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Group uses running to overcome battles with addiction

One runner recently participated in a race while wearing an ankle monitor, which serve as a reminder of the battles he is working to overcome.
The Overcomer's Running Group before the Grandview Yard race.
Posted at 2:24 PM, Aug 23, 2023

There is scientific evidence that running can help people overcome battles with addiction. For one group of Ohio runners, they're putting that theory to practice. 

One of those runners is George Worthington. His battle with his past was evident at a recent race near Columbus, Ohio, as Worthington stood out from other runners by participating in the race while wearing an ankle monitor. 

Worthington is a member of the Overcomers Running Group, which Marc Thomas formed. Thomas coaches the group through the First Step Recovery Centers of Central Ohio. 

Several days a week, the group hits the sidewalks of Columbus to train for various races. 

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Worthington participated in the Grandview Yard 5K on Aug. 6, and finished the race in 26:02, just 15 seconds behind his coach. While 11 members of the group finished the 5K, one member completed the race's half marathon. 

"Well, first thing, it was an outlet for me to get out of the building," Worthington said about joining the running group. "But I also enjoy working out. So, you know, I used it as a stress reliever. I use it as a little health and education, I just have fun with it. I'm 44 now, and it just helps me keep my body intact. You know, as we get older, we gotta do extra stuff to stay healthy."

For Marcus Gray, who finished the recent Grandview Yard 5K in 36:54, he said running helps him manage his battle with diabetes. 

"It allowed me to exercise and it's changed my life in a health and wellness sort of way," he said. "I've got exercise now incorporated in my diet and my plan and just made me, you know, be able to last longer and live better."

But becoming healthy has been a challenge for both Worthington and Gray.

"It started with an addiction with drugs," Worthington said. "I was addicted to crack cocaine. And man, it's just something that we go through. Everybody has problems, you know. So my problem was liking the lifestyle too much, and it just led me to places I didn't want to go because I had a good upbringing, Catholic school upbringing, parents, Dad worked for General Motors, Mom worked for Nationwide Insurance. But, you know, hard times fell on the family and I just took the wrong direction."

As of earlier this week, Worthington was 93 days sober and training for his next 5K this Saturday. He hopes his journey can inspire others. 

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"I came from a lot of hard times. I've been shot," he said. "I've been to prison five times, homeless on drugs. So, yes, I think I could be a great inspiration to show people that you don't have to live like that no more."

Gray can relate, as he has battled alcohol and substance abuse. 

"I was in a dark depression for years and I didn't understand that I was dealing with, battling with a mental health disorder, and with the help of First Step and through this program, Overcomer Running, the exercises help with my mental health. So now I have a release, and I've also incorporated meditation in my spiritual journey."

Can running treat substance use disorder?

A 2020 University of Nevada, Las Vegas study recruited those suffering from substance use disorder to participate in a 14-week exercise training program that would conclude with them participating in a race. 

Researchers said there were three common themes among those who finished the study:  It helped them push forward recovery through running; gain a sense of achievement by crossing the finish line; and build a sense of belonging in the program.

"Through involvement in walking or running, the program may cultivate a sense of hope for people recovering from SUD," the study said. "Overall, the walking and running training program seemed to be a promising adjunct treatment to help participants transform their lifestyles during SUD recovery."

Thomas has seen this sense of achievement and belonging firsthand. He said in one instance, one member wore his race medal for two weeks after finishing his first half marathon. 

"All the unnecessary pressure go, when out there and having fun," Thomas said. "We always talk about being able to enjoy everything that happens between A and B. 'Hey, did you, did you see the old buildings along the way?' 'Did you see the nurses who were smiling at us running by?' 'Did you see the people in the window? 'Did you see the individual that was on a wheelchair going like this because he wanted to come around with us?'

"Those small things, be able to just kind of like soak it in because running is great freedom and running is one of the few things where everybody will remember how much they drank, how much they ate, how much salt they had, how much sleep they had."

Thomas said that he often interacts with other runners who share their personal stories of overcoming addiction to get to the finish line. 

"A lot of them, they recognize us now because we've been out there, but they're gonna be running up to you like, 'Hey, I'm four years clean,'" Thomas said. "And we had a lady, she shared her own story of a suicide attempt and how proud she was for our program. Another gentleman, you know, his daughter had passed from a fentanyl overdose, and he says, 'Man, I wish she would have this type of program.' So those stories are the fuel, and there's a lot of people in the running community I didn't even know that have an addiction background and they've recovered and even just inspiration because like, they don't really know it."