Run, Josh, run

An SN&R writer races from his addicted past

Photo By Andrew Nilsen

The California International Marathon happens on Sunday, December 7. Visit for more information.

Five in the morning is a lonely hour. The air is cold from the earth soaking up the nighttime; Loki, the gray cat, who has taken a liking to sleeping next to my face, wakes up, looks around and then buries his head back under the tufts of his paws. Even for him it’s too early to be hungry, but for some reason I get up anyway. When I lift my legs out of the bed, I’m still a bit sore from the previous day’s workout. I stretch out my arms and yawn, and something in my chest lets out a loud crack. My calves are tight, my left knee feels bruised and my thighs speak out with a dull soreness. It’s so quiet in the morning that I can hear each groan of my body’s ailments with outstanding clarity. The wooden floor creeks as I walk toward the bathroom; I imagine that I’m walking on a ship, through the galley, to the gangplank.

The hard light in the bathroom hurts my eyes; when I look into the mirror I see a man who is much older than I remember. Sharp lines, like demarcations for highways on a road map, streak across my forehead. Perhaps it’s an act of catching up with myself, or maybe it’s just plain narcissism, but every morning I’ve taken to staring at my image for one minute. But after I brush my teeth, the real ritual of the morning begins.

The drawer at the bottom of the shelf is where I keep my running gear, which is the only clothing in my closet that’s folded neatly. The socks, the shorts, the shirts all have their own place, and I unfold each piece of clothing with care, perhaps as a religious person would dust off the cover of his Bible. I put on socks first, running tights, shorts over them, a long-sleeved shirt, then my shoes, and do a few light stretches. The pre-running process is calming. It relaxes me to know that I’m going out to run; the act of exercise, the grueling challenge against the body, allows me to separate myself from what influences me; it allows me to separate what I’ve learned from who I am.

My training schedule calls for a 10-mile run. It’s a moderate distance for the middle of the week that usually takes about an hour and 15 minutes. The river by Sacramento State has a perfectly serene trail for morning runs, so I drive there from my Midtown apartment. Save for a few trucks and wary motorists probably headed for Tahoe, nobody else is on the freeway. I park along the road and walk down to the trail; it’s still dark and hard to see, but I can make out an older man walking up from the path in a heavy coat. He has a rough, reddish beard and a fishing cap. He looks cold and confused, and when he sees me he turns away quickly and stumbles up the dirt path, walking unsteadily toward the highway. He reminds me of my biological father, a schizophrenic and alcoholic who lived along the Sacramento River for a period of time. To be honest, I’d be surprised if he was still alive. The last time I saw him was in San Diego. He showed up to my house unannounced and made a camp in my backyard. That night, we got into a drunken fistfight and the police hauled him away.

I take off running down the trail. I can see my breath in front of me, and the light barely cracks through the thick brush. The air smells of heavy tree bark. Up ahead, I can see a thick layer of fog settled near the ground, and I run faster toward it.

I’m training for the December 7 California International Marathon, a 26.2-mile course beginning in Folsom and ending at the Capitol building in downtown Sacramento that I’m told is a fast and flat run. The CIM isn’t my first marathon, and because of that I learned that you have to follow a strict training schedule if you want to make it the entire 26.2 miles. My schedule seems to work for me: 5 to 7 miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays, some weight lifting on Mondays, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays about 10 miles. Fridays are a rest day, and on Sunday is the long run of about 15 to 20 miles.

My first 26.2-mile race was in the San Francisco Marathon back in August. I worked out for 18 weeks beforehand. By the time the race came, most of my toenails turned black and fell off from constantly pounding against my shoes, and I lost about 10 pounds. The rigorous training chiseled my normally chubby face into a strangely angular shape, giving it an athletic zombie kind of look. Sometimes I felt sick and couldn’t eat, followed by periods of severe gluttony where I consumed pizza and pasta at an extraordinary volume. My mood often went from ecstatic to flat-out tired. But it was the healthiest I’d felt in my life, and I successfully trained my body to run for almost four hours without stopping.

