CAN RUNNING HELP YOU ACCEPT YOURSELF? A JOBURG MAN’S JOURNEY – FROM THE MADNESS OF DRUGS TO THE JOY OF FINISHING ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST ICONIC MARATHONS.
Can running help you accept yourself? A Joburg man’s journey – from the madness of drug addiction to the joy of finishing one of the world’s top marathons.
I remember the atmosphere on that crisp, autumn morning when I ran the New York City Marathon. There was music: Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York was played at the starting line, and when we ran through Harlem, there was a gospel choir of some 300 singers. On First Avenue, thousands of spectators had formed what looked to me like a ‘corridor’ – five or six people deep – at the edges of the route.
I motivated myself to the finish by repeating a mantra: “Own it, bitch!”
There is no greater feeling than finishing that race, and then seeing your name appear in the New York Times the following morning. When I crossed the finish line – my first marathon – I felt healthy, fit and happy. The madness of addiction seemed a distant memory.
It’s hard to imagine that just years earlier, in 2005, you would’ve found me in a deserted crack den on the outskirts of Mexico.
I was backpacking there at the time, and had ended up on the Riviera Maya, in Tulum. I stayed at a beautiful resort on the beach – where I hung out with a crowd of Americans for a week, drinking tequila and smoking weed. When their holiday came to an end and they flew back home, I was left sitting in my hotel room by myself.
Feeling lonely, I went to a random nightclub. It was there I met a DJ, and he asked me if I’d like to get some drugs with him. We walked to a little house, on the edge of a little town – it was obvious he’d been there before. It was deserted, dusty, old, and it had broken windows. Once inside, we used a bag of crack cocaine. It blew my mind, because that’s what crack does; I liked how it just switched me off. So I gave him more money, which he used to buy three more bags.
When the sun came up, my new friend panicked, and he said he had to leave. He told me his girlfriend had had their first child that very week, and that he had to get home. He looked so desperate. His story made me feel sad.
With every high there is an inevitable low. When you come down off crack, it can make you aggressive. I got back to my hotel room and I couldn’t open the door; so I flew into a blind rage, and violently bashed it down.
How did I lose control?
In The Beginning
I grew up in the middle- to upperincome suburb of Bramley in Johannesburg, during the 70s, when there were huge disparities in our society. I was fortunate to live in a beautiful house with a swimming pool.
My sister knows me best. She would describe me as sensitive, introverted and gentle. At home, those characteristics were nurtured; but at the male-dominated school I attended, I was bullied, and made to feel ashamed and guilty about who I was.
I knew I liked men from an early age. But my classmates made it difficult for me to expose myself, for fear of being rejected further.
They say you should have no regrets in life. But I have one: it’s that back then, I didn’t know how to handle my sexuality. I often wonder if my life might have turned out differently, had I known how to ask for help.
The first time I got drunk was at a bar mitzvah, when I was 12. I finished a whole bottle of the celebratory champagne that was left on the table. There was no peer pressure, because nobody in my family drinks; and I’ve never thought of drinking as rebellious or dangerous. I just knew it was something adults do.
“It blew my mind, because that’s what crack does. I liked it.”
I remember enjoying the feeling of numbing my pain. The fact it made everything feel okay was one of the primary reasons I continued to seek refuge in alcohol when I was growing up.
And yet – initially, at least – I steered clear of the harder stuff. I had heard the lectures and seen the movies. I was superaware of how dangerous drugs were for someone with a highly addictive personality like mine.
But addiction is a cunning disease that grows and gallops away.
In my adult life, I became obsessed with love, in much the same way as
I’d had a tendency to overeat chocolate when I was a child.
I lived my 20s responsibly though. I earned a degree, got a job, bought a house and started my own business.
But a stifling, abusive relationship with my first proper boyfriend came to an end in my early 30s, and I ended up selling my business. This new-found freedom gave me the opportunity to try something reckless for a change.
I was at a club, and a guy asked me if I wanted to take khat (or CAT, a stimulant drug that’s a cheap substitute for methamphetamine).
“Sure,” I replied, not really knowing what he meant by that.
We went to the bathroom, and he cut a line. I’d never taken anything up my nose before, so I asked him to go first. I did another line, then another, and another. My first bender was a big one.
I felt the way lots of addicts do when they try taking drugs for the first time.
Where have you been all my life?
Where binge drinking had numbed my confusion about being gay, the euphoric nature of drugs allowed me to escape my life completely. Finally I felt safe, secure, accepted and loved.
After that night in Mexico, I’d sworn I would never do crack again. But a matter of days after trying khat, I discovered cocaine.
Regular drug users can’t focus
on daily tasks; but that didn’t affect me, because I had money in the bank and didn’t really have to work. When I started paying for drugs, I stopped paying attention to my health and fitness. I was always tired, and I often got sick. It was a horrible feeling.
