Racing for Recovery
Todd Crandell is considered one of the most elite endurance athletes in the world. But to the Racing for Recovery community in northwest Ohio, he’s proof that with sobriety, anything is possible.
For a long time, if there was one word that described Todd Crandell, it was “extreme.” The first time he drank, he had a few sips of cheap beer. The second time, he chugged a fifth of Jack Daniels — and chased it with two hits of speed.
By the time he was arrested for a third DUI, he was extremely angry: angry that his mother had killed herself when he was 3, angry that he had been kicked off his hockey team and out of high school, and angry about the things he had done while he was getting drunk and high. This time, instead of turning the anger toward himself, he turned it toward the alcohol and drugs and his inability to deal with them.
“At about noon on April 15, 1993, I drained my glass of beer and declared, ‘I don’t want this anymore. I am done,’” Crandell recalls. “I knew at that moment I had taken my last drink.”
As with everything else in Crandell’s life, he jumped into sobriety with both feet, from attending meetings and support groups to completing a work release program and re-enrolling in college courses at the University of Toledo.
“Because I was so wedded to a program of self-improvement, in every aspect of my life, college was a godsend, a key part in striving to become a ‘normal’ person,” Crandell says. “This is what sober people do. This is what people who don’t have a 13-year history of addiction do, I thought. They go to school, they work and they get a job.”
But Crandell isn’t exactly “normal.” Because after watching a broadcast of the Hawaii Ironman triathlon — which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run (“Exercise excess on a scale an addict could truly appreciate,” he says.) — he signed up for one. And then another. And another. And another.
When the Toledo (Ohio) Blade published a profile of Crandell on the front page of the sports section, he began to think about how he could not only use these Ironman triathlons to feel good about himself but also to help people who had been in his shoes.
In 2001, Crandell founded Racing for Recovery, a nonprofit that provides positive alternatives for those battling addictions by encouraging a lifestyle of fitness and health. He quit his white-collar job and went back to school to become a licensed professional clinical counselor and licensed independent chemical dependency counselor. Crandell’s singular goal became to save lives and improve the quality of life for addicts and their friends and family.
It wasn’t long before training for an Ironman every day and providing hope to others became Crandell’s new addiction.
By 2006, Crandell had done about 16 endurance races, including several Ironmans, and was training compulsively. His commitment to Racing for Recovery’s mission was just as all-consuming, often at the expense of his wife and four children. From nearly missing the birth of one of his kids to ending up in the ER due to stress and exhaustion, Crandell’s life was out of balance — and he knew it.
“I was insanely into Ironman and endurance sports and into showing everyone that it was a fantastic tool for overcoming addiction and moving on to a healthy lifestyle,” Crandell says. “But I was exchanging one compulsion for another — the addict’s high for the runner’s high. It was the same with Racing for Recovery. I had found my life’s purpose, and I pursued it with the same tenacity that I pursued my drug addiction.”
Crandell took a step back and thought about what he had learned in his clinical training. He did the work to face the emotional pain from his past and gradually brought his life more into holistic balance. He follows the 10 Lifestyles of Recovery he developed for Racing for Recovery:
- Recognize that substance abuse ruins lives.
- Pursue positive alternatives to substance abuse, such as education, employment, quality relationships, and health and fitness.
- Rely on friends, family, teachers and peers to achieve and remain sober. Add sports, art or music to these resources to help stay focused and motivated.
- Define balance, and work toward making it a part of everyday life.
- Build self-esteem and confidence through sobriety to combat negative feelings about yourself.
- Understand that negative behaviors and isolation and self-pity lead to self-destruction.
- Be there for yourself and be patient with your friends and family.
- Learn how to help without supporting the addict’s behavior. Provide assistance to the recovering individual that will improve their lives, not aid their usage.
- Recognize personal challenges and integrate them into your lifestyle as challenges to triumph over.
- Care for your personal, emotional, physical and spiritual individuality. It is the source of your sense of self-worth. You are truly magnificent.
“Today, I’m balanced,” Crandell says. “If it comes down to me going for a bike ride or going to my kids’ sporting events, I’m going to my kids’ events. If you are in emotional and mental balance and have the awareness and tools to handle life’s ups and downs, then you can throw yourself into something like triathlons or music or your career, and it won’t become a replacement addiction.”
Helping Others Heal
Adam Forkapa grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, a small suburb of Toledo. In northwest Ohio, where the closest major city is Detroit, there is a robust ice hockey scene, and like Crandell, Forkapa grew up with a hockey stick in his hand and dreams of playing in the NHL. But also like Crandell, he struggled with fitting in. “There were a lot of feelings of inadequacy,” Forkapa says. “I was trying to fill that void with something, and prescription pills did it.”
