Benn Veenker went from drug and alcohol addict to marathoner in two years and he credits running with turning his life around.
Three years ago, I was living my life like it was Groundhog Day. I’d been a daily drinker and drug user for a decade, and my life seemed like an endless cycle of wake, groan, drink, drug, pass out. I had never felt so alone.
You might be surprised to hear that I grew up in a stable home with hard-working, loving parents and three supportive siblings. But for some reason, I always felt a little bit different and out of place. I was a shy and quiet kid who was terrified to let anyone know what I really felt like on the inside – inadequate and insecure.
The only place I fit in and felt relaxed was on the sports field. My parents had introduced my siblings and me to a wide variety of team sports and we were all strong competitors in school track-and-field events. In the sports arena, all my awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy disappeared. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play sport all day and night.
That’s when alcohol came into the equation. I vividly remember the first time I got drunk – I was 13 and I loved it. Alcohol instantly gave me the voice and confidence I had yearned for when I was younger. Most of my teenage years were spent with my two loves: sport during the day and alcohol at night.
By the time I was 33, my life had become very dark and small. Alcohol and drugs were my prized possessions and yet they weren’t giving me the confidence they once had. Instead, as each day passed, I felt worse and worse about myself. Suicidal thoughts plagued me and many mornings I woke thinking, “Oh no, not another day.” I was in the grasp of full-blown addiction, but I was in total denial. I thought I just had a small drinking problem and that I could stop if I wanted to. But the thought of life without alcohol scared me immensely.
One day in August 2012, something shifted inside me – I couldn’t live my Groundhog Day one more time. I reached out to my family for help, and shortly after that I found myself in a drug and alcohol rehab facility where I spent the next 28 days. This was a true turning point in my life. It was there that I learnt I was suffering from alcohol and drug addiction – a powerful, cunning and baffling illness I would need help recovering from.
Through the wonderful staff at Malvern Private Hospital in Melbourne, I learnt how to live with this disease one day at a time. Recovery would be slow, but the moment I realised that I was going to recover was one of the best days of my life. For the first time in 10 years, I could see a life in front of me that was far bigger and brighter than the small, dark world in which I’d found myself for so long. I’ll forever be grateful to my family and the Malvern staff for starting off my journey of recovery.
Before leaving rehab, I had to develop a discharge plan that included a set of short and long-term goals. My counsellor encouraged me to dream big, so I did. In my long-term goals, I wrote, “I’m going to run a marathon.” Marathon runners have intrigued me ever since I was a child staring at a framed picture of [world champion marathon runner] Robert de Castella in my dad’s study. It was a shot of him during his run to gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games – he was mid-stride and looking impressive. To this day, that picture still hangs in my dad’s study.
I always knew that exercise, and running in particular, was going to be part of my recovery because I feel good when I exercise. So after rehab, I started on the path towards my marathon goal, which seemed so far away. After years of abuse, my body wasn’t in good shape and needed time to heal. I started slowly, running 4 or 5K at a time. I gradually increased my distance and fitness through training runs and fun runs, progressing from a 10K event to a half-marathon. After completing the half, I was utterly exhausted. I remember thinking, “There’s no way I’ve got another 21K left in these legs!” But it wasn’t long before I felt the familiar pull towards the pavement and was back out training harder than ever.
Shortly after the half-marathon, I suffered a serious back injury. A specialist explained that a disc in my lower spine was so damaged that it would need surgical removal and I would never run again. I was shattered. Running had become part of my identity and it was a vital part of my recovery from addiction. It suddenly appeared that my marathon goal might be out of my reach – something I didn’t want to believe.
I sought a second opinion and then many more. I tried physiotherapists, chiropractors and massage therapists with little to no relief, and then a friend recommended an acupuncturist. I was sceptical, but the pain had become unbearable and I decided I had nothing left to lose. I went in expecting nothing, but the next day the pain was halved. After a few more visits the pain had gone entirely, and not long after that I was tentatively hitting the pavement.
It felt amazing to be running again, but I’d lost a lot of fitness in the six months I hadn’t been able to run. It was tough work at first, so I started slowly again and set myself new short-term goals. After two more half-marathons and many more hours of training runs, I found myself registering for the 2014 Melbourne Marathon. To say I was excited would be an understatement – the “dream big” goal I’d set two years earlier was finally within my reach. In one of my last long training runs, I pictured myself crossing the finish line with my partner and family cheering me on. This vision nearly had me in tears, so I knew the actual day was going to be an emotional one.
On the morning of the marathon in October 2014, I was full of nervous energy. While I was eating breakfast, my partner came out wearing a bright orange T-shirt with my face and name on it. I laughed despite my nerves. Unbeknownst to me, she’d also sent orange posters to my entire family.
As I stood at the start line, I kept wondering, “Have I done enough? Will I make it?” And then the gun sounded and we were off. At around the 9K mark, I saw the first of many bright orange posters and soon realised it was my parents cheering me on. There were tears in their eyes – I knew they were proud of me and I couldn’t have been happier to share that moment with them.
Throughout the race, I kept seeing those orange posters being held high by some of my biggest supporters. They put an extra spring in my step every time, none more so than at the 36K mark when I saw my partner for the last time before the finish. She was wearing her T-shirt and holding a poster too. As I ran past her, she said, “Keep going, you’re nearly there.” That encouragement was just what I needed – I was struggling and it felt like my legs were about to quit.
At the 38K mark, my legs did just that. My hamstrings cramped and stopped me in my tracks – I was in agony. That had never happened to me before and I was terrified it would end my race. After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to straighten up and start running. I could feel tightness in my hamstrings, but I was desperate and chanting in my mind, “Please don’t cramp, please don’t cramp.”
I finally made it to the last turn where hundreds of people lined the street to the finish line. I found new energy when I saw those orange posters again – my parents, my partner, my sister and her husband, my sister in-law, and four of my nieces and nephews were all cheering me along. I raised both arms as I saw them. I had made the 42.2K journey that had started over two years ago – and I’d done it in 3:26:45.
After I collected my medal, I saw my partner amongst the masses. When we embraced, the floodgates of the past two years opened and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stop crying. I was utterly exhausted but ecstatic. And as I made my way towards my family, the tears started again. I had gone from a hopeless addict to a marathon runner.
A few months later, I found myself looking at my own mid-stride marathon picture and I realised that it was time for me to set a new goal that would push me to my limits again. Nothing that’s worthwhile is quick or easy, and I’ve certainly understood that through my recovery and marathon training. So I’ve set myself a long-term goal to run a marathon in every state and territory of Australia. I ran the Barossa Marathon in South Australia in May 2015 and there are plenty more to come. I’m so excited about this next chapter in my life.