On August 3, the morning of the San Francisco Marathon, I could barely contain myself; I felt as if my entire body would explode in anticipation. My girlfriend and I stayed in a hotel the night before, where I slept for a fitful three hours. I spent most of the night tossing around the bed in a cold sweat wondering what it was going to be like to run my first marathon. I got up 30 minutes before my alarm went off, because I couldn’t take the restlessness anymore. When I got to the Embarcadero, it was shortly after 5 a.m., and there was already a crowd of runners at the start line. Apparently I had gone the wrong way, so a large fence separated me from the other entrants. A cop stood in the street telling people they had to go around, but I didn’t have time. I pretended not to hear the officer and jumped over the fence when he looked away. “Hey you!” he said. “You need to go around.” I ran into the crowd so he couldn’t catch me.

When I stood in the middle of the sea of several thousand runners I felt a tremendous surge of energy; it felt like I was in the midst of an electrical windstorm. Everyone was jittery and couldn’t stop moving. People got each other’s names, asking if they’d ever run a marathon before. I couldn’t stop smiling. My knees were trembling, in part because we were in San Francisco and the sun still wasn’t up, and also because I was incredibly nervous. And before I knew it, we were running. We ran along the wharf, past Pier 39, at a good pace. The sound of running shoes patting all around me was like nothing I’d ever heard; my mind began firing rapidly. It sounded like thousands of fingers typing on keyboards, or a flock of pigeons exploding toward the moon. I could barely contain my thoughts. The city glowed orange under the streetlights, and thousands of runners moved forward in the dark. I’d never felt so connected to the earth, my feet touching down so intently upon the road; I felt an extreme connection to the other runners as I soaked up their energy, and I’d never felt so in tune with myself as my body and mind propelled me forward.

The wind felt good against my face. When cars passed on the other side of the street, they honked and waved. The pack of runners was thick, and we kept a steady pace as we passed by Ghirardelli Square. Just past the buildings, through a thicket of trees, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge sitting on a hill in a bed of fog, like some majestic kingdom.

Tank top? Check. Typewriter? Check. Tattoos? Check.

Photo By Andrew Nilsen

It was then that I noticed that I was crying. I didn’t understand it at first, but it felt good. I didn’t wipe away the tears because I felt like they were supposed to be there. I just ran in the moment and let the tears stream down my face. I wasn’t sad at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the happiest moment of my life. The experience made me reflect heavily on my past.

On any given day five years ago, I would probably have still been up at 5 in the morning, except that I wouldn’t have been running. I would have been buzzing around the city of Sacramento, high on methamphetamine or wandering the streets trying to find a bottle of whiskey. I had pretty much cut my family off at that point, talking to my parents every so often but rarely visiting. I called them when I needed something. It was a different life, maybe even the opposite life. It was unhealthy, and I was sicker than I realized.

I looked up at the steep incline heading toward the Golden Gate Bridge, about to run a full 26.2 miles. My parents and my girlfriend would be waiting for me at the finish line, and there just wasn’t any way to keep the tears in.

For 11 years after high school in Davis, I had no idea what I was doing. While my friends went off to college, I took off to New York City. I worked as a busboy, then I worked whatever job I could get just to support my lifestyle of buying drugs, getting alcohol and partying. A couple years later I came back to Sacramento and lived with Mike, a musician who was a terrible heroin addict. We occupied a practice space for bands in Oak Park on Stockton Boulevard. Groups would come to rehearse in the evening and not leave until late at night. Sometimes I’d sleep in my car just to escape the noise.

Whenever he wasn’t in prison, our friend Lou, a tweaker, would come over with a huge bag of meth. Lou and I would smoke the dope while my roommate and his friends shot up in the kitchen. I remember one night sitting on the couch, waiting for the glass pipe to come around, watching my roommate and his friends standing around with rolled-up sleeves and rubber cords around their arms. I couldn’t imagine sticking myself with a needle. “Pshht,” I thought. “That’s pathetic.” The pipe came to me and I took a big hit of smoke; I watched the perfectly white cloud dissipate into the air. The high of crystal meth was like nothing I could imagine. I felt energized, talkative, introspective, sexual and strong.

