How Running Helped One Woman Get (and Stay) Sober
Ana Vareschi shares how training for races helped her overcome years of addiction—and completely transformed her life.
My life often looked perfect on the outside, but the truth is, I've had problems with alcohol for years. In high school, I had the reputation of being a "weekend warrior" where I always showed up to everything and had great grades, but once the weekend hit, I partied like it was my last day on earth. The same thing happened in college where I had a full load of classes, worked two jobs, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA-but spent most nights out drinking until the sun came up.
The funny thing is, I was always complimented about being able to pull off that lifestyle. But eventually, it caught up with me. After graduating, my dependency on alcohol had gotten so out of hand that I wasn't able to hold a job anymore because I was sick all the time and wasn't showing up to work. (Related: 8 Signs You're Drinking Too Much Alcohol)
By the time I turned 22, I was unemployed and living with my parents. That's when I finally began to come terms with the fact that I was actually an addict and needed help. My parents were the first ones to encourage me to go to therapy and seek treatment-but while I did what they said, and made some momentary progress, nothing seemed to stick. I kept going back to square one over and over again.
The next two years were more of the same. It's all hazy to me-I spent many mornings waking up not knowing where I was. My mental health was at an all-time low and, eventually, it got to the point where I had lost my will to live. I was severely depressed and my confidence was completely shattered. I felt like I had destroyed my life and ruined any prospects (personal or professional) for the future. My physical health was a contributing factor to that mentality as well-especially considering I'd gained about 55 pounds over two years, bringing my weight to 200.
In my mind, I had hit rock bottom. Alcohol had beaten me so badly both physically and emotionally that I knew that if I didn't get help now, it was really going to be too late. So I checked myself into rehab and was ready to do whatever they told me to so I could get better.
While I had gone to rehab six times before, this time was different. For the first time, I was willing to listen and was open to the idea of sobriety. More importantly, for the first time ever, I was willing to be a part of a 12-step recovery program that guaranteed long-term success. So, after being in inpatient treatment for two weeks, I was back out in the real world going to an outpatient program as well as AA.
So there I was at 25 years old, trying to stay sober and quit smoking. While I had all this determination to move forward with my life, it was a lot all at once. I started to feel overwhelmed, which made me realize that I needed something to keep me occupied. That's why I decided to join a gym.
My go-to was the treadmill because it seemed easy and I'd heard that running helps curb the urge to smoke. Eventually, I started to realize how much I enjoyed it. I started to gain my health back, losing all the weight I'd gained. More importantly, though, it gave me a mental outlet. I found myself using my time running to catch up with myself and get my head straight. (Related: 11 Science-Backed Reasons Running Is Really Good for You)
When I was a couple of months into running, I started signing up for local 5Ks. Once I had a few under my belt, I started working toward my first half marathon, which I ran in New Hampshire in October 2015. I had such an immense feeling of accomplishment afterward that I didn't even think twice before signing up for my first marathon the following year.
After training for 18 weeks, I ran the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Washington, DC, in 2016. Even though I started too fast and was toast by mile 18, I finished anyway because there was no way I was going to let all my training go waste. In that moment, I also realized that there was a strength inside of me that I didn't know I had. That marathon was something I had been subconsciously working toward for a very long time, and I wanted to live up to my own expectations. And when I did, I realized that I could do anything I put my mind to.
Then this year, an opportunity to run the TCS New York City Marathon came into the picture in the form of PowerBar's Clean Start campaign. The idea was to submit an essay explaining why I felt like I deserved a clean start for a chance to run the race. I began writing and explained how running helped me find my purpose again, how it helped me overcome the most difficult hurdle in my life: my addiction. I shared that if I got the chance to run this race, I'd be able to show other people, other alcoholics, that it is possible to overcome addiction, no matter what it is, and that it is possible to get your life back and start over. (Related: Running Helped Me Finally Beat My Postpartum Depression)
To my surprise, I was chosen as one of 16 people to be on PowerBar's team, and I ran the race this year. It was without a doubt the best race of my life both physically and emotionally, but it didn't really go as planned. I had been having calf and foot pain leading up to the race, so I was nervous about how things were going to go. I expected to have two friends traveling with me, but they both had last-minute work obligations that left me traveling alone, adding to my nerves.
Come race day, I found myself grinning from ear to ear all the way down Fourth Avenue. To be so clear, focused, and able to enjoy the crowd was a gift. One of the most challenging things about substance use disorder is not being able to follow through; not being able to achieve goals you set out to. It is a destroyer of self-esteem. But that day, I accomplished what I set out to do under less-than-perfect circumstances, and I am so glad I had the opportunity. (Related: Running Helped Me Conquer My Addiction to Cocaine)
Today, running keeps me active and focused on one thing-staying sober. It's a blessing knowing that I'm healthy and doing things that I never thought I'd be able to do. And when I do feel mentally weak (news flash: I'm human and still have those moments) I know I can just put on my running shoes and go for a long run. Whether I really want to or not, I know that getting out there and breathing in fresh air will always remind me of how beautiful it is to be sober, to be alive, to be able to run.