Julie Schoolmeester | Survivor of Addiction

Photo of Julie Schoolmeester

Several years ago my friend, Mary, asked me if I would be interested in running a half marathon with her. She is one of those fearless women who do multi-day bicycle tours for fun and take kickboxing classes at the Y.

Don’t get me wrong, there were points in my life where I would have called myself an athlete; I just wasn’t sure if those days had passed. Plus, I always hated running.  Since basketball was my favorite, I viewed conditioning as a necessary evil.  I should say, I always THOUGHT I hated running.  One of the beautiful parts of my recovery life is not having to hate anything anymore, most of all not having to hate myself anymore.

Mary’s invitation put me in an interesting predicament.  There I was, sober for over five years, but not really focused on a meaningful recovery.  I thought life was supposed to magically get better once I was sober; I was following the equation Julie – (alcohol + drugs) = HAPPINESS.  Right???

I had done a handful of 5K charity-type races throughout my 20s, but was more interested in post-races drinks and festivities. I remember one race where I was puffing on a cig while stretching near the starting line. I was the type of runner mothers warned their children about and serious racers gave the stink eye. 

So, the idea of 13.1 miles in a single stretch seemed out of my league. Although I was sober and not smoking, the race was just after my 33rd birthday and if I hated running when I was half that age, why would I subject myself to it as a grown-up?  There would be no coach yelling, er motivating, me. Part of the fun of being a grown-up was doing whatever I wanted. Ice cream for breakfast? Sure. Stay up till four in the morning? Why not. It was the trade-off for having to work and pay bills.

But Mary is good. She talked to several girls and organized a Tuesday night run for anyone interested. I thought I would hate it. I really did. I thought it would be a matter of, “You have to try the beets, Julie. It’s fine if you decide you don’t like them, but you have to try.” Thanks, mom.

It wasn’t easy and I didn’t love every minute of every run, but something felt right. I leashed up my dogs for every single run, whether it was a mile or 10. One time, one of the girls from the Tuesday group said, “You know, you aren’t the fastest, but you can go forever.” Feather in my cap, thank you. I don’t know if she realized how great the dogs are as pacers…

We did that half marathon and I surprised myself by keeping the habit. I did a bunch of 5Ks and another half, still logging all the miles with the dogs. It was like my brain started firing right for the first time in my life when I had those leashes in my hands and a pair of good shoes on my feet. It was never about winning or times or any sort of numbers, it was about connecting with the world around me and having the space to think or not think through whatever was bugging me.  

I ran with humans on occasion, but I preferred the company of the dogs. I began to understand how every run is like an entire life of its own; there are moments where you want to quit and moments where you feel like you never want to stop. You see the place you’ve lived for years differently because you are forced to take in your surroundings as nature intended you to, not through the windshield of an automobile. You get to explore new places and develop mantras to push you through another mile.

After two half marathons, Mary and I decided to go for the full marathon.  When I was sick, I had trouble driving 26.2 miles, so this was a big decision for me.  It wasn’t a competition in any sense, really just more of a challenge to do something that not everyone does. I have been accused of always trying to be different. Maybe there is a grain of truth to it, or maybe I was always just trying to be me. Plus I wanted a finisher medal. 

Marathon training is a second job and I appreciated the structure.  It’s a physical commitment, but even more so an emotional one.  It was equal parts of a Zen-like “Everything you need is inside you” mantra and Curtis Jackson saying, “Pray or worry. Don’t do both.” Just keep going, as they say.

The light worry didn’t turn into actual fear until we were into the tapering phase, where you cut back your mileage in the last few weeks of training.  I woke up two days before the race, sick to my stomach and hands shaking.  I hadn’t experienced that type of fear or anxiety in years.  Thankfully, grabbing the leashes and hitting the pavement with the dogs smoothed out the edges. 

On the morning of the race, I got suited up for the race.  It’s interesting how my ritual had changed over the years, from Tanqueray and cigarettes to Asics and oatmeal.  I grabbed the hip pack and turned to see two very eager-looking dogs watching me with anticipation. The ritual never involved guilt before. I explained to them that momma was gonna do a big race with Mary and they were the reason that she could because they were the best trainers in the world.  Blank puppy stares followed by a race to the front door where the leashes are kept. I have a bigger brain, but they have bigger hearts. 

I hopped in the car, picked up Mary, and we headed to the start. It was a beautiful morning and honestly, cold at the 6:45 a.m. start, a nice change of pace to the sweltering summer. We found a nice space at the back of the starting group and before I really even had time to worry, we were off.

We had a previously discussed plan of a nice slow pace. As long as we kept miles around 11 minutes at the start, we wouldn’t stress ourselves and empty our tanks. Plus, that would give us time over the whole course. The course was open for six hours, which gives you like a 13:40 pace. The plan was just to keep trotting along and enjoy the experience. 

It was a weird thing, how easy the first 15 were. We just stuck to the plan, one foot in front of the other. We stopped to stretch a bit here and there.  Mary’s hubby did about 400 meters with us at the 20K mark. We ran with a local girl for a while and a woman from New Hampshire for a while. She was doing a marathon in every state.

For me, it started to get harder around 18 to 20. That’s when you really start to love the people at the aid stations. An encouraging word can go a long way when you’re starting to doubt yourself. I got a little weird at one point and started singing, “To All The Dogs I’ve Run Before.” You know the tune. Actually, that really isn’t weird coming from me. And it made Mary laugh. 

At this point, my mantra from the summer came in handy.  Lots of runners have that go-to quote that motivates them to push through the pain and go further. Mine developed from the runs with the dogs—both are German Shorthaired Pointers and have brown heads, so I call them Brownheads. 

I would say, “We are not quitters. We are brownheads.” I would say this over and over to myself during the summer, whether it was just to get out of bed and go or to do another mile. The dogs were always game for another mile, they are brownheads. 

I’m not sure how many times I said that to myself between mile 21 and mile 24.  I know I started saying it out loud. A lot. 

I had been drinking plenty of water and sports drinks.  I had downed many gummy chews.  I was a brownhead. 

Moto and I started to separate a bit around the 22 mile mark. I decided to employ a strategy of race walk the first half of a mile, then jog the second half. It was on a part of the bike trails that I had been on so many times over the summer. It was incredibly flat. I knew I was so close; I just wanted to be done.

The old me would have quit.  Who am I kidding, the old me never would have started.  The old me didn’t have the courage to put herself out like that.  The new, constantly growing and evolving me was another gift of this recovery life. 

And then I saw the 25 mile marker.  I took off like a bat out of hell. Well, it was a bat out of hell for me cuz my last mile was just a little over 11:00. I know Jurker can do an 8:20 at the end of an ultra, but he’s Jurker.  I’m a Brownhead.  A happy, healthy Brownhead who isn’t afraid to make her own path.  I hit the finish line with enough sass to tell the announcer just to call me, “Schooly” as he was searching for my name. I got that finisher medal that I wanted so badly. 

Keeping up the workouts was never an issue. I knew I would keep logging the miles with the dogs, whether it was three or five or whatever. Today it was 11 on one of the familiar routes from this summer and as we ran past Paisley Park, I took in a breath of cool air and realized that the seasons had just changed. Fall happened right in the middle of our run, something I would have missed if I were stuck in a car, at a desk, or on a barstool.