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Running for your Life

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.

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.


Barrera’s weekly workouts

In the past 15 full weeks, Walter Barrera has averaged 73.1 miles per week. His longest was March 3 through 9, when he ran 126.98 miles. Since February 4 (through May 21), Barrera has run:

1,151.8 miles in 191 hours 45 minutes

“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.

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