I wrote and read a lot back then. Often times when I was high, I’d get a handle of rum and sit on my bed scratching out poems. Sometimes I’d send the poems—drug-crazed, self-obsessed and incoherent—to literary journals or poetry magazines, and nobody would take them. “Dear Mr. Fernandez, Thank you for your recent submission. We regret to inform you—” At that point, I’d throw the letter in the trash. “Fuck literature,” I’d think, then drink the rest of the day away.

One day, I walked out of my room and Mike was on the couch, tucked under a sleeping bag staring up at the ceiling.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Sick,” he said.

In the background, Maya Angelou was on the television. She was on the Oprah show, talking about how life always gets better. It made me extremely angry and bitter. I walked into the bathroom to take a shower, and the sick cat was in there breathing irregularly. I didn’t even know his name. He was missing fur in spots and he always had a thick cake of yellow crud covering one eye. The other eye was missing. Just looking at him made me physically ill. There were 4 inches of black water in the shower with bits of iridescent goo that floated to the top. Instead of showering, I just waited for Lou to arrive with the drugs. He never showed up, so I spent a good hour searching the carpet for shards of crystal meth that might have dropped. All I got were clipped toenails. It was a very typical day for me. I was out of drugs, booze and money, so I locked myself in my room and wrote a poem that I called “After Watching Maya Angelou on The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The writing was characteristic of everything I’d written at the time—angry, desperate and full of hatred. It began like this: “Here’s a fucking poem: / Mikey is on the couch / dopesick / and the shower is ankle deep / with piss / and tar sludge. / Everything on the carpet / looks like The Last Shard, / especially the toenails, / so I bite into each one, / hoping to taste / the bitter chemical of love.”

The bleak poem continued on in that vein and ended, finally: “I’m sleeping in a car tonight, / and tomorrow night. / I don’t want to hear / another migraine sun drop / to a mucus covered moon / fiending and coughing. / And it’s not going to get better. / Ever. / Got it?”

You’d look weird, too: At the finish line of the San Francisco Marathon.

Courtesy Of marathonfoto

I sent the poem out to a small literary magazine in Boston and got a surprisingly fast reply back: “Dear Mr. Fernandez, Thank you for your recent submissions. We regret—”

It was the story of my life.

Still, I felt like being high made me more creative. Being hungover made me feel insane, which was good for writing, I thought. A lot of my favorite writers were insane: Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Fante, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Charles Bukowski, etc. I wasn’t a good writer, but maybe I just wasn’t getting high enough, I thought.

One day, in the fall of 2000, my girlfriend at the time told me that I was a mess. I cheated on her, lied to her, got physically violent with her and stole her money. She took me in her car to Sacramento City College and dumped me off there and left for San Francisco. Because I had nothing else to do, I started taking classes: biology, statistics, history, whatever they offered, I took and enjoyed them all pretty well. School kept me out of my disgusting apartment in Oak Park, away from that decaying cat. I took a full load of classes and at night, I’d go home while bands were rehearsing in the living room. I’d wait for Lou, smoke some speed, go to a parking lot, study until 4 or 5 a.m., then go to class the next day. It was a bleak way to enter academia, but it worked. The strange pattern gave me enough credits to transfer to UC Davis.

By the time I transferred, I was a full-blown alcoholic. I put whiskey in my coffee in the morning and went to most of my classes drunk. Once, in a poetry workshop, another student told me my poem was shit. Drunk, I leapt up and ran at him with the intent of killing him. Luckily, the fight was broken up. I made it through UC Davis with dean’s honors. The week I graduated, I took a flight to South Korea to teach English and drink myself to death.

Of course, I didn’t die, but I drank more than I ever had in my life there. Every night I’d go to the bar with my Australian friend and black out, sometimes ending up alone in some desolate part of South Korea. I’d take a cab back to class smelling like cigarettes and soju.

