Like most alcoholics, I’ve got a compendium of stories involving projectile vomiting. But mine rarely happened in the stereotypical places – no girlfriend held my hair back while I heaved in the bathroom of a bar at 2 a.m. I wish that had been the case. It would have involved fewer people and far less embarrassment. No, my puking usually took place in front of thousands, often during or immediately after a race of 70 miles or more. While I was wearing neon spandex. Oh, and swearing to never, ever, ever do this again.
(The racing, of course. I would never swear to quit drinking. That was crazy talk.)
It’s easy to explain away your alcoholism when you’re an endurance athlete. If I was tired, it was because I had worked my ass off in a track session, not because I had stayed up late finishing the bottle (fine, the box) of wine. I justified my pre-race beers as “carb loading” – technically, all the running magazines said it was important to take carbs the night before a race. If an athlete pukes during a workout or race, it’s the ultimate badge of honor; a sign that you truly gave it your all. No one suspects an Ironman triathlete to be a drunk.
And yet there I was, puking my guts out in front of a crowd who was equal parts repulsed and inspired – You see that? That’s grit, man.
(It was not grit. It was a six-pack of carb loading.)
I started drinking as a way to quiet the “Not-Enoughs.” I was never smart enough, pretty enough, or funny enough. Come to think of it, that’s why I started running and triathlon, too. In addition to all of my failures scrolling through my brain like the world’s worst news chyron, I was not skinny enough. A friend told me I should start running as a way to lose weight, and I squeezed myself into neon spandex and started training for my first 5K. At that race, I learned I was also not fast enough. I remember drinking my complimentary beer at the finish line festival at the race, but I don’t remember how I got home that night – my next memory is of waking up and going to the track, determined to become a faster runner.
(I puked at the track. Because of the workout, of course.)
My drinking and my racing follow a pretty clear trajectory. The longer I went, the more I drank. At first, it was because I had earned it; I did a half marathon and rewarded myself with a night at the bar. Then it became a situation where one hand washed the other; I took up triathlon and found swimming to be a kinder, gentler way to sweat out my hangovers when running made me want to puke in the bushes. Sometimes, a little voice in my head wondered if maybe my drinking might be getting of control. I’d immediately scoff at the notion – I couldn’t possibly have a drinking problem! If I had a problem, I wouldn’t be able to ride my bike 100 miles.
When I decided to do my first Ironman triathlon, I assumed that achieving the pinnacle of the sport would shut up the Not-Enoughs once and for all. But the night after I became an Ironman, I had a dream that someone from the race would knock on my door and say the universe had made a cosmic mistake, that my finisher’s medal belonged to someone else. I sat my sore and dehydrated body in the bathtub of my hotel room and drank an entire box of wine, clutching my medal with a fearful grip.
I’m often asked how I managed to be a drunk and an endurance athlete at the same time. After all, both activities are known to leave the body feeling completely wrecked. But I don’t think the body has anything to do with it. After all, my heaving stomach and pounding head were clearly trying to tell me they wanted to stop. It was my mind that refused to listen to their pleas and admit that Hey, maybe this is kind of messed up. I’d even go so far to say it was a point of pride – that I could conquer my body’s rebellious acts, be it cramping calves or waves of nausea. I would beat my weak, inadequate body into submission until it caved to the demands of my mind. I wouldn’t stop until I finally felt like it was enough.
(It was never enough.)
I wish I could say I got sober because of some powerful epiphany. But the truth is that one night, in the middle of a blackout, my body and brain must have gone at it. I woke up on the floor, steeping in a pool of my own blood. At some point, I had fallen and hit my head. My, weak, inadequate body had won – it had finally figured out a way to scare the crap out of my mind. That was seven years ago. I haven’t had a drink since.
I now understand that the same thing that makes me an alcoholic – a brain wired for extremes and the high that comes when you find them – is the same thing that makes me so inclined to endurance sports. Whether it’s a drink or a bike ride, I don’t know how to stop after “just a little.” My inclination is to go (and go, and go). Moderation is challenging for people who weren’t wired with an “off” switch.
I’ve met many endurance athletes with similar stories. Many people are surprised that a sport that is often held up as the picture of health has so many stories that begin with “Back when I was an addict…” While doing research for my new book, Running Outside the Comfort Zone, I did a 24-hour ultramarathon starting on New Year’s Eve. I was surprised to meet so many people like me – recovering addicts and alcoholics who found refuge in sport on a champagne-soaked holiday. Then again, I suppose it shouldn’t have been such a shock – almost weekly, I hear from a reader who is exactly as I once was, scared and confused about the little voice in their head that wonders if maybe their drinking might be getting out of control.
And those people are exactly why I’m writing this. Because our sport is one that is held up as the picture of health, we can sometimes feel the pressure to fit the ideal. In a sport where people confess, with great sincerity, that their biggest vice is a single square of dark chocolate after dinner, it rarely seems appropriate to share that we struggle with far worse. But trust us – we’re out there, letting you suck our wheels on the group ride and lining up alongside you at the starting lines.
The road to recovery is different for every person, but I do believe what gives endurance athletes an edge is also an advantage in sobriety: We’re stubborn as hell. The part of the brain that pushes to the finish line of a race is also the same part that can take the recovery adage of “one day at a time” as a dare. The starting pistol is the alarm clock and the finish line is falling asleep with another day of sobriety in the bag. I suppose it isn’t as glamorous as the finish line of a marathon or Ironman triathlon, with thumping dance music and a mass of humanity cheering us on. There is no finisher’s medal when we make it to the end, and no one really finds it all that impressive when you brag about making it through the weekend (or a wedding, or a particularly loud cage fight with the Not-Enoughs) without grabbing the bottle. But we’ll be damned if this race doesn’t require us to dig just as deep to make it to the end.
You see that? That’s grit, man.