Walter Barrera’s 12-million step recovery program

When Walter Barrera chose ultra long-distance running over crack cocaine, he was able to slowly start putting his life back together. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

Walter Barrera fills a bottle with tap water and electrolyte powder, shaking the solution as he walks down the stairs of his porch. Cold raindrops are falling, and he looks at the gray sky.

“Not good,” the 32-year-old Northeast Washington resident says, shaking his head because rain threatening a long run is more than just bad luck. It could disrupt the rhythm of his day and his week, and if that happens, what comes next?

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.

“To me,” he says now, “this was real.”

Other times he could hear the sounds of his childhood, bullets flying overhead in his native El Salvador, a nation torn in the 1980s by civil war. Searching for a better life for himself and his family, Barrera’s father, Adan, left home for America, crossing the Rio Grande in 1986. Young Walter felt abandoned and vulnerable.

“A hatred,” he says, “toward my father.”

After his father’s emigration, Barrera says now, he was sexually molested as a child. He says he believes those experiences pushed him onto a dangerous path and weakened his inhibitions.

When the family joined Adan in 1994, settling near Rockville, Barrera developed habits he would later regret. He says he began drinking alcohol at age 16 and first experimented with ecstasy at 19, and before long he was drinking and using drugs in Washington every weekend.

Crystal meth took a strong hold, and in his mid-20s, Barrera traveled to California to get sober. Instead, he returned home addicted to crack.

During frequent parties at the rowhouse, Barrera was the man who would make a call, go to the ATM, and then meet a dealer in an alley. He was occasionally attacked or robbed, and other times he was arrested.

When he was sober, the hallucinations growing more vivid, he wanted a change. In 2009 he checked himself into the La Casa shelter’s outpatient program, which is designed for mild abusers, but he found his way back to the parties.

“He did it for his mother, his probation officer, his family,” McCraney says. “He never really did it for Walter.”

By then he was living in a basement apartment near Northwest Washington’s Meridian Hill Park, and there was little incoming light. It was symbolic of his life at the time, but it also provided cover for forging business checks he had stolen, he says, from a fellow drug user. He sunk deeper into addiction and crime, using more drugs than ever, and traveling as far as Baltimore and Richmond to cash the checks, buy more drugs, and continue the cycle.

“Feeling like life is just hanging by a thread,” he says.

After forging the last check, Barrera says, he again called La Casa. It also offered an inpatient program: six months’ treatment, and for the first 60 days, he wouldn’t be allowed off the property.

On March 22, 2010, he checked himself in. He told the counselors he needed a new life.

‘All-or-nothing kind of guy’

At night, he says, he dreamed of drugs. During his first days at La Casa, there was an absence in his life, and his mind tried to adjust. He saw himself at a party or in the alley, and when he awakened, he felt relief.

“That’s addiction,” he says.

He attended daily counseling sessions, met with his sponsor, and worked in the shelter’s laundry. After two months, he was allowed to leave the grounds with a chaperone. Sometimes La Casa brought in speakers, including representatives from an organization called Back On My Feet. Gretchen Gates, the group’s former Washington program director, told the men that running was an analogy for a better life: Getting a job or living independently might seem as impossible as running a marathon. But day by day, city block by city block, it was achievable. With Barrera in the corner, saying nothing, Gates invited the men to join them for a morning run.

On a Monday morning in June 2010, Barrera met the group. The goal that day was a mile. When they started, Barrera recalls, he was the group’s slowest runner and was the first to stop, after less than 200 yards. He walked a block and then jogged the next.

Two days later, his muscles stiff and sore, he again joined the group, telling himself to run a little farther. It took a month to run a mile without stopping. He gave up cigarettes and adjusted his goal to three miles. Then five and then 10. He was more outspoken and upbeat. He began to practice Christianity and forgave those who’d wronged him: his father for abandoning the family so long ago, the person who molested him in El Salvador, the men who stole from or attacked him on Washington’s back streets. He lost more than 50 pounds and talked about saving money and someday finding a job.

“When he was running, he seemed so empowered,” says McCraney, the shelter’s director.

When McCraney declined his requests to leave the shelter alone for another run, he waited until 2 a.m., slipping past the guard and lodging a door open with a pebble. He sneaked back in, slept a few hours, and then joined Back On My Feet for a few more miles.

He gradually earned more freedom, and when other men used a day pass to visit family or friends, Barrera spent the hours on sidewalks and trails — 15 miles, then 20.

He once ran to his parents’ home in Maryland, and another time, he says, he made it almost to the West Virginia state line. Several times he ran past the rowhouse and the basement apartment, reminders of his worst days and how far he had come. Forty miles, then 50. The runs grew longer; his need, more potent.

“Walter can be sort of an all-or-nothing kind of guy,” Gates says.