When I came back to America seven months later, my alcoholism was so bad that my whole body shook without booze in it. I stayed with my mom and my stepfather in Davis, where I’d drink all day and night. Finally I got a job in Carson City, Nev., writing for a motorcycle magazine. I had never even touched a motorcycle. I was scared of them, but I was writing about motorcycles as if I had been around them my whole life. I kept a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in my office. And then I’d go back to my apartment and drink until I could no longer stand.

One night after a particularly long day, I drank a bottle of vodka and cut my arm open with a razor. I called the police and they took me to the hospital. The next morning, I woke up in a mental institution in Reno. In the activity room, a gray, brick wall was painted to resemble a sky. There were large, white clouds in the sky, and there was also a painting of a gigantic sun. “Do they think I’m crazy enough that this shitty painting will trick me into being happy?” I asked myself. It was the first realization that my life might be headed in the wrong direction.

After less than a year in Nevada, I returned to my parents with my head hung low.

I decided to clean up my life, not because of some divine intervention; I don’t even think I was at the famed “rock bottom”; I was simply tired: tired of being poor, tired of lying to everyone, tired of owing money, tired of pawning all my belongings for drugs, tired of going to jail, tired of fighting in the streets, tired of stealing, tired of getting fired, tired of dealing with people who were just as manipulative as me. I moved back in with my parents and started going to 12-step programs. The programs were all the same; they were full of people who admitted their powerlessness over the drug; they had all given everything they had to a higher power. I remember the first meeting I attended was a group dedicated to young people. It was held at a church.

“This is not about religion,” said the discussion leader, a rosy-cheeked blond girl who couldn’t have been more than 20. As she spoke, I couldn’t help but notice the gigantic gold crucifix behind her. I was pretty sure that Alcoholics Anonymous was too depressing for me.

A writing exercise before the upcoming California International Marathon.

Photo By Andrew Nilsen

I needed to keep my body on edge. I needed drugs and alcohol because they punished my body but at the same time made it feel strong and full of life. My friends in the 12-step programs were the same as me. They talked about it at every meeting, documenting their every love affair with narcotics in great detail. But sitting around with a bunch of other burnouts wasn’t my answer. I needed to replace that dangerous chemical feeling with something equally as dangerous.

After a few months of floundering around AA meetings, my friend Joe, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten in Boston, told me he was moving out to San Diego. He began running in college, and since then he’d competed in several marathons and triathlons. I’ve always admired him. He never used drugs or drank much alcohol but has managed to be one of the happiest and most successful people I’ve ever known. When I was out in the streets, I missed Joe dearly.

It was in a moment of pure desperation when I decided to start running. I was educated, but unmotivated to do anything but ingest alcohol and drugs. I was unemployable. I hated authority figures, and worse, I hated myself and everything that had to do with me, including the people I loved. I was decrepit: My skin turned a yellowish white and my brain sizzled with anger. My mom told me I looked sick. My suicidal thoughts were uncontrollable and I wanted to die. I was becoming an expatriate of my own self, and I was worse off than the disgusting cat I hated in my Oak Park apartment. So I didn’t start running to be like my friend Joe, but I started just to get a taste of what he had. I wanted to experience joy without the effects of drugs. I wanted to be happy and creative without having to rely on chemicals. After all, how could I claim a piece of poetry as my own if it was the splendor of drugs that created it?

I started running on a treadmill. I smoked cigarettes, so I could only go for about two minutes at a time. When I ran, I felt a layer of fat jiggling up and down and it was a very unpleasant experience at first. I joined the YMCA so I could get in shape, and each week I’d increase my time by a few minutes. Soon I was running for 15 minutes. Then I increased it to 20, then to 45, and so on.

Pretty soon I’d stopped going to AA meetings altogether. Instead, I went to the gym. I quit smoking, and even though I thought about it every day, I didn’t drink.

I started running longer distances. The feeling I got during a long run made me incredibly high. When you get accustomed to running long distances, your breathing becomes different as your body exerts the energy it takes to maintain your stride; your mind is focused but free to wander. It’s a euphoric feeling that lasts as long as you’re running. When you stop, there’s a feeling of accomplishment, followed by a strength and confidence that’s unmatched. And when you’re at home that night eating dinner, you begin to crave another run. Sometimes it takes all your sensibility not to skip dessert and slip out into the night for a run along the river.

