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How exercise is helping extreme athletes and others in Colorado battle addiction

"It's a community that welcomes you with open arms"

Whitney Mielke lifts with a few friends at The Phoenix Gym in Denver in 2019. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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On an afternoon 25 years ago, Catra Corbett figured her life was over. 

She looked in a mirror and saw purple dashes under her bulging, red eyes, a face painted white, black lipstick and a sad, tired expression that wondered when her next hit was coming. She looked like an extra in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” She was a go-go dancer who sold drugs and danced all night in clubs. She’d been up three days. 

“This sucks,” she thought to herself, but she saw no way to change it. 

But it did change, after the cops broke down her door and arrested her. A judge, knowing this was her first offense, made her a deal: If she gave up drugs, he would give her a clean slate. If she didn’t, she would go to jail. 

One night in jail scared her enough to give up drugs. She returned to her hometown of Fremont, Calif., away from the club and her friends, and moved in with her mom. She was depressed. She was bored. She wondered if she would stay off drugs. And then she entered a 10K. 

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Now she is one of the most successful ultrarunners of all time, a woman who completed more than 250 races and ran 100 miles more than 125 times. She is also the most extreme and famous example of the turnaround that extreme sports see in an unusual percentage of its participants. 

She is the most visible example, with pink hair, bright, colorful clothes and tattoos all over her body, but there are many others. Corbett once said she believed that 50 percent of all ultrarunners are addicts.

That figure is likely too high, especially with the boom in ultrarunning and the waves of extraordinary athletes and tough-as-nails competitors dominating the sport now, but there are many examples that suggest it is not only a piece of its history, it is still a part of the sport, a part that ultrarunning or other extreme sports don’t care to hide. 

Timothy Olson, a recovering addict, won the Western States 100, perhaps the most prestigious ultra, in 2012 and 2013 and once held the course record. Charlie Engle, one of the sports best-known extremists, was a crack addict.

Other extreme endurance sports have attracted addicts as well, such as Lionel Sanders, who signed up for the Ironman triathlon in 2010 to help him beat his addiction to drugs and became a star, finishing second in the Ironman World Championships in 2017. Corbett was clean when she began running, but she said it helped her stay that way. 

“It was mostly the running,” she said in an interview. “It gave me a purpose kept me focused.”  

Experts saw the potential link between exercise and fighting addiction and are now using it to help addicts battle their cravings, even if they aren’t running 100 miles to do it. Even a 10-minute walk, one expert said, can stifle the need for a fix. 

Michael Smith practices his boxing during a class at The Phoenix Gym. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As it turns out, exercise is good for you. 

Who knew, right? It helps you lose weight and maintain that hot bod once you get it. It can help treat a host of mental health issues, including depression, stress and anxiety, to the point where it could replace meds as a solution for some. You sleep better at night. You get stronger. You live longer. You can walk a flight of stairs without hunching over and gasping for breath at the top. Scientists are even studying running as a way to help calm post-traumatic stress disorder.

Experts have long searched for solutions to the problem of helping people stay sober when little else seems to work. But more are finding that the solution isn’t frog’s breath or a strange hobby or therapy dog. It’s just a matter of moving. 

“It’s not a magic bullet,” said Alex Murphy, behavioral health consultant with North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley who has treated drug addiction. “But there’s a lot of good things that come from it.”

Those good things include dopamine, along with serotonin, which triggers happiness, and norepinephrine, which helps with energy. Those neurotransmitters are released in generous quantities when you work out, especially when you do it outside. 

Many drugs trigger the release of dopamine — even a brisk, 10-minute walk can release a bit and help an addict fight cravings.

“Dopamine drives both motivation and pleasure,” Murphy said. “The more we can find healthy releases of that, the better. It won’t provide the same levels that the drug will, but it can give you a higher baseline and squash some of the cravings.”

Corbett said the natural high — many call it the “runner’s high,” even though many longtime runners say it’s a gross exaggeration — was a key to keeping herself off drugs. 

“I knew my body and mind had a connection to running, and moving made me feel great,” she said. “I learned along the way that running was a way better feeling I got than any drug could  give me.”

But the benefits addicts receive from exercise go far beyond soaking their brains with chemicals that help fight cravings. Part of recovery means getting healthy again, and exercise should be a part of that. 

