant 7160 Graham Westcott about halfway through his first Comrades Marathon at Botha’s hill. Photo: SUPPLIED

The last 15kms were tough. Fields Hill had taken more out of me than expected and I had to hold on tight and manage my body and mind to the finish. I ran and walked, sticking to a plan and grinding it out. As one of my friends is prone to reminding me – it’s meant to be hard, it’s Comrades. As tough as those last two hours were, I knew I could make it. My well was deep enough.

As I turned into the bright lights of the tunnel and into the stadium, tears started rolling down my cheeks. I trotted across the finish line, they handed me my medal and it was over.

It’s hard to describe how I felt. Mostly, it was pure exhaustion. I was proud and happy but also sad that it was over. That sense of achievement was tempered by the knowledge that I had nothing left to do except reflect. In that moment there was a sense of loss.

I retrieved my bag, and there was my father. He’d travelled with me and had been on the edge of his seat all day. I had shown him who I was, given him the gift of pride in his son. We shared our own special moment as he helped me limp towards the club gazebo to see how my friends had fared.

After everything we’d been through as father and son this was something I’d wanted to do for him as much as for me. I’d let him down so many times before, expectations had been lowered so far as to be non-existent and there had been times when we had no relationship at all. This was his moment as much as it was mine.

For me it was a victory lap, a coming out party. After the pain and suffering, the heartbreak and the brushes with death, I buried my old self somewhere on that road.

Getting that tiny medal didn’t change me, I wasn’t a different man, but something had shifted inside.

I do worry about getting injured or being off the road for long periods and if that day comes I’ll have to be cautious of the vulnerability I still carry with me.

But my foundations are strong, my connections are vital, and my life is full. Training for Comrades and then finishing has given me a quiet sense of confidence; I’ve adjusted my sights higher.

When I walked away from the traditional approach to recovery it was to a loud and fearful chorus of dissenting voices. I had become abstinent, but I wanted so much more than that. I knew I had to go another route, but there were no guarantees and the stakes were high. If it went wrong I could lose everything, including my life.

There are still many who would argue that I’ve replaced one addiction for another, that I’ve transferred my obsessions. Perhaps – but I find myself increasingly wondering if it matters. DM

Graham Westcott is a business development consultant in Cape Town. Besides running, he loves yoga. Ultra marathons are his passion.

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