This weekend, more than a dozen formerly homeless men in Denver, Colorado, will run away from their problems. They have been in training to compete in the Colorado Colfax Marathon as part of their recovery drug and alcohol addiction. Marathon organizers teamed up with the Denver Rescue Mission to create the innovative program. One step at a time, the men are improving their health and achieving goals, some for the first time in their lives.
During last year's inaugural marathon, crowds lined the race route along Denver's longest street. They clapped wildly for participants who pounded the pavement of Colfax Avenue. Shannon Chandler stumbled upon the scene and found nothing to cheer about.
"I had been up all night and was trying to score some crack," he recalls. It's usually easy to find someone selling drugs on Colfax, and that's just what the former plumber needed. Or thought he did. "The Colfax Marathon actually kept me from my destination [on the other side of the street] in order to score again. Because I had to cross Colfax, we went up and down the north side of the Colfax and couldn't get across."
A year later, Chandler will be on Colfax. He and the other men on the Denver Rescue Mission marathon team are training to run the marathon. They're sweating for sobriety and salvation.
Early on a recent Sunday morning, they prepared for 32-kilometer race, their last big run before the marathon. They formed a prayer circle near the starting line, asking divine help "to soar like eagles, keep us injury free, help us enjoy the fellowship of the people that come to support us." After a heartfelt Amen!, the men hit the road.
Runners funneled onto a dusty, desolate path as a chilly wind pummeled them. But they had the warmth of the Denver community behind them. Donations paid for their running gear. And trainers, physical therapists and yoga instructors had been preparing them for the grueling race at no cost. All of this has made it possible to train the men safely and properly.
Before long, Jerry Hartman churned toward the halfway mark, urged on by cries of "good job!" from the coaches. He made the turn, his sweat and smile glistening. "I'm doing it, going to make it!" he puffed. "Hour and 45 minutes, not bad!"
Shannon Chandler pulled up after completing 16 kilometers, propelled by legs wrapped in ace bandages. He only ran half of the race that day and is competing in the half-marathon this weekend.
He's hampered by shin splints, the result of being overweight, but he says he loves running. "If it weren't for the pain. [I love] the mindset that it puts you in. You look at nature. There isn't a drug out there that I've tried that is like this." He says the high he gets when he runs is much better. "There's no hangover tomorrow. Just the sense of accomplishment and support."
Nick Sterner is the team's captain and inspiration. He ran the Colfax Marathon last year while living at the Denver Rescue Mission. He recently graduated from the program but is sticking around to help prepare the men. He's also helping create similar running programs for youth detention centers.
He says running is the perfect sport since it teaches teamwork and self-reliance. "When every guy is looking at the street the day after he walks out of this program, he's going to have to make that individual choice. And he's going to have to have individual discipline and commitment. And THAT is what he's learning here."
It's a difficult lesson, made harder for these men by having to deal with emotional and physical ailments, understandable after years of rough living. But the training program and daily exercise are restoring their strength.
However, there's a weakness that looms for all recovering addicts, as Danny Graham learned before a recent training run when he got close to a teammate. "I smelled alcohol on him. Like a coconut rum," he recalls. His friend was kicked off the team.
"It was just kind of a major letdown that he got into drinking. He's going to end up in bad places. He's going to end up back on the streets, or something like that," he predicts.
Graham says three former residents of the Denver Rescue Mission have died, two from drugs, since he entered recovery two years ago. He and some teammates are calling for a re-entry program for runners who stumble. On the whole, though, the program has succeeded and there are thoughts of expanding it.
One of the biggest surprises for organizers has been the positive response from other runners, who used to go out of their way to avoid homeless men. Now, says Colfax Marathon founder Jean Townsend, they're welcoming them as fellow runners. "People would come up to these guys in the public parks and ask what's going on. And they would be so inspired that they would spontaneously begin running with these guys, almost like groupies!"
Shannon Chandler is pretty selective about the crowd that he'll run with. He's preparing himself for his return to Colfax Avenue where he'll try to score a medal instead of drugs. "I'm sure I'll see some people that are hanging around, that walk the streets," he says, adding with a laugh that when he does, he'll probably just pick up his speed and keep running.
Chandler and his teammates are determined to cross the finish line on marathon day, even though they've already won a far more difficult race.