Forkapa’s drug use slowly progressed into a full-blown addiction. He dropped out of college after his junior year. “I was in a really dark place in my life,” he says. “For years I knew I had a problem. I knew that I wanted to quit. Every day I woke up, every time I looked in the mirror, I hated the person I saw. I was really at war with myself for the longest time.”
It took getting arrested and sitting in county jail for Forkapa to seek the help he needed — and he knew just who to call. Forkapa had followed Crandell’s professional hockey career in the East Coast Hockey League and watched a piece ESPN produced on Crandell’s transformation from addict to inspiration.
When he stepped into Crandell’s office, he knew he was in the right place. Through one-on-one and group counseling sessions, weekly support group meetings, and a weekly run with the Racing for Recovery crew, Forkapa found a family. “It’s a group of people who I feel like I’ve been missing my whole life,” he says.
He also discovered there is more to life than just not using. “I wanted to put down the drugs and alcohol, but then what?” Forkapa recalls wondering. “Being involved with Racing for Recovery has given me a better perspective. There’s more to it. You can live a sober life and a happy life.”
In June 2017, Forkapa and Crandell competed in a half-Ironman in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in August, they raced in a half-Ironman in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Despite the hills and the heat, Forkapa says the experiences were empowering. “I get more in tune with myself,” he says. “I focus on my surroundings and what’s going on in my life. I work on things in my head and slowly let them go. It’s pretty freeing.”
Today, the 28-year-old is back at the University of Toledo finishing up his degree in physical therapy.
But not everyone in Racing for Recovery competes in Ironmans.
Matt Boston grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, and abused alcohol his whole life. He owned a technology consulting company but hated it. Every time he did something social, he always had to have a buzz. “I was never myself,” the 44-year-old says.
Boston knew about Crandell and had watched a documentary film about him, Running with Demons. He even reached out to Crandell a few times but always ended up blowing him off. Then for some reason, Boston followed through in December 2012.
“When I went and talked to Todd, that was the first time I had ever opened up to anyone about anything,” Boston says. “I went for a run after my first counseling session. The next day, I went to my first Racing for Recovery meeting. I haven’t had a drink since.”
When he met the people at Racing for Recovery support group meetings, he realized he could have fun without alcohol. “Now, I’m truly who I am 100 percent of the time,” Boston says. “I wouldn’t have found that if I didn’t go to those meetings and have dinner with them afterward.”
Although Boston has run marathons, his daily running routine is a bigger part of maintaining his sobriety. “It’s like an antidepressant. It gives me a sense of power. It makes me feel good mentally as well as physically. Every time I run, I’m glad I did it,” he says. “I never said that once after drinking. The way I feel now — it blows away anything that alcohol or drugs ever did for me.”
Through his experiences with Racing for Recovery, he was inspired to make a career change. Today, Boston is a certified chemical dependency counselor assistant and offers group therapy, individual counseling and assessments at a substance abuse clinic.
But not everyone in Racing for Recovery even runs.
One of the differences between a Racing for Recovery support group meeting and others is that Crandell invites both people with addiction and their loved ones to come talk about and share the challenges they face. Lisa Evans, a mother of three from Bowling Green, Ohio, started attending Racing for Recovery meetings four years ago. It was through sitting in the same room with those in addiction that she learned she was enabling her son.
“One night someone said, ‘It didn’t help when my mom would pay my bills. I knew as soon as things got bad, I had a house or food,’” Evans recalls. “Another guy said, ‘When I actually looked around and didn’t see anybody helping me, that’s when I sought help.’ I thought, there it is! So, when I was paying for things for him and sweeping things under the rug, I was being detrimental to him getting better? I thought I was helping. It opened my eyes. That’s when I stopped enabling. That’s when I learned to say no. And that’s when I started getting stronger.”
Promoting Fitness and Health
Addiction is a great equalizer. At a Racing for Recovery weekly support group meeting, there could be a high school dropout with a nose ring and tattoos sitting next to an accountant in a suit and tie.
Running is a great equalizer, too. During a Racing for Recovery 5K/10K run/walk event, the road doesn’t recognize titles and salaries. Each participant has to sweat for every step they take.
Since 2001, Racing for Recovery has touched more than 55,000 lives through its programming and sponsored eight triathlons; 11 5K/10K run/walk events in Sylvania; and 4K run/walks in Alabama, California and New York.
To promote the mission of Racing for Recovery and bring awareness to the battle against drug and alcohol addiction, Crandell has competed in more than 28 Ironmans and countless other half-Ironmans, triathlons and half-marathons and written two books, From Addict to Ironman and There’s More Than One Way to Get to Cleveland.
Today, if there is one word that describes Crandell, it’s “balanced.”
“With sobriety, anything is possible,” he says.