Driving early in the dark and seeing the city lights fade away in the distance is a familiar experience. It’s 5am and I’m on my way to a trail run. My head presses against the window and I think back to when I was still awake and heading towards the city lights in search of my next fix. I think back to all the wrong decisions and the emotional pain.
Things are different now, they’re better, they’re incredible, they are The Best!
Rock bottom of addiction
I woke up 13 months ago in a hospital bed with a whole bunch of doctors and emergency staff standing around me.
“Stuart, you are in the hospital. You had an overdose, you are very lucky they found you.” I fade away again as they sedate me to remove all the tubes they stuck inside me.
When I awake later in the ward my entire body is in excruciating pain, especially my chest and legs. I get told later it was from lack of oxygen and the resuscitation which they had to perform on more than one occasion. I go to the bathroom and look into the mirror, judging by my facial hair it’s been about three days in the hospital.
I then make a promise, a solemn oath to myself and God that I when I leave that hospital I am going to do everything it takes not to end up on that downward spiral again. I leave the hospital five days later with nothing, not even a pair of shoes to go over my socks.
By January 2018, I secured a job at a centre which helps people who also suffer from substance use disorders.
I met Helen Laatz, who gave me a copy of TRAIL magazine. She encouraged me to pursue trail running and believed in my passion and in me. She then took me to my first race in probably eight years, the Kenneth Stainbank Trail Run. We did the Gilboa Challenge next, then Hilton Summer 22km, and I entered the Drakensberg Northern Trail 42km (DNT).
Whilst running on the top of the Berg at DNT, I began to get this feeling, this incredible sense of peace. I’m fit, I’m cold, I’m tired, I’m happy, I’m feeling weak, I’m feeling motivated.
I realise that for every pain, my mind has a counter measure to push me closer to the finish.
On top of that mountain I came to the realisation that I can contrast this into my life. This run, this trail, this race doesn’t finish here, but is a Journey that goes far beyond the finish. I finished DNT somewhere in the middle of the field and I didn’t stop training.
I completed 100 kilometres in total by the next Saturday and the following weekend hit nine personal bests at the WESSA run, reaching my target of top 20.
I can’t describe the feeling when I am out there on the trails, when I turn the corner and exit a pine forest, and all of a sudden I can see dams below, and the farm I left is just a speck in the distance. That feeling when you chase the rising sun to get to the top of a ridge to witness the sunrise with breaking light over the Umvoti landscape. That feeling when you meet someone at 10km of a race and you begin to push each other, not to win, but to cross the finish line with everything you’ve got. That feeling of accomplishment when you finish a training run, stand in the shower and see the soil wash off your legs.
When I run trail I get into a space, a sort of meditation. In that moment I am fit, healthy, happy and content. In that moment my mind, body and spirit are connected. It doesn’t help me forget the pain and trauma of early childhood or the people I have lost along the way. To the contrary, it helps me feel. It helps me process with mind-heart connection.
Furthermore, it shows me that there is greatness in me. There is something deep inside of me which is beautiful and destined for greatness.
Twelve years after addiction
I picked up heroin when I was 20 and I am now 32. In those 12 years I have never felt the way I do now. Whilst I can’t attribute trail running to my success in my sobriety it has been an integral link in every aspect of my recovery.
When I am frustrated I trail, when I am sad I trail, when I feel empty I trail and when I close my bedroom door at night and set my alarm for 4am to train the next day I know I have purpose, vision and a goal. I am not training for a race but I am training for life. Every time I cross the finish line at a race I am that much less an addict and more a trail runner, and that gives me great confidence in my ability to manage my sobriety.
The community provides
Since January I have met some incredible people while trail running, and have a few people close to my heart. That support of community is just another facet of trail running which has greatly enriched my life, giving me meaningful connection from such a dark and lonely past.
I would like to thank the entire KZN Trail Running community, as every person from those behind the scenes organising the races, to the special connections I have made, have played an integral part in my Journey.
Two types of race
The beauty of trail running is the pure essence of the journey from start to finish. For me, there are two types of races.
The first is that race when you’re alone. You’re on the top of a mountain or the escarpment and your strength gets tested. Mind, body, and soul.
Your body is in pain and your mind tells you it’s time to stop. But then the sheer beauty on the top of that mountain, and witnessing our Creator’s masterpiece connects your soul.
Your mind goes to a space where you can accomplish all things.
The second type of race is a race you run with a friend and experience the connectedness and joy of the trail. I ran Zingela, a two-day stage race with a close friend, Cindy Mills and for 35km we smiled, joked, sang and encouraged each other. I crossed the finish line with much joy and a sense of belonging.
Addiction stripped me of this for so many years. I didn’t know what it was like to belong. My heart and mind were disconnected and it did not have the strength of character to tackle hardships and pain and to face the mountain of life. I faced life alone and from an insecure place within myself.
Where I am today, I have not arrived and no, I am not cured. However I have the tools and developing strength of character to fulfil my vision and my dreams. It is now my purpose to share my experience and encourage every person who has experienced hardship or pain to embrace that mountain of life no matter what the elevation is. To build those muscles of their mind and soul to get them to the top.
Stuart Cole is a recovering addict and trail enthusiast with a vision to help others through his experience. Stuart is currently lifestyle coach and facility manager at Waynol Anti-Narcotics Agency, in Kloof. He used to work at Harmony Retreat in Greytown, KZN, traversing the trails of Umvoti, when off from his duties as chef.
This piece originally appeared on page 38 and 39 of TRAIL issue 28.