Almost everyone knows someone with substance use disorder (SUD) or has struggled with SUD. Opioids, methamphetamines, and prescription abuse dominate the news, but alcohol abuse disorder is also a significant dependence substance. The numbers are staggering. In the US, over 100,000 died from drug overdoses in 2021, which will be more in 2022. In addition, 1.6 million people had an opioid abuse disorder over the last year, the same number misused prescription pain relievers, and 745,000 used heroin in 2019. Three million die from alcohol consumption every year.
COVID didn’t help as the loss of community programs made it more challenging to find help. Those with SUD were 1.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than those without a SUD, and those with a recent SUD are more than eight times more likely. Moreover, once with COVID, they were much more likely to die than those without SUD, according to the NIH.
Drug addiction and overdose deaths are among our most pressing health crises. Substance abuse disorder affects all walks of life. Several athletes who have struggled with SUD are among us in the trail running community.
Scott Sowle started drinking in his teens because of the acceptance of alcohol and to hide his pains of the past Scott was always active in cycling (MTB), snow skiing, and climbing and was able to be competitive in the three activities, all while binge drinking and occasionally using cocaine. After a road bike training race, Scott was hit by a car which caused multiple injuries. Doctors put him on oxycontin for pain relief. Unfortunately, once off the oxycontin, it sent him into sickness and eventually led him to heroin. Scott ended up on the streets for the next 13 years.
Eventually, Scott moved to Seattle in 2009 to try to escape the addictions. He went through a one-year program at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (SUGM) and did well for three years before relapsing into alcohol and back to the streets. Two years later, Scott returned to SUGM, where he went through the one-year program, stuck around for the one-year discipleship program, and interned as the health and fitness coach. Scott’s last use of any substance or alcohol was December 15, 2015, the day he had planned for the end of his life. Thankfully that he got on a flight to Seattle to return to SUGM and the new beginning of this life he has today.
Scott led the SUGM Team Mission running and health and fitness programs for three years before COVID hit. So he launched a new nonprofit, Run For Shoes, a running program for underserved youth, and collects new and used shoes from local running stores to distribute to organizations that serve needy men, women, and children.
The trail running community has helped Scott stay sober. But he doesn’t call it a community; it’s family. “Without family, there is no community, and that is what I focus on,” explains Scott. “I didn’t have a dad and mom who raised me, and today I now have a huge family that surrounds me, supports me, listens to me, and one that I can listen to.”
As Scott got older, he wanted to stay connected with the trail-running family. “I’ve had the desire to create new races for several years, and with the support of other runners, it is becoming a reality,” declares Scott. “Having the ability to start Mountain Running Races was a blessing. It’s given me chance to lead, develop and create the Vert Running Series, a 5-race series that we are launching for 2023. 2022 was just the start of the process of building relationships with others throughout the running community.”
Rylan Phillips was never able to control his intake of drugs or alcohol. “I was pretty much constantly out of control or narrowly missing some more significant consequence,” explains Rylan. “At college, we had some wild years when everyone partied like I did. They got jobs and families, and I just kept drinking and using drugs. My father ultimately passed away from alcoholism when I was 30. At that point, I was already doing cocaine and drinking around the clock daily. The next two years were the worst. I kept sinking lower and became more and more fascinated with the idea of suicide. I heard friends and family (most had written me off) were waiting for a bad phone call one day saying that something had happened to me. I hurt so bad and didn’t know what to do. Deep shame and self-loathing was the norm.”
Rylan got in a lot of trouble before he looked for help. “It wasn’t really a choice but more of an undeniable reality being crammed down my throat,” clarifies Rylan. “There was just nowhere left to run. Nobody else to beg for help. Two DUIIs within a month really pissed off the local county police. I was flailing so hard and was so out of control at that time. I’m just grateful I didn’t hurt anyone while driving. I faced some jail time. Far more than I had ever done before. It was about seven months in total. Early in that time frame, I just wanted out to go back to the low life I had known. At some point, I started to think that it was now or never. I decided to fight the hardest battle of my life for myself and my family. I couldn’t stand to look at my family and tell them I was not willing to try.”
