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They Were Addicted to Opioids. Now They’re Running the New York Marathon.

By William Shannon
The New York Times

Odyssey House’s running team looped the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park during a recent training run. Credit: Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times

Ryan Stevens sat on the edge of a concrete balustrade in Central Park after finishing three laps around the reservoir.

She and her fellow runners from Odyssey House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, joked about a grueling 19-mile run around New York that they had finished the week before, as well as other pressing details, like where to go for dinner.

Ms. Stevens, who is 36 and lives in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx, was prepping for Sunday’s New York City Marathon — her fourth, she said — as a member of a unique group of competitors: former drug users who turned to running as part of their recovery from opioid addiction.

Ms. Stevens said she grew up in Rhode Island and became addicted to her mother’s prescription opioids at 22. That opened the door to ecstasy, cocaine and crystal meth.

She completed an inpatient residential program at Odyssey House in June. Running, she said, has been central to her recovery.

“I like the way I feel after a run,” Ms. Stevens said. “I may not want to start running. At the beginning I’m like, ‘I really don’t want to go for this run,’ to be honest. But then I know how I’m going to feel afterward.

“It replaces the adrenaline that I was looking for when I was using drugs.”

The 45 runners on the Odyssey House team who are planning to run New York’s 26.2-mile trek include 19 current clients. The rest are supporters and alumni.

John Tavolacci, Odyssey House’s chief operating officer, said he has run 22 marathons. He started the running group in 2001 as a supplement to treatment, based on a strong belief that running can be effective in helping overcome addiction. He has watched the Odyssey House team build self-esteem among participants, create a cooperative environment, and fill time for runners that otherwise might have been spent on negative pursuits.

New York City saw a nearly fivefold increase in heroin overdose deaths per 100,000 residents between 2010 and 2015. Similarly, opioids were linked to more than 42,000 deaths nationwide in 2016, five times the 1999 rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John Kane, 47, completed treatment about five months ago at Odyssey House, which offers inpatient and outpatient treatment for adolescents and adults at sites throughout the city. Mr. Kane, who is originally from Long Island, said he became addicted to prescription opioids nearly 20 years ago, and later got hooked on heroin.

The team, he said, has given him a drive that transcends the time he spends in sneakers.

“It’s also transferable to everything else I do in life,” Mr. Kane said. “The hard work, the perseverance, the dedication it takes to run a marathon can cross over into your everyday life — as far as setting a goal, working toward that goal and achieving that goal.”

He now has steady construction work and is looking to finish his second marathon on Sunday in under four hours.

Andrew Caceres said he was 19 and living in the Hudson Valley when he got hooked on heroin. He crashed a car while high, putting him on a path of legal trouble that landed him in and out of jail and eventually at Odyssey House, where he is living.

Mr. Caceres, who has a 3-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter, has just begun training as a heating and air-conditioning technician. He credits the running team with helping him get into the best physical shape of his life.

“I’m at that point,” Mr. Caceres, 25, said. “I want to be with my daughter. I want to be with my son. I want my freedom.”

The runners are keenly aware that exercise, while helpful, is not a cure-all for their demons. The team’s head coach, Andre Matthews, recalled a woman, Laura Thompson, who ran the marathon with the Odyssey House team in 2011.

Ms. Thompson died on Jan. 30 from an apparent overdose, according to the State Police in Middletown, N.Y. She was 35.

Mr. Matthews, who is 58 and estimates that he has run about 20 marathons, said he persuaded Ms. Thompson to join the team after seeing her on a treadmill at an inpatient center, where she had been living with her infant son.

A former Odyssey House client who has battled addictions to heroin and crack cocaine, he said he often feels like a father toward others in recovery.

In the past, after finishing a marathon ahead of other Odyssey House runners, Mr. Matthews cheered on his fellow athletes. “You’re there waiting at the end — you’re like an anxious parent,” he said.

At a recent training run along the Shuman Running Track, which hugs the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, he was slowing his pace, then speeding up to check in with different clusters of Odyssey House runners, including Ms. Stevens and Mr. Kane.

Ms. Stevens, who works part-time at two restaurants in the city, said she was well aware of how she will feel Monday after the marathon: sore and tired, and certain she will never run another.

“But I’ll probably run next year, too,” she said. “Not many people can say, ‘I went to treatment, and I got to run the New York City Marathon.’”


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