That’s why many people include exercise as the core to a plan to change their life, or at least resolve to make themselves better on New Year’s Eve. Murphy calls this the mosaic of recovery. 

“It’s hard to say what one thing is the difference maker, but if you start improving one area, it’s going to indirectly affect the other areas of your life,” Murphy said.

Destiny Trujillo lifts as she is silhouetted by the open garage door at The Phoenix Gym in Denver in May. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Andrew Brough thought the cigarette would be the only present he would get for his 27th birthday, so he savored it as he sat outside the Salvation Army in downtown Denver and hoped for a way to get his life back.

No, he wasn’t seeking salvation, not exactly, but he needed to get off heroin after he dragged himself to the Salvation Army’s door, shaking and miserable, basically a hot mess. He tried drugs for the first time at 17, as a way to soothe the high expectations his parents placed on him to be a great golfer and student. 

The Salvation Army in downtown Denver was his third attempt to kick drugs, and the third time had to be the charm. His parents told him they were done letting him scrounge off them. He left California and the potent drug scene and moved to Colorado for one last chance. He went to the Salvation Army because the drug treatment was free. 

“At that point I told myself, ‘I HAVE to do this,’” Brough said. “I didn’t want to be homeless. I was an idiot and didn’t know how to do it, but I was finally willing to listen to advice.”

Still, the cigarette wasn’t enough. He was clean and motivated to stay that way, and that was a huge step, but he still didn’t know how he could stop full-time. Then he heard the man sitting next to him asking him about his day. They chatted, and the man told him he was a boxing coach. Brough boxed a bit when he was younger. Brough asked him where he coached. The man pointed across the street. 

Brough saw a gym with an intriguing title. It was named The Phoenix, after the bird that rises up from the ashes of its life better than ever. That’s exactly what he was trying to do, too.

Mike Mielke helps prepare equipment at The Phoenix Gym in Denver for clients. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Phoenix has what many other gyms offer. There are weights, classes and fitness fiends in tank-tops. One big difference is the membership fee: 48 hours of sobriety. 

Scott Strode, who founded The Phoenix, was a cocaine addict who said he used from age 15-24, but now he looks like an NFL tight end wearing a black T-shirt with red letters spelling out SOBER across his barrel chest. 

He stopped using because he couldn’t stomach the thought of someone telling his mother he died of an overdose, but the time he spent in a boxing gym and climbing snow and ice helped chip away at his addiction. 

The more time he spent doing activities such as Ironman triathlons, the less he felt like a loser addict, he said in a TED talk. He formed The Phoenix in 2006, and since then, more than 28,000 nationwide have escaped their addictions with The Phoenix’s help.

The Denver location is the national headquarters for The Phoenix, and now it has more than 70 employees. It’s growing fast. There are programs in more than 20 communities and 13 states, and other gyms have helped addicts recover with the same idea, such as Nevada’s Black Iron Gym. 

Addiction recovery centers across Colorado have also emphasized exercise recently, including the Red Rock Recovery Center, which has a yoga therapy program and partners with Phoenix to offer an adventure program, and The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake in Colorado Springs, which talks about the importance of exercise on its website. 

The exercise IS important. Whitney Mielke, the healing initiatives manager, remembers her  now-husband, Mike, dragging her to a class as her boyfriend for her first experience with The Phoenix. She was an athlete who played volleyball and soccer and ran both cross-country and track when she was younger, so the exercise didn’t scare her. Yet it was so intense that she couldn’t walk right for a few days. 

That class was taught by Brough, who has now worked as a staff member at The Phoenix for two-and-a-half years.

Mielke was jazzed the next day.

“It wasn’t just the activity,” she said. “A lot of it was everything that happens around that activity.”

Before the class, people gathered around and said why they were there. She was surrounded by people like her. She felt safe, and the point wasn’t just to rehash war stories, a typical activity in AA meetings, where they met, an activity that she and Mike both found distasteful and discouraging. 

The point was to encourage each other to not only challenge their boundaries but go beyond them. Mielke, for instance, competed in her first CrossFit meet a few months ago four years after her first class with The Phoenix. She also married Mike, who works there as well. 

“That competition was terrifying for me,” she said. “But I was doing it. That’s really powerful.”

The measurable and tangible ways athletes can track their progress may be as important to addicts as anyone, said Rachel Slick, a behavioral health consultant with North Range in Greeley. 

