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Addict to Athlete: A New Method of Addiction Recovery

Dec 08, 2015 08:51AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Sarah Almond

Murray - In March 2010, Blu Robinson was preparing to lead an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Provo, Utah, when he found many of his clients forging their 12-step papers and putting down false information. This disappointed Robinson because he realized that his clients, who were seeking recovery from an addiction, weren’t getting what they needed out of the 12-step program. 

Instead of forcing his clients to continue with the program, or getting discouraged with the setback, Robinson and his wife Marissa started brainstorming ways to change addiction recovery for the better. 

“That night I sat down and started thinking about what worked for me and what helped me with my recovery – and it was sports, it was athletics and it was a sense of community,” Robinson said. “So a couple days later I went to my bosses with this plan: I wanted to train five people in Group to run a 5K in Provo at the end of April.” 

Robinson, a clinical mental health counselor (CMHC) and a substance use disorder counselor (SUDC) at the County Health Department, had to first convince his bosses that his group members were in good enough health to train for a race. He then had the task of motivating five recovering addicts to consent to train with him. 

Four men and one woman raised their hand, agreeing to join Robinson in his quest for a new form of addiction recovery. 

“It was awesome because we would meet before group, stretch out, go over a few callisthenic things, talk about a few goals, and we’d go outside and start running,” Robinson said. “And what I found was that the more I was out there running with these guys, the more open they would be with me. We’re running in public and they started telling me about their addiction and the pain they’ve endured. They never told me that stuff in my office.” 

Running slowly became a safe space for the athletes, and Robinson found that there were several metaphors he could use during the training process that related heavily to addiction and recovery. 

“I’d tell them, ‘Run to that stop sign,’ and we’d run to the stop sign. Then I’d say, ‘OK, push yourself a little further to that playground,’ and we’d run to the playground,” Robinson said. “We’d talk about how you’re so much stronger than you think you are, just like in addiction.”

The group of six would run hills and stop at the top to discuss how digging deep and pushing past the pain, even when it seems impossible, relates to the often dark and difficult times an addict faces while in recovery. 

“It was awesome because it was all seeming to happen by chance,” Robinson said. 

Five weeks after their first day of running, the six athletes met at the starting line of the Chase the Mayor 5K in Provo. To Robinson’s surprise, one of the members had made t-shirts for the group that read, “Addict to Athlete.” 

“I was like ‘Whoa, are you sure you wanna wear those?’ Because if people will know that these guys had an addiction, that kinda takes away from the anonymity stuff that people preach about,” Robinson said. “And they said ‘Look, we’re not ashamed of what we’re doing. We are proud of this and we are changing.’”

Provo Mayor John Curtis had a two-minute head start at the beginning of the race, and when one of the Addict to Athlete (AIIA) runners, Tyson, passed him, Mayor Curtis asked him what his shirt represented. 

“He told him ‘I’m a recovering heroine addict and I’m using running to help me get sober,’ and Mayor Curtis thought it was really cool,” Robinson said. 

The shirt gave Tyson the ability to talk about his addiction and his recovery in a positive light, not in the type of negative light that’s often cast upon addiction. After being contacted by Mayor Curtis, county commissioners called in Robinson to discuss AIIA. 

“I thought, ‘Oh great, what did they do while they were out there?’ but the commissioners were really impressed in the program and wanted to give me the green light to go ahead and do more,” Robinson said. 

Over the past four and a half years, the program has grown to nearly 900 athletes, with weekly meetings in Utah, Salt Lake and Davis counties. Aside from participating in races around the state, the program hosts a free, annual Addict to Athlete 5K race every September. This year’s race on Sept. 19 has more than 500 runners registered. 

“The program really took on a life of it’s own,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want people to erase their original addiction and replace it with exercise addiction. I really wanted there to be a healthy balance.” 

To prevent athletes from getting addicted to exercise, the program has invoked a lot of service. They run aid stations for different races, they help out Davis County Child Services by raising money for foster children and they donate trees every year at the Festival of Trees for members who have lost their lives to addiction.

“We do a ton of community service and that helps them stay balanced. We also do volleyball and basketball and all kinds of stuff to help give people a more rounded experience,” Robinson said. 

And while changing the recovery process for addicts has been Robinson’s main goal, one of the most rewarding outcomes of AIIA is how the “erase and replace” mentality is changing the public’s perspective on what addiction is. 

“By giving back to the community and being active in the community, these people have the chance to show others that people with addiction aren’t bad people: sometimes they just make mistakes and they struggle with pain differently,” Robinson said. 

At the end of September the group is ran a relay race from Lehi in Juab County to Farmington in Davis County, hitting every main street along the way to promote recovery. To increase the services aspect of the race, however, AIIA teamed up with a young boy who is handicapped by severe cerebral palsy to raise money for a new racing wheelchair. 

“Instead of just going out and doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for others – we’re doing it for a bigger purpose and we’re excited to show the community we give back,” Robinson said. 

For more information on Addict to Athlete, visit their website at addicttoathlete.org. Meetings are held every Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. at The Park Center, located at 202 East Murray Park Avenue in Murray. Be sure to pack tennis shoes.     

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