Ben Kepes: Running for recovery – a drug and alcohol rehab success story


I wrote last year about the approach that New Zealand takes to drug and alcohol addiction and specifically to the rehabilitation of addicts.

The thrust of my article, for those who haven’t got the time or inclination to read it, is that an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach is totally misguided and we’re far better off to treat addiction as a health issue early on rather than a criminal problem later. Understanding the risk factors that result in addiction, rather than spending so much more on the downstream impacts of those addictions.

The impetus for my article was my recent involvement with Odyssey House, a Christchurch-based drug rehabilitation service and specifically its SpeedFreaks running club. Basically, SpeedFreaks is all about giving addicts a new focus, one which, rather than having harmful impacts on relationships and society, is a prosocial pastime – running.

A few of my running mates and I have been helping out with the SpeedFreaks, although anyone who is a runner will appreciate that simply having some new people to go running with isn’t any great hardship.

When I wrote the article, there were a handful of Odyssey House residents who were dabbling with their first runs. These are guys who have had tough histories: substance abuse, criminal records and all the other things that society would use to dismiss them. But they were committed to trying to get through the programme, and committed to trying to improve as a runner.

The first time I met Leo, he had just completed his first 10km race and was stoked just to have survived. In true running form, he finished the race and the race finished him and what ran across the line was a fairly overweight and incredibly pale-looking guy who couldn’t talk for a while.

For the next few months, Leo and another one of the residents battled backwards and forwards as they tried to better each other’s half marathon times. And the times steadily came down to a respectable sub 2 hours.

Leo, however, is one out of the bag. Despite all of the aforementioned labels that society would put upon him, and despite the fact running long distances is actually really hard work, Leo got inspired and, just like Forrest Gump, kept on running. At the same time, and as a direct result of the running, our formerly podgy mate was slowly morphing into a lean, mean running machine.

โ€ข Read Ben Kepe’s previous column: The smart innovation happening in NZ’s film sector

A month or so ago, Leo and two of the SpeedFreaks coaches went out and did a 50km training run in the Port Hills. Despite it being far in excess of what he had done before, Leo displayed all the grit and resilience that will stand him in good stead as he reintegrates into society, and finished the run with a smile on his face and, if not a spring in his step, at least still with forward motion.

And so we come to this weekend when Leo will, I have no doubt, become the first-ever Odyssey House resident to complete an ultramarathon race. Leo is challenging the 75km distance at the Port Hills Ultra, an event that has well over 4000 vertical metres of climbing or, for those who like metric analogies, half the height of Mt Everest.

And while what Leo is doing is inspiring and incredible, it is simply the embodiment of a far bigger challenge that he has overcome – that of addiction. You see, only a few days after Leo completes the Port Hills Ultra, he will graduate from the Odyssey House programme fully clean and fully ready to be an active member of society.

And while society, or certain parts of it, will be quick to say that Leo is a “bad ‘un”, and that anyone who does drugs, or commits crimes must have antisocial tendencies that are incurable, the truth of the matter is that Leo is just like any one of us. Someone who made his way in life and screwed up a few times. To mash up a few metaphors, “let he who is without guilt cast the first stone” or “there but for the grace of God go we”.

Anyway, Leo should be, and certainly will be, applauded for his bravery and courage.

If you want to support these guys who are finding redemption through running, I’m sure they’d appreciate you heading over and donating to their Give A Little campaign.

Go, Leo. We’re all super proud of you.

โ€ข Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.

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