“There is a level of accountability that athletes experience when they engage in healthy competition against themselves or others,” Slick said. “Exercises provide individuals with a sense of empowerment and mental fortitude. They can think that two months ago, they couldn’t run three miles, and now they can run five. What can’t they do?”

Mike was intimidated during his first time at Phoenix, too. He started using when he was 13 until he was 24, when he got sober. He’s now 30. 

He brags on Whitney even when he laughs about her being a hot mess, too, when they first met. 

“Her big initiative is there has to be follow through,” he said. “People think they went to a 30-day treatment and they’re cured. You have to maintain it.”

The gym doesn’t test people when they enter the doors. The 48-hour sobriety fee is measured by the honor system, though it’s likely other members will know when someone is high and won’t like it. 

To go:

The Phoenix offers classes, equipment and activities, and it also offers ways to get certified in a job in addition to support from its members. Admission is free and open to anyone, even allies and those who have been affected by addiction in some way. Go to thephoenix.org for more information. 

Those people are encouraged to sober up and come back in a couple days. But it’s increasingly not an issue: More than three-fourths of the people who visit The Phoenix stay sober, a significantly higher rate than other treatment programs. The Phoenix, in fact, doesn’t consider itself a treatment program.

The gym is simply a support service. But something as simple as a fist bump after you complete yet another burpee may be the real key to beating addiction. 

Destiny Trujillo stretches as she prepares to lift again during her workout at The Phoenix Gym. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Mielke, now 33, prepared for that CrossFit competition, she worked out around people who weren’t in recovery. 

“It made me realize how much it means to me to be around people who are in recovery,” she said. “I want to be able to talk about it, even when I don’t have to talk about it. If something is going on, and somebody notices, I can be really honest. I don’t have to be fearful.”

The biggest challenge to giving up drugs or alcohol may not be the way it makes addicts feel, or the cravings that follow, although those are certainly painful. The biggest challenge may be the fact that addicts have to give up their friends, their life and sometimes their family to get sober. 

It’s easy to assume that addicts take up ultrarunning for its extreme nature, the way the drug lifestyle is extreme enough to inspire Nine Inch Nails songs. But The Phoenix shows that even ultrarunners aren’t necessarily trading one addiction for another. They’re trading their old community full of addicts for a community of healthy, somewhat stable individuals who just happen to enjoy running 100 miles and know there aren’t many who understand that except other ultrarunners. 

There is still a different feel at ultramarathons, said Bryon Powell, expert and editor of the popular website iRunFar and an ultrarunner himself. When he ran his Hardrock race this year, he knew most of the 150 people running it with him. Most of these people, Powell likes pointing out, were normal, healthy and well-adjusted. Corbett, however, bonded with former addicts. You can find anyone, it seems, at a race. 

“The community helped a lot,” Corbett said. “It’s where I met other people who were in recovery like me. Being around like-minded people helped. Being around people who are mostly health conscious makes a huge difference.”

At a Western States 100, 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson was minutes from the cutoff time and less than a mile from the finish. Krar, a 100-mile win already in his legs, ran with her the last 1.3 mile in flip-flops to push her to the end. She finished with six seconds to spare.

“You may not know the guy on your left is a Ph.D., and the guy on your right is a recovering alcoholic because honestly, you don’t care,” Powell said to SBNation. “It’s not about what you are or what you’re wearing. It’s a community that welcomes you with open arms.”

This is also why AA hosts so many meetings full of others struggling with the same problems. The approach may be different, but the idea of creating a community is the same, whether it’s through a CrossFit class or a support group. 

“A supportive and sober community is an important part of substance abuse treatment,” Slick said. “This sense of community can be cultivated in any number of ways. Maybe people find it in church, volunteer groups or hobbies. The exercise community is a great option because it promotes a healthy lifestyle in general. “

The Phoenix also sponsors arts and crafts, potlucks, hikes, bike rides, sober raves and a New Years Eve party that’s “insane,” Mike said. There are gratitude meetings, even a support group modeled after the traditional 12-step method (only without religion,) and a sobriety calendar, where people will list their anniversary of being sober.

“I come in here, and I feel a little less alone,” Mike said. “They’ve been through a similar hell with me.”

Whitney Mielke hugs one of the gym’s members as they leave as workouts wrap up. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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