Q&A with Caleb Daniloff
Q. How did you come up with the idea to run marathons in all of the places where you used to drink and behave badly?
A. I wrote an essay for Runner’s World about how I used running as a sobriety tool and it came out a few months before the 2009 Boston Marathon, which I had signed up for. Boston was my first marathon and I felt like I’d be conquering something with it, though I wasn’t sure what. Then I happened to notice that Burlington, Vermont, where I’d lived for a number of years, hosted a marathon four weeks later and I thought it might be interesting to run through that old stomping ground. It seemed a shame to waste all the training I’d done for Boston on one race.
Both Boston and Burlington were places where I did some heavy drinking, so what started as a way to carry my training over to a second marathon became something more. Then I found out that Moscow had a marathon a few months after Burlington, and New York a few months after that. And so it went. It was almost like the races presented themselves to me.
Q. You write that running didn’t help you quit drinking, but helped you survive sobriety. Can you explain?
A. Quitting drinking is one thing, a very hard thing, but navigating sobriety is another beast altogether. It’s lonely, depressing, panicky, insecure, frustrating, at times enraging, and hopeless-feeling. It’s starting over, giving up dreams as well as delusions. There’s a big hole you’re suddenly facing. It’s figuring out who you were, who you are now. It’s about making amends, and ultimately finding a sort of peacefulness or reconciliation. It takes a long time and you can beat yourself up pretty well along the way. But at some point, you have to stop, accept the loose ends and the things you can’t change, try and be a positive force, and live your life.
Q. And running filled the hole?
A. There were many years of stagnation and operating from fear. Running gave me back a sense of forward motion, the courage to take action, to move through things rather than around them. It brought richness back to my life.
Q. Why didn’t you go the AA route?
A. I used to get in a fair amount of trouble because of drinking. I was ordered to plenty of AA meetings, group therapy sessions, and psychiatrists offices. Those settings were like punishment to me and groups had always made me feel claustrophobic and panicky, certainly without a drink in my hand. Those feelings were still there when I quit, maybe even more pronounced. I also believed, rightly or wrongly, in muscling through, in a certain Soviet-style stoicism. I’m sure there are AA folks who would claim I went about sobriety the wrong way. Who knows, maybe I’d have moved farther faster in an AA setting. I have nothing against AA and I’d never discourage anyone from going. I have stolen bits and pieces of its philosophy over the years, but I don’t believe in One True Paths. AA people talk about eventually reaching the stage where one neither regrets nor shuts the door on the past. I neither regret, nor, clearly, have I shut the door on my past.
Q. Is running really a spiritual activity?
A. For me, it is, or it certainly can be. Because running is physically demanding, there is simply no room to bullshit yourself. You come to face to face with who you are. It’s you at your essence. You can sort through problems, answer nagging questions, witness creative thoughts bubbling up. The repetitive rhythm can become mesmerizing and you achieve a kind of presence or awareness, and feel certain truths. It’s freedom from yourself, and from the world. Something magical happens within that space.
Q. What role did your parents play in trying to get you help for your drinking?
A. They confronted me and forced me to see psychiatrists. “The drinking” was an ongoing issue, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. But theirs was mostly a punitive approach, which fueled me to act out even more, especially against anything and anyone I deemed the slightest bit authoritative. Eventually, I became more secretive and put greater, albeit not always successful, effort into covering my tracks and minimizing my exposure. There were many years of distrust and distance on both sides.
Q. In the book, you consider whether former drunks can truly be happy again. Have you been able to answer this?
A. Until four or five years ago, I was doubtful. I figured the low-level misery was simply punishment for all the negative impact I’d had. To feel joy was somehow disrespectful to those I’d harmed. The general discomfort was just and something I’d have to live with, a fact. But at some point, you realize you weren’t put on this earth to be a vessel of quiet suffering or negativity. You can and you must earn permission to be happy again, to feel joys, to feel life. It might take a while to get there, but you have to try. Life is just too short. To do otherwise is to continue living a wasted life.
Q. Do you consider yourself recovered?
A. By my definition and standards, yes. Or pretty close. You never really fully recover from anything.
Q. Would you ever take a drink again?
A. Sometimes when I think about never drinking again, it breaks my heart. So I tend not to think in absolutes. I used to give myself these deadlines: ten years and you can have a drink; be sober as long as you were drinking; run a marathon for every year you drank; run a 100-miler and you can crack a beer at the finish line. But convincing myself that I have that option almost makes it easier. I just keep putting it off. I have no plans to drink. I’ve been sober almost 14 years. I’m used to it. And there is a part of me that fears what might happen. I’d hate to throw all of this away.
Q. What if you couldn’t run anymore? Does this worry you?
A. It used to. But these days, you can run in almost any condition—legless, armless, blind. If my joints start acting up, I’ll consider Vibrams. I also do yoga and there’s always swimming, which I used to love. As long as I can stay active and sweat and pump my heart, I’ll think I’ll be OK. Though, in my view, nothing beats running.
Q. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
A. Letting it go. It’s my first book and I desperately wanted it to be perfect and annoyed my copyeditor with multiple last-minute changes. I continued to revise it in my head; I know I can make it better, just give me another chance. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’ve been working on something intensely for several years. But you have to let it be, imperfections and all, and move on.