Tom Fitzsimons talks to Kenwood Travel about ultra marathon running and raising awareness about alcoholism.
Someone out there is about to cross the whole of the USA on foot. That someone is Tom Fitzsimons, a recovering alcoholic who six years ago swapped the bottle for a pair of trainers and committed himself to change attitudes towards addiction.
Tom’s challenge, Run4Sobriety, is to cover the approximately 3000 miles that separate San Francisco from New York in a period of 100 days, and the date he will start this epic run is May 20.
Between long distance runs and carb-loading sessions, Fitzsimons has had a moment to talk to Kenwood Travel. And if there is an obvious question to ask him it is why? Why anyone would volunteer to run this insane distance. “I just want to show people how much you can do, from being a drunk to being an honourable member of society,” he says.
“You don’t have to run across America but you can have your three days off the drink. And that’s all I want to do, I just want to promote sobriety to people.”
The hardest walk
Promoting sobriety and raising awareness about alcoholism has been Tom’s mission for a while – in 2010 he began speaking in schools, sport clubs and businesses to share his story. The story of a man whose battle with alcohol began at the age of 13 and made him waste a big deal of the following 20 years. At his worst, the former construction manager would drink around 25 pints and ten whiskies a day. He also secretly spent £20,000 on booze from the family savings.
Now that his lifestyle revolves around isotonic drinks instead of lager and malt, his repertoire of anecdotes is even richer. How do people respond to his talks? “I get a really good response,” Tom assures us. “They also like the fact I am open and honest [about addiction] and that allows them to be open and honest.”
One might argue that there are already campaigns that tackle the problem. The difference between those campaigns and Tom’s, according to the runner, is that “very few of these people talk about the reality of getting involved in fights, drink-driving or domestic violence.”
Understandably, this reality, as he puts it, can be as revealing as it is upsetting: “We have some children who burst out crying because that’s actually happening in their home and for the first time in their lives someone is talking about that openly, and that allows them to come out for help.”
As we see with Run4Sobriety, Fitzsimons complements his talks about the real consequences of alcohol abuse with spectacular sporting challenges. With this he reverses the normalised relationship between mainstream sports and alcohol. A situation that he explains with an everyday example: “If I take my child to play rugby, at the end of the game everyone goes to the pub. They don’t go to have a glass of Coke.”
On the other hand, Tom’s extreme approach to sports can also raise the question of trading an addiction for another. “Addiction is destructive and my running is constructive. That’s the difference. For me [running] is not addictive,” is his reply. He explains that running at that level is still very difficult, and no-one gets addicted to running 200 miles.
Born to run
Perhaps the hard battle that one has to fight to overcome addiction could be comparable in scale to the magnitude of his colossal dare in the USA. Because one thing is clear – America is big. Unsurprisingly, Tom has chosen to run this country “just for the sheer size of it.” He elaborates a bit further: “Everything about America is big. Look at the cars, the drinks’ size. It’s very iconic.”
The location of the finishing line, Coney Island, hasn’t been randomly picked either, since Tom has a soft spot for New York City. “I’m from Belfast, which is a really strong city. I think New York is really similar to Belfast. A really tough place to be. Great atmosphere, great noise. I’m a city boy. New York is a proper city to me,” he says with conviction and a contagious energy – as he does with every sentence he delivers during the interview.
Another country the Belfast-born athlete has fond memories of is Morocco, where he ran in 2010 the so-called toughest footrace on earth – the multi-day Marathon de Sables in the Sahara Desert. The sole thought of an endurance trial like this may terrify many of us, but Tom manages to turn the pain into awesomeness when he recollects the event: “Seeing the sunrise the next morning having being in the desert for nearly 24 hours was fantastic. Coming back to the camp, seeing the sunrise knowing you have run 53 miles during the last day is a really special experience.”
To maximise the impact of his latest challenge, Tom Fitzsimons is asking people to show support by pledging their sobriety over a number of days, instead of asking for charity donations. “I didn’t want to go and ask people for money for an already difficult thing,” he says. “So I figured if I could get a National Day of Sobriety, the way that every year we’d stand and say ‘let’s hold on here, let’s talk about alcoholism.’ That’s what pledges are all about.”
When one is used to attempting challenges this size, it’s easy to see that there will be always a thirst for a bigger one. As it turns out, Tom’s glass ceiling is incredibly high – literally: “I’ve already made inquiries into the possibility of climbing Everest in the future. That would be an ultimate goal.”
But this would be only an ultimate sporting goal. Because when it comes to setting an example, the job is already done. “Some people are blown away by the inspiration and the whole journey. Even if they don’t have an alcohol problem in their house it just inspires people to know that it doesn’t matter how bad your life gets, you can pick yourself up and achieve whatever you want.”
Tom Fitzsimons will start Run4Sobriety on 20th May 2013 and hopes to finish 100 days later, on 27th August.
Kenwood Travel is a proud sponsor of Run4Sobriety