Rebecca Kelly used to run from her problems. Now, she runs in an effort to solve them. Kelly took her first drink at 14, soon entering the first of what would be many rehabilitation stints. She's been forced to live on the streets, once got kicked in the face by a male attacker, been completely broke more times than she cares to remember.This never would have occurred to me. I ran cross-country for a couple of years in high school, and the first month or so of getting into shape for it was utterly miserable hell. But once I got to the point where I could just run and run and run for miles without difficulty, I began to really enjoy it, especially just running aimlessly through the woods with my teammates; and the end of a race, when I could use my "kick" to blow past people (other than this, I pretty much sucked). I also really enjoyed the one cross-country meet we had in the snow, where I learned to use ice slicks to my advantage.
Now, the 31-year-old is part of a most unusual athletic club called The Home Team, a group of homeless people trying to turn their lives around through running. Three of their members finished 13.1 miles Sunday morning at the Marathon of the Palm Beaches in downtown West Palm Beach.
"It felt better. Absolutely better than I thought it would feel," Kelly said. "It wasn't even the moment crossing the line. It was just knowing that I was going to finish when I got to 10, 11 miles, knowing 'Hey, I trained for this. I deserve to feel good.' It was better than any drug I've ever done."
That's kind of the idea.
The concept -- taking people who are living in shelters and showing them how the discipline needed to become a marathon runner can apply to their regular lives -- is an unusual one. The Home Team's members all have jobs and are in rehab programs, vowing to stay clean and trying to get on their feet.
Each runner was approached a few months ago and asked if they wanted to begin training. Most immediately said yes.
"They had some Hawaiian Tropic girls at one of the water stations. I wasn't feeling any pain going to touch her hand," said Doug Scheer, 35, who's struggled with addictions to alcohol and painkillers and now lives in a tiny room at a shelter. "This is the most fun I've ever had."
Sponsors donated running attire and shoes to the team members, who often rose at 5 a.m. on Sundays for long training runs.
Johnathan Czerwinski, 26, doesn't hide that he hated those early wake-up calls.
He also doesn't hide the scars on both wrists, evidence of past failed suicide attempts that he was driven to because he couldn't shake his drug craving.
"Being part of this, I've got goals now," said Czerwinski, whose girlfriend gave birth to their first son three weeks ago. "I want to get a car. I want to get an apartment. This has taught me that everything comes step by step, not all at once. It's all a process."
Czerwinski finished 802nd in the men's half-marathon, crossing the line in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 58 seconds.
"He's changed now," said his girlfriend, Caitlin Aleskovsky, 20. "He has a sense of direction -- the right direction, for once."
Some couldn't finish. But none of The Home Team's three half-marathon entrants dropped out, drawing high praise from some of the elite runners in the field.
"It's phenomenal," said Bea Marie Altieri of Clermont, Fla., who was third in the women's half-marathon, 722 spots ahead of Kelly. "Running has the endorphins, that natural high. So for people who are a little down on their luck or have an addiction like alcohol or drugs or whatever, running is a perfect fit because it gives them a real goal."
It didn't exactly instill any kind of values or discipline in me that I use in my day-to-day life (perhaps this is why I sucked), but then, I wasn't waking up at 5AM to train for a marathon, or even a half-marathon. Our races were usually 3 or 4 miles, and most of our practice runs were in that same general range, with one 10-mile run each year.
But hey: Whatever works. If running can instill discipline and purpose in people who are struggling, then I'm all for it. I'm also reminded of this fascinating story about a mysterious sixty-something homeless man who also happens to be a phenomenal softball player.