I can’t escape my addictions. Even in the midst of the San Francisco Marathon, a prankster, dressed up as a devil, offers runners glasses of cold beer instead of water. I take the water, but seriously consider the beer. I’m on mile 16 and feeling surprisingly good. I don’t ache, my breathing is still regular and I feel like I might be able to make the 10.2 miles that remain. I’m not a great runner. I’m simply running because I enjoy it; it makes me feel good to be spending my day on the road. We’ve already gone over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Outer Richmond, up the winding trails of Golden Gate Park.

In Golden Gate Park, Joe’s wife Keely is there to take pictures and ride on her bike along the course to cheer me on. She follows me through Haight-Ashbury and waves goodbye as I run through mile 19. By the 20th mile, I’m starting to feel the wrath of the road. My legs, I realize, are more tired than they have ever been for the entirety of my life. I don’t quite understand how just 10 minutes prior, I was smiling and feeling fine. I manage to run 2 more miles and realize that I’ve hit the dreaded “wall” that you so often hear about in marathon stories. It seems like every incline is 90 degrees. Every pebble in the road is my enemy. Each crack in the ground was put there to trip me. People on the streets cheer and I want them to stop. “Nice tattoos,” a lady on the sidewalk says as she waves and gives me the thumbs-up sign. “Fuck you!” I want to yell, but I’m too tired and I want to die. I pass through the Mission and look around at some of the other runners. They all look as bad or worse than I do, which gives me some hope. It’s torture, but I run farther, maybe just to see if I will actually die. The thought of me splayed out on the street, dead from running, makes me giggle. But the joy doesn’t last long.

Though somehow I don’t stop. On mile 25, we’re by the ballpark. I can feel vomit gurgling up in my stomach, and my legs feel like they’re no longer in charge. If I was a religious man I would say that God was powering them, but I’m not a religious man at all, so I think it was just pure stubbornness. I can see the Bay Bridge. Just a little bit farther and I will have completed my first marathon. When I see the finish line I run as fast as I can, which at that point is comically slow. My mom, stepdad and girlfriend are there cheering by the sideline.

I cross the finish line and look at my time: 3 hours, 44 minutes and 40 seconds. I take a medal, grab a banana and sit on the ground, feeling at once exhausted, excited, proud, energized, whole, fearless, strong, worthy and extremely high.

It’s been almost three years since I’ve touched alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. I’ve replaced them with running. When I am stressed out, I run. When I am happy, I run. When I dwell on what my life used to be, I run. But it would be incredibly naive to believe that my past can be simply erased just because I want it to be. Even after serious efforts to right the severe wrongs I have done, my past always has a way of manifesting itself in one form or another: a debt collector, an ex-girlfriend, an old forgotten lie, a warrant for my arrest.

Most nights I still dream about smoking meth or drinking. I have this recurring dream where I go into a neighborhood that’s like a war zone—groups of thugs wander around, picking fights with everyone—so I hide behind trees until I find the apartment I want. It’s upstairs and the door is broken. When I knock, a man with a shaved head and goatee peeps through a crack in the door. He opens up at the sight of me and produces a plastic bag full of narcotics: Ecstasy, crack, cocaine and meth. The guy hands me the drugs, and I run to the park to do them as fast as I can. Only in my dream I can’t actually feel the high. I always wake up with a feeling of extreme disappointment.

Not a day goes by when I wouldn’t rather be drinking or doing drugs. I love them like they were my own family. Drugs are more fun than running; they are instantaneous. It’s not easy for me to fight the boredom of life. From birth, I was plagued with restlessness and a desire to feel more than I normally do. These are my demons. Sometimes I think they’re following me for some kind of karmic retribution for all the people I’ve hurt with my selfishness. And sometimes I think that my past is following me, nipping at my back, simply to get me moving, to keep me on the run.