His family didn’t help right away. “The first step in my recovery was the fact that my family did not bail me out of jail,” cries Rylan. “That was a big moment. I am proud of my mom for making that hard choice. I needed to sit with the consequences of my actions while having a sober mind. Only then could I start to consider a different path. Since then, my family has continued to support my recovery. Maybe the biggest help from my family is the fact that they never wrote me off. Once I started taking action, they were there to help in any way they could. These days my family has grown. I’ve got a beautiful wife (Staci) and two daughters who have never seen ‘the old me.’ I am very motivated to keep it that way.”
“Lastly, after several years of my recovery, I was able to welcome my brother to a better way of life. Seeing him thrive has been so heartwarming. I love to think of our mother and how she must feel such relief these days. Again, this makes me super motivated to keep doing the things that helped get me sober.”
Rylan grew up playing football or rugby. “Running never seemed interesting to me outside of contact sport,” admits Rylan. “One year, I was invited to run Hood to Coast with a rugby friend. I showed up super hungover and suffered through it. After that, I started going on hangover recovery runs on weekends and became amazed by the increasing mileage I could cover. I decided to run some half marathons and then a full marathon (which almost killed me). I remember detoxing so bad during the Portland Marathon that I was wrecked by the end. I went straight to the bar, soaked and in a space blanket, to start drinking heavily.
Staci reminded Rylan of his love for running after they were married. They ran together and trained for some races and the Chicago Marathon. “On the flight to Chicago, she asked me (though she will deny this) ‘have you ever thought about running ultramarathons?’ My response was something like no way, that sounds terrible.” Soon after that, he signed up for his first 50-miler. Since then, Rylan has run five 100-mile races and recently completed the Bigfoot 200. Tahoe 200 is on his calendar for 2023.
JP and Erin LaVoie met in substance abuse counseling. JP started drinking and using various drugs in high school. After high school, he delved deep into meth. Like JP, Erin started drinking early. In college, she became hooked on meth to keep up with academics and party life. Meth took Erin downhill incredibly fast (not in a good runner sort of way).
Ultimately, JP burned all his bridges with his family. He had been removed from visitation with his 2-year-old daughter from his ex-wife. He knew that if he didn’t get help, he would end up dead or in jail. He contacted his employer’s health support and was directed to an outpatient drug rehab program. Erin ended up severely depressed, and eventually, her family and doctor had her put on a psychiatric hold in a hospital. The condition of her release was that she voluntarily enrolled in an outpatient drug rehab program and enroll in full-time counseling. She was supposed to be in a daytime class but was in the evening class by chance. JP had already been attending that same class for about two months. And that’s how they met.
Erin started running after their third kid was born to find “me time.” It started as 5k races until Erin worked her way up to half marathons. That’s about the time that JP decided he’d give it a try. He ran his first 5k because they were running a hometown race as a family. JP was surprised that he could do it. “Like a true addict, I decided to see how much farther I could go the next day,” laughs JP. “I just seem to keep increasing the mileage now.” JP and Erin have completed several ultramarathons. Erin has placed in the top ten in several races. JP is no slouch himself, having finished three 100-mile trail races.
Sabrina Hickerson has been clean from meth since 2002 and has been in a 12-Step recovery since 2008. Sabrina is also in recovery from an eating disorder and destructive relationships. She has worked the steps in AA and Codependents Anonymous and also works with a therapist. Sabrina is currently attending school to become a therapist specializing in addiction.
“Alcohol, drugs, and process addictions were all symptoms of a deeper, underlying problem,” explains Sabrina. “As a foster youth, I spent a lot of time running away from different group homes and spent much of my teenage years shooting meth on the street.” Sabrina eventually got tired of being homeless and finished high school so she could get a job and an apartment. She switched from meth to alcohol and food in 2002. To top it off, Sabrina spent the next six years in a co-addicted relationship, growing more desperate, depressed, and hopeless. “I sought treatment because I was hopeless, helpless, and deeply suicidal,” conveys Sabrina. “I did not think I could be helped, but I also didn’t know what else to do.”
Jason, Sabrina’s partner of eight years, is an ultra runner. Initially, she would attend races just to support him. “I was struck with how warm, welcoming, kind, friendly, supportive, and encouraging the running community was,” admits Sabrina. “Even though I wasn’t a runner, I was always welcomed as if I were an old friend, even among strangers. It reminded me of the recovery community and felt like home.”
