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Running Toward Redemption On 'Ransom Road'

Oct 23, 2012
Originally published on October 23, 2012 5:53 am

Meet a man with a powerful addiction — to running. Caleb Daniloff says he believes the sport saved him from addictions that were far worse, and he's written a new book, called Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time, about his experiences.

Daniloff has run some familiar marathons — New York and Boston — but he's also been to a place not famous for outdoor running: Moscow.

"The water was rationed, when we were running," Daniloff tells NPR's David Greene. "What happened is that there was also a 10K race, and so, they didn't want the 10K runners drinking up the marathon runners' water, so no one got water until after the 10K ... until after six miles." Farther along, Daniloff passed a water station along the race course offering not water or energy supplements, but black bread, salt, and hot tea — not exactly what marathoners need as they pass the 22nd mile.

Greene and Daniloff met in a more domestic spot — Washington, D.C.'s Hains Point, a grassy spit of land near the Jefferson Memorial. It's a popular place for runners who are getting ready for the Marine Corps Marathon, another race Daniloff has run.

"One of the things that really stands out to me about the Marine Corps Marathon was the number of wounded veterans that were running," Daniloff says. "Young guys with no arms or one leg, or family members who had the iron-on dress portraits of Marines with the birth and death dates on them. There was sort of just this huge feeling of ... there was a lot of damage that had been done, and there was a lot of healing that had taken place ... it's just very nice to see running as a way to sort of move through that."

Daniloff himself spent 15 years — from the ages of 14 to 29 — struggling with alcohol addiction. "A couple years into my recovery, I sort of evolved into a runner," he says. "It became a major sobriety tool for me, you know, it allowed me to get to know myself again." Running, he says, injected a spiritual element into his recovery as he pounded along predawn dirt roads. It also allowed him the time to figure out apologies to people he'd hurt in his years of drinking. "A lot of my apologies were drafted in my head, at 6 miles an hour, at 5 a.m.."

"You really do need to have a process when you're getting sober," Daniloff says, and running helped him develop one. "A lot of people do turn to AA, but for me, running gave me all those things, and allowed me to sort of move through sobriety." Though, he adds, he has spent time in AA and drew on bits and pieces of its philosophy in his recovery. "Things like, you know, conducting a fearless moral inventory, that's something that you need to do, and that's something that ... I would feel that I could do at its most purest when I was running, just because when you're running you just can't deceive yourself, because it's so hard."

Daniloff says running gave him a sense of transformation. "I felt like I really cultivated an impulse towards humility ... it's a softening of who you are, an opening yourself up." It's the physical process of running that gives it such power, he says. "I feel like you meet yourself again when you run ... the purity of thought that happens when you are really exerting yourself ... it gives you a space to both escape who you are, and to burrow deeper into who you are."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are about to meet a man with a powerful addiction to running. And he believes it has saved him from addictions that were far worse. His name is Caleb Daniloff, and he's written a new book, called "Running Ransom Road," about his experiences running marathons. We met up with Caleb at a popular running spot in the nation's capital.

He has run some familiar marathons - New York, Washington, Boston. Then there was the time when he returned to a city where he spent time growing up, Moscow. Russia? Not famous for outdoor running. And their marathon has some quirks.

CALEB DANILOFF: The water was rationed, when we were running. So...

GREENE: I think ... I couldn't imagine...

DANILOFF: No. Well, what happened is that there was also a 10K race. And so, they didn't want the 10K runners drinking up the marathon runners' water. And so, no one got water until after the 10K - so until after six miles.

GREENE: As if you marathon runners don't need any water the first 10K.

DANILOFF: Right, exactly.

GREENE: And wasn't there a water station that didn't actually have water?

DANILOFF: I got to one water station that - they had - and it was like, mile 23 or 22, and they...

GREENE: You're thirsty.

DANILOFF: Very, very, I mean, those last six miles, it's unslakable, you know. And then they have, you know, instead of - you know, in sort of Western marathons, they have station - you know, your Gatorade and your water...

GREENE: Sure.

DANILOFF: ...and then they have energy goo at certain stations. In Moscow, they had this table that had all this black bread set up, with piles of salt. And this was their - sort of their version of energy goo. And so, you know, I tried it. And, you know - and I had way too much salt, and my lips ballooned. And, you know, the refreshments they provide is also - you know, it was hot tea. I wasn't...

GREENE: Oh, that's not exactly what you're looking for.

DANILOFF: Right.

GREENE: We were chatting with Caleb at Hains Point. It's a grassy spit of land in Washington, right near the Jefferson Memorial.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go!

