A Recovering Alcoholic’s Journey to the New York City Marathon

Carley Houser hopes to bring more awareness to homelessness and addiction by running this year's NYC Marathon for the first time and representing the nonprofit Back On My Feet. Photo: Courtesy of Mizuno

If you told Carley Houser five years ago that she would be lining up with 50,000 other runners at the start line of the 2015 New York City Marathon to raise money for a charity, she wouldn’t have believed you. That’s because Carley Houser of five years ago is not the same Carley Houser of today. Running became her life-saving catalyst for change.

Five years ago, the native of Orange County, Calif., moved to the Big Apple to follow a long-distance relationship that did not pan out as planned. Houser, then 24, continued to situate her new life in the city, but the adjustment was not an easy transition.

Having been predisposed to alcoholism and addiction throughout her life, Houser’s drinking became noticeably more problematic after she moved.

“I hated my life,” Houser says of her dark days. “I was just existing, I wasn’t living a life. I was doing the same thing everyday and had no self-care whatsoever. It got to a point where things got really scary. Things that used to be funny—like falling down—were not so funny anymore.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2012, Houser woke up in an unknown place with blood covering her face. “That was the morning I woke up and I couldn’t recognize myself anymore in the mirror,” she recalls. “That’s when I decided I needed help—this was a life I couldn’t see myself living, otherwise it was going to kill me if I didn’t get help.”

Since that morning Houser has been three years sober thanks to a successful recovery program and later, an inexplicable, newfound love for running.

It wasn’t until January of 2014 though, that Houser actually started running. She had woken up the day after her birthday, sober but still unhappy with her life. Then she randomly Googled, “how do I become a runner,” which motivated her to join a gym and buy workout clothes for the first time.

“I wrote down this little cheat sheet that I took to the gym and basically started off running one minute, walking one minute and repeating that five times,” she says. “I still remember running that one minute and thinking it was the longest one minute of my life and I could not imagine running any more than that.”

Houser, now 29 and a manager/bartender at Mudville Restaurant & Taphouse, says she’s not entirely sure why she chose running. All she knows is that it’s working. She went from running on and off a minute to moving her runs outdoors and completing 3 miles along the Hudson River to finishing her first NYRR 4-mile race in Central Park that spring. Even her job as a bartender doesn’t pose a risk for relapse because of her confidence in the powers of running and how “spiritually fit” she says it makes her feel.

“Running not only helped me stay sober, it clears my mind mentally,” she says. “And that ties into my sobriety because when I’m out there running, whether it’s a good or bad run, if I set my mind to it then I can do it. If I can stay sober, I can run a marathon.”

And that’s exactly what Houser set out to do: Run 26.2 miles for the first time.

The idea came to her after going on several runs with Back On My Feet, a nonprofit that motivates people experiencing homelessness to get their lives back on track through running. The run group and their various but similar stories inspired Houser so much that she called up executive director Terence Gerchberg about running this year’s New York City Marathon for Back On My Feet.

So far, Houser has raised $3,000 according to her fundraiser page on the New York Road Runners website.

Although the fundraising part of her marathon endeavors has been relatively painless, the same cannot be said for her training. Initially, Houser started her 16-week training program in July. After four weeks of solid runs, she injured her right hip flexor and took a four-week break. She had to start over, cutting her training down to 8 weeks left before race day.

“Now I have zero pain and that’s all a part of running, the recovery part of it,” says Houser, who has run seven half marathons since she started running almost two years ago. “To go from running five to six days a week to nothing was really scary. But I cross-trained, did yoga, lifted weights, swam, I tried to do other things besides running.”

With less than a week remaining until race day on Nov. 1, Houser says she’d be happy with running anywhere between a 4:15 and 4:30. But she prefers to not put too much pressure on herself and simply enjoy the course.

Houser will not only be running for Back On My Feet, but she will also be one of five New York City residents with inspiring running stories to represent Mizuno’s Team Inspire. She says she’ll be wearing a Mizuno tech shirt with Back On My Feet printed on the back and her full name on the front so people can cheer her on.

“If you would have asked me four years ago where my life would be, this is not where I thought it would be,” Houser says. “To be a part of Back On My Feet, to help other people just like me, to run a marathon, to run the NYC Marathon—I can’t even say it’s a dream come true because I never knew it was going to be a dream I was going to have. “

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