Nevertheless, I was a ‘functional’ drug addict: I would only use at the weekend, and I would see my friends and family during the week when I was rested and ‘clean’. Though it was hard work keeping up the façade – because I never felt myself – I managed to hide it from all of them.
Drugs live on lies. I told a lot of those.
The turning point
I took crystal meth for the first time in 2006. In those days, you could get really good stuff – and I found a dealer who would deliver this poison directly to my doorstep. It turned out to be the most evil substance I’ve ever taken.
A false world appeared before me that didn’t exist. I swore at cops outside my window who weren’t
“Addiction is a cunning disease that grows and gallops away.”
there, and greeted strangers in the street I’d never met before. On the comedown, my thoughts would turn to taking my own life.
The last night I used drugs or alcohol – or any other mind-altering substance, for that matter – was on 9 April 2006. My second long-term boyfriend had come home to find me on my knees, looking out of the window for cop cars.
“There are no cop cars outside,” he told me.
I managed to convince myself that I had started to go mad – and it scared the living daylights out of me. That night, I received what I call my ‘gift of desperation’: I was so desperate never to feel that pain again, that I was willing to do anything to avoid using drugs.
I found a 12-step programme, which is basically a group of people for whom addiction has become a problem. They meet regularly to help each other to stay clean.
During my first year of recovery, I attended a meeting every single night, at a variety of different places in Johannesburg; and in the second year, I attended meetings four to five nights a week. I still go to this day, and I even help to run the programme.
Another thing I noticed was how much time I had on my hands once I’d stopped taking drugs. My partner used drugs occasionally when we first got together; and when he stopped taking them, he started running. He would run every morning, and he was pushing his life in a positive direction. Although I too had stopped using drugs, I had adopted negative habits, such as overeating and lazing around. It was simple: he was getting so much out of running, and I wanted what he had.
Stuff this! I thought. I’m going to join him.
So I put on some old shoes, dodgy shorts and a T-shirt. I ran 700 metres around the block of the complex where I live – and that was me done. I returned home, ran a bath, had something to eat and fell asleep. I woke up later on, feeling stiff and exhausted – while he’d just returned from a three-hour training run for the Comrades!
He thought it ridiculous that I was so proud of myself; but to me, that run was the biggest thing I’d done in years.
My initial challenge with running came when I ignored the warning signs my body was giving me, in the name of reaching 21.1km. I had shin splints, tight quads, and was developing ITB. I slowed everything down, because starting running at an older age had taught me that it takes many years to strengthen your tendons enough to handle the impact of the sport. I waited four years before attempting my first marathon.
With running, I aimed low. By doing that, you always reach your goals, which means you’re more inclined to push yourself a fraction further. I’ve since participated in countless half marathons, the New York City Marathon, 11 half Ironmans and three full Ironmans. My proudest running achievement is running my fastest half marathon (1:45) after the 90-K cycle leg of a half Ironman.
In some ways, running helps me cope with the things I regret, because it’s a way of both enjoying and adding to my life. When I listen to thumping house music from my partying days, it no longer reminds me of drugs; I think about how fit and healthy I am. And with running, the endorphins – the so-called runner’s ‘high’ – are free!
Some might argue that competing in an Ironman or marathon is like replacing one addiction with another. But addiction is a compulsive thing you do that has damaging effects. It can alter your mind, it’s negative, and ultimately it can destroy you. For me, running isn’t compulsive. I don’t wake up in the morning feeling like I have to go for a run to feel better. Every time I’ve put on my running shoes, I’ve actually wanted to.
Others will say running drives you away from your friends and family just as much as taking drugs does. Sure, I see less of my friends and family when I’m doing 16 hours of training a week for an Ironman. But I share my experiences with them, and I actively involve them by inviting them to my races to cheer me on.
Still, I’d be the first to admit I’m obsessed with running. Inspired by Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run I took up barefoot running, and found that running with a shorter foot, higher arch, and toes with better grip made me a faster athlete.
I’ve also attended ten highaltitude training camps, one of which was hosted by professional triathlete Gerhard de Bruin and legendary Comrades coach Lindsey Parry. But here’s a fitting phrase: ‘Obsessed is what the lazy call the determined’.
No, addiction isn’t the right word to describe running. You see, my mantra at the New York City Marathon was more than just a way of motivating myself to finish a race. It was about reinforcing running as a positive behaviour; which has, in turn, helped me to feel more positive about who I am as a person. I am a gay man who finally accepts himself just the way he is.
“...that run was the biggest thing I’d done in years.”
LEFT: “I CAN’T YOU!” Costa in 2013, finishing his second full Ironman – one of the most memorable moments of his life. He deserved the cheers, having taken an hour and 40 minutes off his previous time. HEAR