Recovery Goes The Distance In New York Marathon

Running can be effective in helping overcome addiction.

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Team members, who are in recovery from substance use disorder, say that running has helped them cope with life changes.

Yesterday, a team of runners in recovery who live in a residential program ran New York’s world-renowned marathon together. The 45 runners on the Odyssey House team who ran the 26.2-mile event include 19 current clients, plus supporters and alumni. Odyssey House offers inpatient and outpatient treatment for adolescents and adults at sites throughout the city.

The running group was diverse, including people from age 25 to 72. Some had been incarcerated the year before: their transformation into runners in recovery represented a profound dedication to change.

Running, according to John Tavolacci, the chief operating officer of Odyssey House, helps strengthen bonds between runners, builds their self-esteem, and empowers them to push themselves through difficult situations. He’s run 22 marathons. He started the Odyssey House running group in 2001 as a supplement to treatment, based on a strong belief that running can be effective in helping overcome addiction.

New York City has been severely impacted by the drug epidemic. The city’s rate of heroin overdose deaths increased fivefold per 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2015. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids were linked to more than 42,000 deaths nationwide in 2016, five times the 1999 rate. However, grassroots groups and recovery support are meeting the epidemic at the ground level and helping to change outcomes for people with substance use disorder.

One Odyssey House runner, John Kane, completed treatment five months ago. He became addicted to prescription opioids nearly two decades ago, later moving to heroin use.

He told The New York Times that the running team gave him a drive and vision for his life that goes beyond the actual workouts and training.

“[Running] is also transferable to everything else I do in life,” Mr. Kane said. “The hard work, the perseverance, the dedication it takes to run a marathon can cross over into your everyday life—as far as setting a goal, working toward that goal and achieving that goal.”

Other team members, who are in recovery from substance use disorder, say that running has helped them cope with life changes. However, running on its own is not the solution to sustaining recovery. According to The New York Times, the team sustained more than one loss—to overdose, not recidivism.

The team’s head coach, Andre Matthews, has been in recovery for two decades. He recalled a woman, Laura Thompson, who ran the marathon with the Odyssey House team in 2011. Matthews, who estimates that he has run about 20 marathons, said he recruited Thompson to join the team after seeing her on a treadmill at an inpatient center, where she had been living with her infant son.

Running was part of the puzzle, but not the cure for substance use disorder. Laura Thompson died at age 35 last January from an apparent overdose, according to the State Police in Middletown, New York.

However, for those who actively participate in their recovery, great things are possible. With finishing times of under 4 hours, the Odyssey House team is serious about taking strides forward. The support of their friends, residential staff, and family is invaluable in helping them cross the finish line.

Matthews told the Times that he was proud to cheer on his fellow athletes. “You’re there waiting at the end—you’re like an anxious parent,” he said. “I find that when you stay connected in recovery, it’s one person in recovery helping another. It’s a parallel process as you grow and mature in recovery and continue to be a part of people in their recovery, it also benefits you.”

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