In 2019, she decided to try running for herself. “It did not come naturally at all,” confesses Sabrina. “Most people don’t realize how difficult and complex running is. It’s not just ‘throw on a pair of shoes and go for a run.’ It’s a complex skill that requires enormous amounts of dedication and practice.”
Running forced Sabrina to befriend her body. “The process was both painful and healing,” articulates Sabrina. “I had to learn to be present with pain and suffering. I had to expose myself to feelings of doubt and shame, to tolerate frustration, and to push through disappointments and setbacks. And I had to do it all without numbing out on substances or anything else. That’s the thing about recovery – life is really hard, and you have to learn to deal with that.”
All the hard work paid off, though. Sabrina learned to use food as fuel and nourishment, not something to hate and fear and crave. “I learned that my body can be a wild, wonderful, and freeing place.”
Sabrina has run seven trail races, including the tough Yakima Skyline 25k. “I’ll always remember heading up the last big climb on Yakima Skyline, and I was actually passing people!” exclaims Sabrina. “I couldn’t believe it. Never in my life had I actually worked hard at something and seen those efforts pay off. I ended up finishing that race an hour faster than I expected. I had never felt so strong and capable in my life. I felt proud of myself in a way I’d never experienced.” Her next race is the Run the Rock Half Marathon in Smith Rock.
Trail running isn’t the way to sobriety, but it can help.
“I love the meditative quality of running,” declares Rylan. “This really helps with recovery and finding peace. Sometimes I can just breathe, and time flies by while in kind of a blissful state. At other times I might be struggling mentally, emotionally, or physically and I need to manage that condition. I need to be aware of my current state so that I can change it before it becomes a problem. I often remind myself to ‘tell yourself a different story.’ I focus on gratitude and often say prayers while running. Prayer and gratitude are cornerstones of recovery, so I have woven them into my mind and all I do. All of these tools can be used for running or recovery. I’ve made it back from some dark places mid-race by staying aware and holding myself accountable for changing the way I’m thinking. The same goes for recovery because nobody else will do it for me.”
“The value of my ‘quiet brain space’ is very high,” continues Rylan. “I love being able to stay present and flow with any activity that allows it. Running for hours suits this well. Being consistent with running has also been a big thing for me. I had no idea I was a schedule guy till I got sober. Now I love the routine. With running and cross training, I get the benefits of consistently getting that quiet time which allows me to process life and reboot.”
“Running regulates my mood, helps me process my emotions, and gives me the space to work through life’s challenges. It reconnects me with myself and my spirituality,” enlightens Sabrina. “It brings me peace. It’s what makes life worth living.”
“Trail running taught me discipline and the ability to be quiet enough to hear what is within me,” clarifies Scott. “My higher power, God, has given me a renewed life, one that I get to live free of addictions, and running is just a tool that I get to enjoy.”
There are different motivations on what is the force behind running and sobriety. Sabrina explains, “A sponsor once told me, ‘Higher Power will do for you what you cannot do for yourself, but Higher Power will NOT do for you what you CAN do for yourself.’ This was a hard concept for me to grasp. I have often looked to others, sponsors, therapists, and friends, to save me. I spent my whole life believing I was worthless, it was hard to believe that I could ever be capable of taking care of myself or being a functional adult. In running, I finally found the clarity to accept that no one is coming to save you, not even your Higher Power. In the end, you have to do the work, no one can do it for you. Even when I’m tired and aching, even if I’m miles away from the trailhead and I haven’t seen another human soul for hours, I know that deep down within me is the power to put one foot in front of the other and step by step, breath by breath, I’m going to get there. I’m going to be ok. Addiction took away my power, but running helped me take it back. I know they say recovery is supposed to do that, and recovery is what has made it possible for me to appreciate and enjoy running, but I really feel that I’ve found more of myself through running than I could through just recovery alone.”
“As addicts, you learn that you never ‘cure’ your addictive personality,” concur JP and Erin. “We will always be addicts. That doesn’t stop. What we can do is redirect it to something that is healthy, not self-sabotaging, and doesn’t hurt our family. Running has provided that outlet for us.”
Does trail running show a path in life? “I am not terribly goal-focused,” admits Rylan. “I am more of a ‘journey and not the destination’ kind of guy. For that reason, I just like the idea of constant progress. This could be related to a race finish time or a great breakthrough with mental fortitude during a race. If I am having fun and improving, I’m a happy camper. Just like life, trail running will have its ups and downs. I try to remind myself that I am right where I’m supposed to be.”
