Never really having a dad, just training with this guy, I started bonding with him, and I started doing things I didn’t think I could. I stopped identifying myself as an addict. —Blu Robinson
PROVO — As Shalise Morgan trained for her first 100-mile race, the toughest days she faced had nothing to do with physical demands.
Instead, it was convincing herself that a 39-year-old woman who’d wrestled drug addiction most of her life was capable of accomplishing something many lifelong athletes wouldn’t even consider.
“The hardest part was knowing that I’m worth it,” she said of running the Pony Express 100-mile race last October. “But being involved in this group, they kind of took me in and believed in me until I believed in myself. The help and support from these guys, it really makes you stronger.”
The group she’s referring to is Addict II Athlete. It’s a group whose mission is to help addicts maintain sobriety by replacing addiction with accomplishment, and it was founded by a former addict-turned-athlete — Blu Robinson. A clinical mental health and substance abuse counselor for Utah County, Robinson said he realized the benefits of athletics in his own recovery, years before a group of addicts inspired him to create Addict II Athlete three years ago.
Robinson loved sports as a youth, but a tumultuous childhood meant no real organized or competitive sports in his life. He moved 22 times by the time he was 18, and he started using drugs at 15. He dropped out of high school and “bounced around” until he “hit rock bottom” at 21 years old.
“I really just had enough,” he said. “I just stopped cold turkey.”
Not backing down
He made fairly decent money working as a courier at a youth treatment center, which is where he met his future wife, so he invested in a mountain bike. His first ride, he met a group who allowed him to join them. A year later, when he started dating his wife, the man who was to be his father-in-law enticed him into another experience.
“He said, ‘If you want to date my daughter, let’s run a marathon together,'” Robinson said smiling. “I had no idea what that was.”
He agreed to take the challenge — only to find out later from his fiancee that he’d committed to running 26.2 miles. But instead of shying away from the challenge, he embraced it.
“Never really having a dad, just training with this guy, I started bonding with him, and I started doing things I didn’t think I could,” Robinson said. “I stopped identifying myself as an addict.”
And that’s exactly what Robinson now wants for the addicts who commit to the Addict II Athlete program. He wants them to find new identities while they achieve new accomplishments.
“They’re more than that,” he said of the tendency of therapy programs to require addicts to continually identify themselves as addicts. “It’s a part of them, but it’s not who they are. They’re athletes, mothers, fathers and so many other things.”
Robinson went back to school at night to earn his high school diploma. Then he went to UVU, during which time he received his license to be a substance abuse counselor. After graduating from UVU in 2006, he started with the Utah County Health Department as a case manager. He was working with young boys, and part of the therapy was training for a triathlon. He found that the boys would open up to him while they were sharing a tough bike ride in ways they never did any other time.
In 2011, he was walking through the parking garage on his way to his office when he saw a group of clients huddled together. They were forging each other’s paperwork saying they were attending their required 12-step meetings.
Their excuse for doing so was “all people do in those meetings is complain,” Robinson said. That encounter started him thinking.
While 12-step programs and group therapy are keys to success for many people, others yearned for a different approach. He went to his boss, Bruce Chandler, who loved the idea because he’d started his career (35 years ago) as a recreational therapist.
“There is just absolute power in recreation, in the body and in the socialization, the camaraderie of athletics that’s just powerful,” Chandler said. “And this thing has just gone boom!”
From humble beginnings
Three years ago, Robinson started with five athletes who had hopes of running a Provo 5K. Today, the program has meetings in both Utah and Salt Lake counties, and has a children’s component called “the minor league.”
“When a person comes into treatment, we ask a lot of them,” Robinson said. “There are meetings, therapy, family court, and often the kids are home, neglected. We tell them to bring the kids with them, and the minor league has them in activities like bowling, running or swimming.”
About two months ago, Addict II Athlete was officially incorporated into treatment programs at the Utah Department of Corrections. It’s an optional program, but DOC officials offer incentives to entice inmates into at least trying the program.
“When you have that active piece to anything, it’s a great deterrent for relapse,” said Desmond Lomax, the DOC clinical therapist who led the campaign to incorporate the Addict II Athlete program in the prison’s Con-Quest program. “There are a lot of people who just don’t want to sit. This is a great alternative. And there is a certain level of anxiety and tension that can be minimized through physical activity.”
Lomax believes in the concept so much, he’s making it possible for inmates to reap the benefits of the program, even before they’re paroled.
They have meetings where 30 minutes are about the barriers to sobriety, followed by 30 minutes of physical exercise. He’s even planning a 5K, 10K and half-marathon this summer to give those engaged in the training a tangible accomplishment to work for in those weekly meetings.
Greg Hendrix, director of Con-Quest, the substance abuse program for men, said he sees the program as just another way officials can help inmates transition from life as an inmate to life as a productive citizen. Nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated by the Department of Corrections have substance abuse issues.
