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A runner in recovery finds joy in the finish

June 2, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Justin Kirkgard

Justin Kirkgard says he never had been particularly good at completing what he started. So when his first attempt to train for distance running lasted only a short while, it looked like the same pattern was developing. But this time he would find strength in a community of supporters who continued to urge him on.

“At first I would run a mile and I could barely breathe,” says Kirkgard, 32. Today, other runners in a group organized at the Beit T'Shuvah nonprofit treatment facility in Los Angeles look up to Kirkgard, who last March ran proudly with the Running 4 Recovery team and finished his second Los Angeles Marathon in as many years.

“A lot of people here were the ones who inspired me never to give up on trying, and to keep moving forward,” says Kirkgard. That message applied both to Kirkgard's addiction treatment—he says he had been in and out of programs for years prior to arriving at Beit T'Shuvah—and to running, one of several activities that the Los Angeles center promotes in order to foster a sense of community in the treatment program. Music, theater, gardening, and surfing are among the other community-building options for patients.

“I knew I wasn't an actor or a singer, and I wasn't a surfer, but I knew I could run,” says Kirkgard, who as of last summer began working full-time at Beit T'Shuvah (“House of Return” in Hebrew) as a program facilitator and supervisor.

Running's impact

The Los Angeles center has encouraged its patients to train for the marathon in the city since 2010. Kirkgard explains that facility leaders don't push the idea on anyone, but once someone joins in, a group dynamic takes over and a commitment is expected.

“The training was extra challenging for me,” he says. “We would wake up early every morning and run. On Saturdays and Sundays I was used to sleeping in.” On Sunday the entire team would engage in a longer training run and would give one another that needed boost.

At the 2015 marathon in March, 50 individuals in recovery made up the Running 4 Recovery team, and 16 of them were current patients at Beit T'Shuvah. Kirkgard remembers what other runners had told him, as he was getting started in training, about what the activity had done for them, and that soon began to play out in his life as well.

“For me, it is almost as if I am practicing some form of meditation,” Kirkgard says of what he experiences when running. “It's so peaceful, calm.”

This year's marathon also represented a financial shot in the arm for Beit T'Shuvah, which was able to raise $200,000 for its programs in conjunction with the event. This year's effort inspired the center's CEO, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, to accompany the team on the course as well.

Asked what participating in the marathon meant to them personally, Running 4 Recovery participants made these comments, released earlier this year by the facility:

  • “The unimaginable is possible.”

  • “How to be accountable and forge relationships based on a common goal and struggle.”

  • “It showed me the meaning of commitment again!”

  • “Doing something bigger than yourself is vital to living contently.”

  • “This may be the hardest thing I've ever done. If I finish this race, I'll have proved to myself that I can finish the commitment I've made to turn my life around.”

That latter runner finished this year's race despite suffering a broken foot, saying afterwards, “It took me longer, but I finished. I feel more powerful and more in control of my life now than ever before.”

For Kirkgard, running in the events also has served as an opportunity to give back to a program that gave him 16 months of services even though he had no money to pay for treatment.

Chasing goals

Kirkgard now has two years of sobriety. When he first started training, he was only a few months off heroin, and a period in his life when he wasn't living anything close to a healthy lifestyle.

A Southern California native, Kirkgard says he started using alcohol and marijuana in his early teens and had moved to heroin and cocaine by his early 20s. Prior treatment experiences hadn't led to great progress, but at Beit T'Shuvah the approach to treatment was noticeably different. “There was more of an emphasis on community here,” he says.

He finished the 2014 marathon in around 4 hours and 40 minutes. Hotter weather for the 2015 event kept him from being able to beat that mark, but the finishing time really is beside the point for these young athletes.

Kirkgard began working at the center as an intern in January 2014 and was hired full-time six months later. He is currently attending college and is pursuing certification as an addiction counselor. Another finish line is in sight.

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