A few years ago, Barrera was addicted to drugs. He used crystal methamphetamine, and then he discovered crack cocaine. He was homeless for a time, and then he was a thief. He lived in doubt and fear, in paranoia and darkness, until one morning in 2010, when he went for a run.
Barrera believes it was that experience, when he needed a break after only one block, that he replaced drugs with running. Three years later, its hold is as strong as any narcotic. Instead of waking each morning in search of the next high, he tried going a little farther than the previous day, a few more seconds without stopping. After a few weeks, he ran a 5K, and the feeling afterward was familiar.
“Everything just feels perfect, feels right,” he says.
Soon he was running marathons, but eventually that wasn’t enough. Barrera ran a 50-mile race last June, and three months from now — if the rain holds off often enough, if his legs stop sending pain through his body, and his old life spares his new one of surprises, such as last year’s jail term — he will run a 100-mile race in the mountains of Colorado.
Understanding the body is difficult, but explaining the mind is impossible. Some who work in drug rehabilitation suggest that many people have a predisposition to addiction; that something causes an itch in the brain that must continually be scratched. Some think there are healthier dependencies than others, including exercise. Others believe that any unchecked addiction is destructive, no matter the activity.
“It’s like a merry-go-round; it’s the same thing,” says Gabrielle McCraney, program director at La Casa, a drug rehabilitation shelter where Barrera spent six months in 2010.
Barrera believes his only chance at a normal life and keeping his past at bay, is to channel his urges. So he attends services at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, reads books that merge religion and running, and judges the success or failure of each day by how many miles he runs.
On this Monday morning, the rain lightens to a drizzle, and he pushes a dangling headphone into his ear. Then off he goes, down the sidewalk, in a daily and lifelong search for peace.
‘Hanging by a thread’
He starts to the south, then cuts east toward the Capitol and through the National Mall. When he talks, his voice is calm. His breath is unlabored.
Passing the Lincoln Memorial, he heads north, following the Capital Crescent Trail. The Potomac River is at his left; the city, and all its stories, is to his right. Barrera lived the darkest part of his story not far from here, in a tan rowhouse in Northwest Washington. Six years ago, he sometimes lay on a bed, the previous night’s high wearing off, and heard voices. Once he telephoned his mother, asking her to swear to him, and then to God, that she wasn’t outside his window.