Before running, Sabrina had no experience setting a goal, working hard towards it, and experiencing setbacks without quitting or giving up. “Running is the only area of my life where I have ever felt complete mastery like I’m actually in control,” she says. “It’s probably the first time I felt like I could be a normal member of humanity, not just some broken addict who fails at everything. Unlike addiction, where I experienced true powerlessness, running is an activity where I get to choose how hard I work and what I’m capable of, and I alone am responsible for the successes that I experience. It’s empowering and healing.”
“The human body can do incredibly hard things, and that much of what we can accomplish with it has to do with our mental fortitude,” describe the LaVoies. “We like to think of our sport as being very similar to sobriety. Sobriety is an endurance sport. It is not always easy, but you do it anyway.”
“It’s all about gratitude and being in the moment,” acknowledges Rylan. “I often think about how I am able to do these things today whereas before, it could have never happened. My recovery mentality has developed in lock step with my ultrarunning experience. During Bigfoot, for instance, I am constantly using and living the process. It’s difficult to explain, but the two are very much the same. I think I could say the same thing with recovery and normal life. I am the best version of myself when I keep recovery close and use the tools I have learned. With running, I have the most success when I stay present, manage my condition, and stay grateful. There is some crossover because some of the tools are the same. None of that matters unless I use the tools. The darker the hole I’m in, the harder it is to use the tools to get out. This is true for both racing and life. I must hold myself accountable to use the tools.”
A criticism often heard about SUD trail runners is trading one addiction (drugs) for another addiction (running) “We agree,” disclose the LaVoies. “We don’t have a problem admitting that we are addicts that have switched our addiction. We recognize that we won’t ever stop being addicts. We don’t have control over that. What we do have control over is where we direct the addiction and how that addiction affects each other and those around us. If our running were hurting our ability to function as parents, employees, spouses, or any of the other titles that we have, we’d recognize that changes need to be made. We like to think that we keep each other accountable for that.”
“I’ve often said, if a little is good, then more is better,” yarns Rylan. “It’s kind of a joke to my friends and family. I am an obsessive and driven person. Pushing the limits is just part of who I am. Today I choose to lead a sober life which makes my heart full for a variety of reasons. I can accept that people might think I’ve traded one addiction for another. Ultrarunning, in general, is an extreme sport. I think that is why obsessive-natured recovery folks like myself fit in so well.”
Sabrina doesn’t care what people think. “After everything I’ve been through and that I’ve done, if the worst people can say about me these days is that I run too much, then I’d say that’s a life being well lived.”
“I didn’t trade addictions. Those were removed through the grace of God,” declares Scott. “Today, I’m free to run or not run, race or not race. I’m accepted for who I am today, and running doesn’t define me. Today I get to run with my grandson, and that is what life is about. FREEDOM!”
Everyone agrees that being part of the trail running community is vital to sobriety.
“This is one of the best parts of running,” exclaims Rylan. “The trail running community is the best! I love the supportive and upbeat attitudes you find in the sport. I have been very lucky to meet an amazing group of guys that also love to get out on the trails. Many of our group are in recovery. We share lots of miles while staying connected to the principles of AA. Just keeping in constant contact with folks in recovery is so critical to long-term recovery.”
“You’re told a lot during recovery to find support in like-minded people,” admits the LaVoies. “We’ve found an incredible support system and second family in the trail running community. To be constantly surrounded and inspired by others who are both physically and mentally resilient is a constant reminder of how far we’ve come, both physically and mentally ourselves. It’s just such an uplifting community.”
Of course, someone special to enjoy the journey is a big help. “My favorite memory is when we (partner Jason) finished the Portland Marathon together – it was my first marathon,” says Sabrina. “He stood next to me, completely unfazed, while I vomited in the trash can at the finish line. When I was done, he didn’t say a word, just handed me a bagel. And that was that. It’s that kind of nonjudgmental acceptance and support that you just can’t find among most people.”
“We’re each approaching our 22nd anniversary of sobriety.” celebrate the LaVoies. “We wouldn’t change a thing. We don’t have any shame in our past because it leads us to where we are.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact one of many community services available, or call the substance abuse and mental health hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Feel free to join the trail running community or another community that doesn’t judge people by their past but by their character.
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