“They need passion when they get out,” Hendrix said. “They’re rediscovering themselves, and they don’t know what their passion is. We just know the more support they have, the more it reduces the risk they have of getting back into those old traps.”
And support is exactly what those involved in Addict II Athlete say they value most about the experience.
At a recent Tuesday night meeting, Robinson stands at the front of a room filled with families sitting in folding chairs. He asks them to consider what they’d accomplished with the group that they didn’t think they could conquer on their own.
The stories come slowly at first. Some are punctuated by laughter, others bring group members to tears.
One woman talked about completing a triathlon, and how seeing signs with her name on them filled her with gratitude. Choking back emotion, she said she's never known the kind of support she’s found in the program.
One by one, the members, both addicts and those affected by a loved one’s addiction, share their stories of how accomplishing a physical goal brought them emotional and spiritual healing.
One father said the experience had “made my family whole.”
For most of the addicts in the room, their addictions haven’t just ravaged their own lives. Their uncontrollable urges, their destructive decisions, have cost their families untold pain. The program allows them to work together to rebuild trust, to rebuild relationships and to create productive, joyful lives.
Keith Carter, 48, Orem, is one of the original five members of Addict II Athlete. He’s five years clean and sober, the longest stretch in his life without using substances to numb his pain.
He said group therapy and 12-step programs are only part of the answer. At some point, he said, addicts need to move forward, let go of the pain in the past and embrace the possibilities of the future. While Robinson and others acknowledge the power in sharing stories with each other, sometimes negativity can proliferate those stories, which doesn’t help anyone in the group.
“I think sometimes we focused too much on the past and not on what you’re doing for your future,” Carter said of the group therapy he’s been involved with in the past. “We don’t do war stories in Addict II Athlete. I think we focus on the future.”
Carter, who quit smoking after 25 years so he could run marathons and ultra marathons, said there isn’t any part of his life untouched by the experience.
“Running gave me that reason to quit smoking,” he said. I’m really surprised at what I’ve accomplished. I did my first 5K in May (3 1/2 years ago) and then my first half-marathon six months later and my first marathon six months after that. All of a sudden I’m accomplishing things I never thought I could. It was exciting.”
Robinson said the program operates on a simple philosophy.
“It’s erase and replace philosophy,” he said. “If you erase the addiction and replace it with something of greater value, you’re more likely to succeed.”
He said it was his wife’s family that showed him how athletics can be a productive, life-enhancing way to cope with difficult times. That began when he was training for the St. George Marathon with his father-in-law.
“I’d never really accomplished anything,” he said. “The marathon accomplishment helped me believe in myself.” After that he graduated from college, attained his counseling license and eventually earned a master's degree.
Creating Addict II Athlete has enhanced his life in ways he never expected, as well as the lives of his family. They choose races that benefit charities or community projects as a way to make amends for their own mistakes. And while he was afraid no one would want to wear a shirt proclaiming them a member of “Addict II Athlete,” he’s found just the opposite to be true.
“The biggest thing is, this gave the people in recovery something else to talk about, something else to identify themselves as,” Robinson said. “They didn’t have to identify as an addict. They could identify as a runner, a volleyball player, a basketball player. They’re not afraid to (wear the shirt). They’re not embarrassed. Why be ashamed of something that really can be inspiring to someone else?”
The group’s Facebook page has become another layer of support. Members have posted about struggles, and immediately, others volunteer to “go for a run or a bike ride and talk,” Robinson said.
“Instead of just talking about your problems, we’re going to do something about it, Robinson said. "We’re going to work out, help you act on the struggle or relapse.”
The group doesn’t ignore failure, but they also don’t dwell on it. Two months ago, they lost a member to a drug overdose. On Sept. 5, they will run a 5K and 10K in Lehi, as it has the highest rate of drug overdose in the state, to honor those they’ve lost and raise awareness about the issue.
After losing their friend, they met for a workout at a track. Robinson told the group that there were shoes in their friend’s closet that would never be worn again. They all ran three laps barefoot in their friend’s memory.
But it was also a reminder of why it’s so important to find a way out of drug addiction. It was a reminder of what’s at stake for them and those who suffer simply because they love them. Lacing up their shoes and running for a cause is one way they can help others while keeping their own demons at bay.
For some of those involved, the insight comes long after the accomplishments. It’s the reason they choose the races they do, and it’s the reason they host their own run to raise awareness about the rough, raw realities of drug addiction and its costs.
“They don’t really realize how important what we’re doing is sometimes,” Robinson said of the group’s run in Lehi in September. “By doing this, we will bring to the city of Lehi an awareness of how important recovery is, and how we can do something about it.”
And then he reminds the group of how they need to view their efforts.
"Remember, it's not recovering from addiction," he said. "It's healing from addiction."
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