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Waldon AdamsWaldon Adams: Journey of 26.2 Miles Begins with 12 Steps
Race preparation for most Marine Corps Marathon runners begins at registration. Bibs are purchased. Running shoes are fitted. Travel itineraries are formed. Training plans are selected. The four to five months prior to the final weekend in October are specifically dedicated to preparing the mind and body for the road ahead.
However, there are those in the MCM race field who begin their journey long before running even one mile. Athletes like Waldon Adams, 51, of Washington, D.C., seem almost fated to line up in the MCM starting corrals; for these individuals, the 26.2 miles aren’t an event but a rite of passage. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Adams would begin an arduous journey at the tender age of 12 that would eventually lead him to seek redemption through running and earn the title of “MCM Finisher.”
It was at age 12 that Adams became addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Born with asthma and emphysema, Adams was no stranger to a drug-controlled existence as a young boy. He recalls taking calming medication throughout elementary school that prevented his excitement-induced asthma attacks.
“I believe I developed a dependency on mood changers at a young age because of this,” he says. “I had severe mood swings- later to be diagnosed as bipolar disorder- and I discovered my mother’s Valium, eventually graduating to marijuana and alcohol,” Adams says.
In 1981, Adams was introduced to freebase, the base form of cocaine, to which he developed an addiction. With this addition to his already-existing chemical dependencies, drinks and drugs became the focus of Adams’ days.
“On a typical day I chain smoked and did not like being awake any moment without crack, alcohol and cigarettes in my hand,” he says. “I would take sleeping pills until I was able to get a hit of crack or a drink.”
Over the next three decades, Adams’ struggle with addiction continued. Depression and a 2004 HIV diagnosis led to repeat hospitalizations and a stay in a nursing home. Without the proper medication and care, Adams’ condition progressed to full-blown AIDS by 2008. The following year, he returned to the hospital for a one month stay to treat his depression.
“I had lost everything, all my possessions but the clothes on my back and I had no place to live,” he recalls of this time.
During this 2009 hospital stay, Adams began a medication regimen to manage his AIDS, but he was concerned with the side effects. A casual runner for years, he had occasionally turned to running because it “helped ease the pain emotionally.” Faced with the choice of keeping his bad habits or taking medications and adopting a healthier lifestyle to survive, he commenced a running routine right in his hospital room.
“I decided I would get up early, get my daily morning vital signs over with and run around my bed for 40 minutes,” he says. “I felt so good after the first few days that I continued for the whole month I was there even though I knew I didn’t have anywhere to go once I left.”
Running helped Adams achieve the sobriety that had eluded him through 20-plus years of attempts with treatment centers, groups and psychotherapy. Having a new focus aided his recovery, and kept him away from tobacco, alcohol and drugs. In March of 2010, Adams celebrated one year of sober living by completing his first marathon. In the following October, he made his MCM debut.
“I had run off and on since the mid-70s, never consistently for long, but long enough to be interested in track and field and eventually what I thought of as ‘the Super Bowl of running’- the marathon,” he says. “As I watched people struggle at the finish, I was impressed. I heard about the MCM, and actually I thought it was “the” marathon, and I told myself I would do it one day.”
Adams never expected to be able to call himself a marathoner, particularly after a failed attempt at training for the MCM prior to his turnaround in 2009. After multiple relapses and setbacks, the struggles he faced seemed insurmountable. With addiction and depression plaguing his life, running a marathon and achieving his ambition of finishing the MCM felt like unattainable goals.
“Every time I would get a month or two sober and start running, I would dream of someday running the MCM, especially after Oprah did it,” he says, referring to television personality Oprah Winfrey, who ran the MCM in 1994. “I felt if someone could get off the couch and train for and run a marathon, maybe there would be a chance for me.”
Adams successfully finished his first MCM in 2010, and has since completed five additional marathons, including the 2011 MCM, plus numerous half marathons, 10-milers, 10Ks and 5Ks. He is registered to return to the 2012 MCM this October.
More importantly, Adams has now been sober for almost four years. His recovery hasn’t been easy; when he completed his first marathon, Adams was staying in the basement of a vacant house that still had heat and electricity. His parents, while relieved that their son had stopped using, were leery of allowing him in their house. The only consistency in his life during the first year of recovery was the 12-step program he attended and his morning runs. He admits that he still holds on to the fear that he will give everything up and quit, recalling his previous aborted MCM attempt.
“I tried to stick with it, but I could not stop using drugs,” he says. “I thought I was doomed and I had blown my chance to run the MCM, which I just realized I had wanted to do from the start. It may not be that big a deal for some, but it means the world to me.”
Through running, Adams has completely transformed his life. He now has an apartment and attends a day support program at the Austin Center at Whitman-Walker Health. His healthier lifestyle and sobriety have improved his respiratory conditions, and a commitment to taking medication has resulted in an undetectable AIDS viral load and no hospitalizations in almost three years.
“I used to feel good feeling bad, and I thought that HIV and AIDS were death sentences, and we were just waiting to die,” he says. “I had to change my mindset, take my meds and live life like anyone else, knowing that diet and exercise play a major role in anyone’s health, but especially if you are HIV positive.”
Adams’ new outlook on life through his transformation from addict to athlete has inspired those around him. He has encouraged others in his support program to join him in his running endeavors, prompting some to join him in 5Ks and he hopes to revive the Austin Center Run Team as a way to help others through running. His efforts, bravery and positive outlook earned him the 2010 AIDSWALK Courage Award, and he looks forward to further running challenges.
“My first marathon finish and my first MCM were the greatest accomplishments I could have ever experienced. It was a culmination of commitment, of which I used to have none, and consistency, of which I never experienced before,” he says. “Training for a marathon is one of the most rewarding and beneficial things a person can experience. The initial motto I trained by was ‘just do it,’ but for those days when my mind tells me I can’t do this, I say, ‘just do it anyway.’"
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