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE RUNNING)

GREENE: Runners come here to prepare for the annual Marine Corps Marathon, which is this weekend. That race goes by this very spot, and it evokes some strong memories in Caleb.

DANILOFF: You know, this is about the halfway point; about 13.1 miles. And one of the things that really stands out to me, about the Marine Corps Marathon, was the number of wounded veterans that were running - you know, young guys with no arms or one leg; or family members who had the iron-on dress portraits of Marines, with the birth and death dates on them. You know, there was just sort of this huge feeling of like, you know, there was a lot of damage that had been done, and there was a lot of healing that was actually - that was taking place. So it was very - powerful experience to be sort of surrounded by all these people who are - are sort of damaged. And then, it was just very nice to see running as a way to sort of move through that, and sort of - to try and transform beyond.

GREENE: "Transform beyond" - powerful words that capture what running has done for Caleb. One reason he notices the injuries other runners have, is because he has some pretty deep wounds himself. Caleb grew up the son of an American journalist posted to Moscow. From his days in Moscow to college back in Vermont, Caleb struggled to connect with people; and he descended into alcoholism. He says running saved him.

DANILOFF: A couple years into - into my recovery, I sort of evolved into a runner. And it became a very - a major sobriety tool for me. You know, it allowed me to get to know myself again; to do like, some serious self-examination, honest self-examination. It injected sort of a spiritual element into my recovery. I used to run on this old, dirt road before the sun came up. And the run would always end with the sunrise. So it was very - kind of symbolic. And it also was a place where I started trying to make amends; trying to figure out the damage that I'd done, and how to reach out to the people that were involved, and how to apologize. So a lot of my apologies were drafted in my head, you know, at six miles an hour; you know at 5 a.m.

GREENE: Wow.

DANILOFF: And so running, for me, became - you know, it imposed a process. You really do need to have a process when you're getting sober, and a system of some kind. I mean, a lot of people do turn to AA. But for me, running gave me all those things, and allowed me to sort of move through sobriety.

GREENE: What - tell me more about that. I mean, why does there a need to be a process? Why is that so key to overcoming alcoholism?

DANILOFF: Overcoming alcoholism is not the same thing as slapping on the nicotine patch. You know, it's not a - you know, a step-down thing, and you're done after a couple of months, or after a year. You know, it really is - sort of a lifelong process. And, you know, and I drew - I was - you know, I got into a lot of trouble when I was drinking and drugging, and - so I got sentenced to AA quite a bit. And so, I was pretty familiar with the - their 12-step process, and a lot of their philosophy.

And I drew on bits and pieces of it; things like, you know, conducting a fearless moral inventory. That's something that you need to do. And that's something that I would do - I would feel that I could do, at its most purest point, when I was running, just because when you're running, you know, you just can't deceive yourself - just because it's so hard. So your thought process is a little more - is purer, I think.

You also need to - like I was saying, make amends, and figure out how to make those amends, you know. And there is sort of a, you know, a spiritual transformation, you know; a sort of - I felt like I really cultivated an impulse towards humility, which was something I didn't have before. You know, it's a softening of who you are, and opening yourself up.

GREENE: Cultivated an impulse toward humility - that's really powerful. And I guess I wonder, why was running a space where that - you know, that happened for you?

DANILOFF: You know, I feel like you meet yourself again, when you run. You sort of - you break yourself down, and you're basically building yourself back up again. And I think it's the physical - the physical process, you know. I just think that the purity of thought that happens when you are really exerting yourself - you know, you're just able to sort of tunnel in deeper. It allowed me to consider things that I hadn't considered before. It opens you up, somehow. I don't know if it's the endorphins. But it gives you a space to both escape who you are, and to burrow deeper into who you are.

GREENE: You know, Caleb, we're standing here; and they're running a 3K, a 5K. We're going to start to see them finishing - at the finish line soon. Have you reached the finish line, somehow, in your journey? Or is there still - kind of more of a race to run?

DANILOFF: On one hand, I would say yes. On another sense, I feel like, you know, we - you never really recover from anything, fully. So you're always sort of in a state of recovery. And, you know, in a way, that's the same thing as saying you're always - sort of moving forward, trying to move forward. And, you know, I think you just - you reach a point of peace inside yourself.

GREENE: Caleb Daniloff, thanks for talking to us.

DANILOFF: Thank you.

GREENE: Good luck with the book.

DANILOFF: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Caleb Daniloff's book is called "Running Ransom Road." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.