“I didn’t start running till I was 40!” That’s one of my favorite personal humblebrags. I was never a very athletic person. I did sports in high school, but only because I was expected to, and I wasn’t very good. I liked swimming though, and marching band. (Don’t laugh, marching band is seriously athletic! You try carrying a mellophone in a coordinated dance while reading music!)
Never did I do something like “jog” or “work out”. I was a Marlboro smoking, coffee shop sitting, drinking in the woods after dark kind of teen. That lifestyle evolved into college parties and Happy Hours in my 20s. Sneakers and gym memberships weren’t even on the radar.
I remember seeing a friend on Facebook who just completed running a 5K. I was amazed! I pummeled him with compliments and he responded “Calm down, it’s only a 5K, it’s not like a marathon.” A 5K was such a far away feat to me, it might as well have been a marathon.
At 38 years old, I emerged from outpatient rehab and into a new sober life. Nine months later I had my second daughter. I picked up a double stroller so I could easily take both of my kids with me out in world. I’ve always been a walker. I can walk all day. (I could even walk a 5K!) Walking with my double stroller became a favorite activity for me and my small girls.
Fortunately I quit smoking cigarettes before I had kids and now my new sober body was catching up to my smoke-free lungs. I felt really great for the first time in years, maybe even decades. I took my kids around the neighborhood almost daily. We visited parks and shopping centers, Longwood Gardens, and a small local zoo. I pushed, pulled, and nimbly navigated this giant, inline two-seater orange cart everywhere.
My first born was off to school the following September and we’d walk her to the bus stop, and then with just my baby in the stroller, we went around the neighborhood. This was never the goal, but one day I started running. My feet just took off. I could do it! Holy crap, I was actually running and it felt fantastic!
Like recovery had taught me, I found people who knew more than me, who were further along in their journeys. I consulted my running friends, which once I took a look I saw that I had many. Jogging is an easy go-to workout – no equipment except sneaks. I got advice on distance, time and goal setting but the best advice I got was about pacing and breathing.
My husband’s lifelong pal Al taught me to pace my running. Push just hard enough to keep your heat and heart rate up, but also save energy to complete the distance. He talked about practicing and getting to know yourself, your rhythm and abilities. He also said its ok to take a break, especially while you’re learning. If I’m out of breath, just walk for a block or two, and then get running again. This isn’t just good running advice, I knew I was getting sound life advice here.
Al taught me about breathing too. Breathe in for three paces, breathe out for four paces. You can vary the number, but always breathe out one extra pace. Your in-breath starts on the opposite foot for each breath cycle. I didn’t know it at the time, but this ended up being my first lesson in mindfulness of breath, and a foundation for my forthcoming meditation practice.
My jogging continued and my energy and self esteem were on the rise. I picked up a cheap fitness watch and got to know my time and pace very well. Several months into the new hobby, I still couldn’t believe I was running. I loved touring where I lived in this way, saying hello to people and looking at nature and homes. I watched gardens grow and trees roll through their annual cycle. I noticed different patterns of birds and small animals with each season, and felt the weather and its subtle changes throughout the year. I appreciated my neighborhood houses, cars and boats. I met dogs, cats, ducks, snakes, peacocks, a goat, and way too many insects. I yelled congratulations and compliments to strangers and exchanged smiles and waves to others outdoors and enjoying the world.
While running, I spent a lot of time in my thoughts as well, thinking of recovery growth, family plans, gratitude, appreciation. If an old memory came up, maybe one that was difficult like remorse or shame, or even a craving, I went back to the breathing. In three, out four, in three, out four. I could focus on my breath in the moment and let the thoughts pass. I cherish the advice a sponsor gave me: “Be where your feet are.” My feet were moving forward!
Running around with my kids in a stroller felt good. Setting and achieving a fitness goal felt good. Having a stronger body and the ability to eat ice cream and pie and not put on too much weight because I was burning up calories with a daily jog felt good! I was treated to a mom weekend at the beach and we chose to jog along the boardwalk one morning. Never in my wildest drunken dreams did I ever think I would opt to jog at 7am with mom friends, but I did because it FELT GOOD!
I joined friends in a 5K charity race. My very first race was so exciting, I think I told everyone I looked at that day that it was my first 5K ever. I won second place in my gender age group. I missed the #1 spot by 12 seconds! I was so proud.
My award was an etched glass beer stein full of Hershey Kisses. I instinctively cheers’d my friend who got 3rd place and then immediately cringed at my own inappropriateness. Cheers’ing a beer stein. Good grief. This alcohol tradition isn’t what got me here, it was putting down the drink that did. After the race, I ordered myself a proper trophy… a refrigerator magnet of my race photo.
There’s a ton of research about how exercise is an important “recovery tool”. It seems to me that exercise is an important “life tool”. It has to do with endorphins, and keeping stress hormones in balance. Scientific evidence is important, but I exercised because it felt good so I kept doing it. Can a recovery or life tool just be that simple? If I had exercised as a life tool in my teen years, would it have prevented me from alcoholism? Who knows? I do know though that if I could ever do it over, I definitely will give exercise more effort than I did partying.
Exercise also puts me in a crowd of people who are more body aware. Reflecting on the effects of aging and the consequences of bad choices on your body didn’t pair well with daily drinking and my selection of companions demonstrated that. My sober relationships were evolving to healthier minds and healthier bodies.
I remember hearing a podcast with Josh Korda, a popular Buddhist pastor in New York City who is in long term recovery from alcoholism explain his rigorous regular exercise routine “just to feel normal”. It was something like an hour or two of extreme cardio daily. I was shocked, but I also get it. We all have different needs and he dialed in his. I have since come to find mine, which is a mix of activities with and without my kids. My favorite now is yoga! My daughters and I joined the YMCA for the indoor pool and I started weekly yoga class. It has all the features I need – heart rate up, flexibility, strength, and mindfulness of breath. I also returned to swimming at the Y, the only sport I really liked in high school.
I still enjoy simple walking too. Most evenings, after the family is fed and the kitchen is cleaned up, I take a walk in the golden sunset, or in the quiet early night when the stars and fireflies come out. People in addiction often ask “What will I do when I quit drinking or stop using?” This. This is what you do. You walk around in wonder at the world, alone sometimes and other times with the people you love, and feel good in your body.
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