• Andrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

The Inspiration of Skid Row Marathon

Updated: Jan 28


Running helps to keep me sober. That is because it helps both my physical and spiritual health. If I go several days without running then I start to feel sluggish and less able to cope. I’ve long known this to be the case but watching Skid Row Marathon inspired me to write more about it.


For those who haven’t watched it, Skid Row Marathon is an award-winning documentary movie about a Los Angeles Judge who forms a running club for those suffering from addictions. He promises a free trip to participate in an international marathon to those who stick with it. It’s very moving as we watch some but not all succeed in turning their lives around.


If you can’t stand running – or you are perhaps physically unable to do it – then bear with me. It’s the insight of what’s going on in Skid Row Marathon that matters – and the window it opens on new possibilities for those in recovery. It doesn’t have to be running. It can be any form of group activity.


I’ve worked out regularly in a gym for more than 30 years. I had to find an alternative to football. I was used to running on a treadmill. When somebody suggested entering a 5k race in Hyde Park, I thought it would be a piece of cake. I was wrong. Running outside is very different and difficult. But I came to love the park, no matter how tough I found the running.


The positive aspects of running are obvious in terms of the benefit to physical health. The benefit to mental well-being may be less obvious. It provides a form of activity that requires focus and discipline if a target is to be achieved. Performing the activity provides a sense of freedom and an opportunity, perhaps, for silent reflection.


Running with others provides additional benefits. You belong to a team, formally or informally, and there is a sense of “we are in this together”. You are looking out for somebody, and others are looking out for you. This is what we see in Skid Row Marathon.


Most of all, running provides a sense of achievement and well-being. The completion of a run produces endorphins in a natural way – not artificially through a “substance use disorder”!


All of this applies not only to running, of course. It applies to any form of outdoor physical exercise, including fresh water swimming, mountaineering, hiking, or meeting up with fellow dog walkers in the local park.


What we need to keep in mind, however, is the tendency of the alcoholic or drug user to become obsessive about any form of alternative activity. I can see several warning signals in how I apply this to my own running. But at least I’m self-conscious about it.


First, there is a need to “take it easy” – a bit like the advice given to those who stop drinking to take “one day at a time”. It’s going to hurt at first and it will take some time to feel the benefits. That’s a bit like entering recovery treatment. It’s tough at first and it requires commitment over the longer haul.


Second, don’t be over-ambitious. Don’t start running with the target of completing a marathon (despite the incredible success of those on Skid Row) – that might be the unstated target but it’s a long way off. For me, it’s similar to advising somebody not to start treatment saying “I will never drink again”. Abstinence may be the ultimate goal that we’d all like to achieve but “never” is a very long time and sounds daunting.


Third, don’t beat yourself up when there are the inevitable setbacks. There will be good days and bad days. I’ve read a lot about the science of running – what else would you expect from somebody with an obsessive mind? It doesn’t seem to matter much in my own case. I can’t figure out why there are some days when I just sail around and other days when I stop several times. It gets me down when I can’t do it but I just have to remind myself that the good days will return.


It’s a bit like relapse. It sometimes happens and you will feel bad about it. But you just need to keep a positive mind. Accept it and move on.


Skid Row Marathon shows several additional benefits from running with others, as already said. Doing it with the support of others makes it easier. Doing it on your own is a bit like becoming isolationist again – recall the title of the famous short story published in 1959, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Running on your own increases the risk of failure and experiencing the feelings of guilt and remorse if you give up.


Running with another individual or as part of a team provides a sense of shared common purpose. It reminds you that others care about you. This is much the same as being in recovery treatment. You can’t get better on your own.


Remember all of these things apply to any form of activity, preferably but not exclusively outdoors. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be physical exercise.


Recovery is about sharing, working as a team, having a common purpose and finding a new interesting and rewarding form of activity. It’s the opposite of retreat into self-isolation and harmful activity, which becomes obsessive.


Go find your own personal mountain to climb!

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