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Imagine that you are approaching the finish line of your first marathon.  You feel the wind on your face. You hear the crowds cheering.  You are exhausted, but you get a burst of energy as you spot the finish line. You pick up your pace as a smile spreads across your face. You, like everyone around you, is running on pure exhilaration.

As you are about to achieve what you’ve spent months working toward, you think about all it took to get there.  When you first started training, you could barely run a mile. Running 26.2 miles seemed unachievable – even unknowable, but you chose to believe in yourself. You trusted the training plan and followed it diligently.  Every day you worked toward your goal and got a little stronger.  There were days when you wanted to give up, but you didn’t.  There were days when your team members wanted to quit. You encouraged them just as they inspired you when you were low.  The training taught you that you can do whatever you put your mind to, that you are stronger than you thought. As you glance at one of your teammates alongside you, you are reminded that you no longer have to go through life alone. And you remember too that less than a year ago, you were unable to break free of your addiction, you made choice after choice that destroyed your life. You alienated everyone that cared for you. You lost your job, your savings, and your home; but you couldn’t stop. You were ashamed and hopeless and wracked with guilt. You had hit rock bottom and finally decided you were ready to accept help. You admitted yourself to an addiction treatment program; and when offered the opportunity to literally go the extra mile to support your recovery, you jumped at the chance. Today, as you grasp your finisher medal, you know that you are a new person. You are ready to successfully navigate your new life in sobriety.

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be running marathons and creating these experiences, I would have never believed you. If you had told me that I’d grow from volunteering a few hours a week to quitting my job to establish a recovery focused nonprofit, I may have wondered if you were delusional.   Even on the day I saw the ad in the paper that started me down this path, I could never have guessed where it would lead.

I’ve been a runner since high school, but never a serious one.  I ran a few miles a few days a week because it was a good way to relieve stress, carve out some quiet time for myself, and keep the pounds off.  There was no higher purpose to it. One day, a friend challenged me to do a half marathon. That sounded doable, so I did it. It was fun. I did a few more.  Then, another friend challenged me to do a full marathon.   That sounded crazy.  After doing enough longer runs to convince myself that in theory, I probably could run a marathon, I had to ask myself “Why? What was the point of putting in all that training? I have nothing to prove.” But I countered that in my head with “You’re just making up excuses because you are afraid you can’t do it.”  That’s when I decided that I would run if I could do it for a good cause.  For the first time in my life, I would run for a higher purpose. I sat back and waited for the right cause to inspire me.

A few weeks later, as I was flipping through the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, I saw the ad that changed my life. “Run to Save a Soul. The only Jewish themed charity team for the LA Marathon.”

Being Jewish, I thought “Run for a Jewish charity? Sounds good to me.” I didn’t bother checking what charity it was and just showed up for the orientation meeting. Much to my surprise, I found myself at a faith-based residential addiction treatment center.

The meeting began with the team manager asking everyone to share why they wanted to run the marathon. I heard story after story from people whose substance use disorder had destroyed their lives. They had alienated everyone who cared for them. They had lost careers and homes. Many had found themselves living on the streets or in prison. All spoke of the deep emotional pain that led them to start using. They spoke of shame and guilt. And each person expressed a strong desire to literally go the extra mile to break free of their addictions. Finishing a marathon meant rebuilding their lives.

Their stories were heartbreaking and eye-opening, but I confess that I was also thinking with “Yikes.  What am I going to say when it’s my turn?” Addiction had not impacted my life or the life of anyone I knew. It was 2012.  Addiction wasn’t even on my radar screen, and my life had been fairly comfortable compared to all they had gone through. It was finally my turn. All I could come up with was “I want to run for a good cause.” I looked around the room, expecting to see the eye rolls. Instead, I got smiles, cheers, and a round of applause.

Realizing that despite my total cluelessness about their experience, I would be welcomed, I decided to join the team. Being an experienced runner, I offered training tips and moral support as I ran side by side with the various team members. They often made conversation by sharing their stories with me. I soon realized that running is a  great way to have conversations about difficult subjects. If you are running next to someone you never have to look them in the eye, and you are tired from running mile after mile, it’s easy to let your guard down.  I often stayed quiet because I didn’t know how to respond, but it didn’t seem to matter.  The conversations usually ended with a heartfelt “Thanks so much for listening to my story.”   That’s how my learning began.

“Their stories were heartbreaking and eye-opening”

At the end of the season (yes, I did finish my first marathon), the team manager asked me if I’d be interested in coaching the team the following season.  I jumped at this opportunity, or better to say I ran towards it. Since then, I have helped hundreds of people in early sobriety cross the finish line of the Los Angeles Marathon. It is enormously rewarding to watch people transform from a mindset of isolation and hopelessness to feeling empowered and connected, from having little if any self-esteem to believing that they can do whatever they put their mind to, from shame and guilt to pride and purpose. It is even more rewarding to connect with these team members years later and have them tell me that training for the marathon was critical to their long- term sobriety.

As I reflected on these observations and read through the pages of testimonials written at the end of each season, I started asking myself “Why doesn’t something like this happen at every treatment center? Exercising toward a challenging goal with the support of a team is enormously therapeutic. Everyone battling an addiction should be offered this healing experience.” In 2018, I decided to turn this dream into a reality. I walked away from a successful career in healthcare consulting and founded Strides in Recovery.

Overdoses killed over 70,000 Americans in 2019 and that number is climbing.  Addiction and recovery issues are being compounded by the COVID public health crisis that is isolating those that need community. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 40-60% of people who seek addiction treatment relapse within the first year after discharge.  Clearly America’s approach to addiction treatment needs improvement. Regular aerobic exercise has been clinically proven to support recovery and prevent relapses, yet very few treatment programs offer this proven tool.  At Strides in Recovery, our goal is to change that.

Today Strides in Recovery works with addiction treatment providers throughout Los Angeles County. We lead running/walking programs that promote physical, emotional, and mental health, and reinforce the life skills and mindset needed to be successful in recovery.  Our goal is continuing expanding our reach, to bring the healing power of exercise to anyone with a substance use disorder who wants to stay sober.

To learn more about the benefits of exercise in recovery, or to get involved with Strides in Recovery, please visit us online.