La Casa hung framed pictures of Barrera on its walls, and Back On My Feet began telling men in other shelters about a man who had been held captive by drugs — and look at him now.

“An example we can point to, again and again, that you can do it,” says Anne Mahlum, Back On My Feet’s founder.

Barrera moved to another shelter and then a halfway house, each new stop granting more independence than the last. He took a job at a restaurant and another at a store that sells running supplies, admitting his past issues to superiors and slowly proving they could trust him. Last summer, he moved into his apartment, on his own for the first time in more than two years.

In late 2011, a letter from Richmond found him. There was an arrest warrant for writing bad checks, the bill finally due from sins of the past. He took a bus to Richmond to turn himself in, later serving a 38-day jail sentence.

At night, he says, with the cell door closed and the lights out, he dreamed about running.

‘A lot of red flags’

On this overcast Monday, he follows a trail to Washington’s northwest corner, just shy of the Maryland line, before turning and retracing his steps toward home.

A GPS wristwatch records his time, distance and pace, and on this day, it’ll log 20.28 miles.

If he runs 100 miles, it’s a good week; otherwise, it’s a failure. Soon he will increase that number to 125 miles, part of his training regimen for the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains at altitudes up to 12,424 feet. Runners must complete the distance within 30 hours.

Even with these 20 miles, reaching the remaining 80 is in doubt, and this makes him feel anxious. His work schedule between the restaurant and the running store is erratic, the forecast calls for rain, and he has an appointment with a podiatrist. Barrera injured his right thigh in February, the latest of a series of leg problems, and he regularly sees a chiropractor.

What can a man do when his body and mind are at odds — one sending painful signals to cut back, the other pushing him to go longer and farther? As always, the mind is more powerful than the body. So in the second week of March, he ran nearly 127 miles. A week later, he finished Washington’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, but on that day the 26.2 miles weren’t enough; he ran four more.

“The word moderation does not exist for us,” Mahlum says, adding she also has addictive characteristics.

A doctor advised him last month to decrease his mileage, but cutting back made him irritable and restless. So as soon as the pain dulled, he was back to 100 miles. In the first three weeks of May, he totaled nearly 328 miles, including a 29-hour period in which he ran three times, logging 54.76 miles.

When Barrera visited La Casa last month, stopping to speak with McCraney, she heard about this and noticed other troubling signs. Barrera hasn’t met with his sponsor or attended addiction meetings in about a year. He is single and says he has few close friends, preferring to spend free time reading the Bible or on some faraway trail.

“A lot of red flags,” McCraney says.

She’s worried that, if Barrera suffers a serious injury or is simply unable to reach the continuously increasing mileage, he lacks the support elsewhere to prevent a potential relapse.

“If the doctor tells you that you can’t run again, what do you do? You can’t cope,” she says. “. . . A lot of addicts think they have balance. That’s the sickness of addiction. If he’s running 50K, 100K, there’s no balance.”

Even Gates, Washington’s former Back On My Feet director, has spoken with Barrera about setting realistic goals.

“He just needs to have a grasp on the fact that . . . if I go out and run this race and I get injured,” she says, “all is not lost.”

For his part, Barrera says there’s support at church, at his two jobs, and from Back On My Feet. He says his devotion to Christianity is stronger even than running.

Told of McCraney’s worries, Barrera answers simply: “She doesn’t understand,” he says.

‘I’m a new person’

Long after starting his 9 a.m. run, Barrera turns onto 21st Street and jogs the final three blocks to his apartment. It’s afternoon now. When he stops, he’s smiling and talkative, the words falling quickly from his lips.

“It feels good,” he says. “Freedom, I think. That’s the word.”

He goes on about the beauty of nature; how running allows him to experience the things he once ignored.

“I’m a new person. I’m a new creation,” he says. “I don’t think I run to stay sober. I do it just to have fun, to feel like myself — something I didn’t do for so long.”

This feeling, the endorphin release mixed with satisfaction, is what he now chases. Without it, his life feels as empty as it did years earlier, when he occasionally couldn’t afford drugs, or was robbed of them, or was arrested or beaten. And like drugs, the intensity is fleeting; the addict must do more, and more often, for the same sensation.

Barrera walks inside his home, which he shares with three roommates, past worn-down and discarded running shoes and books about getting faster and stronger. He sits on a couch in the basement, where he stretches his right leg and loads the day’s run into the Web site’s calendar. He believes his latest addiction is healthy, and it’s enough to get him through another day.

It’s the future that offers no guarantees. He already is looking toward the next day’s square, that empty white space and the run that must fill it.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make 100 miles between now and Friday,” he says, and a moment later he corrects himself. “I mean, I will.”

More on Walter Barrera

Video: Running from addiction

Photos: A running recovery program

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