Own It


Runner's World South Africa - - CONTENTS - BY LISA ABDELLAH

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.

Han ad­dict.

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.

Fall­ing down

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?

I thought.

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

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