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Caleb Daniloff and the long run to sobriety

Allegra Boverman

Who

Caleb Daniloff

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What

In his new memoir, “Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time,” Daniloff, 43, reruns scenes from his life as an alcoholic and drug abuser before turning to distance running to help stay sober. A graduate of Columbia University’s creative writing program, Daniloff lives in Cambridge and will give a reading Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store.

Q. How extreme was your drinking and drugging?

A. I was pretty out there. I didn’t just get drunk, oblivion was my goal. I did a lot of stupid, regretful things. Driving drunk is how I drove all the time. Looking back at all the people I put at risk, the near misses, makes me shudder.

Q. “As a drinker,” you write, “I mistook the presence of fear for cowardice.” What do you mean by that?

‘Running had become a spiritual thing for me, a healing agent. Maybe I could better understand why I’d gone down the road I did.’

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A. That it’s OK to have fear. It’s how you face fear and move through it that takes courage. Running gave me the psychological rhythm of moving forward, of moving through something — pain, that last 6-mile slog — when you don’t want to.

Q. You attended court-ordered programs yet ultimately found sobriety on your own. Why didn’t programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work for you?

A. Being sentenced to Narcotics Anonymous or AA meetings always felt like punishment. I’m 14 years sober now, but I’d never disparage AA. It can and does work for a lot of people.

Q. When did running these marathons strike you as a framework for a memoir?

A. After I ran my first — Boston, in 2009 — I saw that Burlington, Vt., , had one the next month. I’d done a lot of black-out drinking while in college there. I wondered, wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to places where I’d behaved badly and go on a long, intense run? Running had become a spiritual thing for me, a healing agent. Maybe I could better understand why I’d gone down the road I did. There was no childhood divorce to blame it on. No trauma, no abuser. Nothing I could point to and say: That’s why I am what I am.

Q. You’d wanted to stop drinking at one point years before. Why hadn’t you?

A. Because I wouldn’t have known how to define myself in any other way. I was in love with my own alienation, which in a perverse way made me feel special. To suddenly not have that seemed scary. I’d have been left alone with myself, and I wasn’t ready for that.

Q. Your father, Nick Daniloff, is a well-known journalist and Northeastern professor. You write about him giving the commencement address at your prep school the day you’d been expelled. How difficult was that for you both?

A. Through all my disciplinary troubles at school, I wasn’t really aware of the devastating effect it had on my dad. I give him kudos for giving that speech, though. I find that amazing.

Q. Did your family stick by you? Threaten to cut you off?

A. They never gave me that ultimatum, but my drinking was definitely an issue. I purposefully didn’t spend much time with them. My parents pressured me to see psychiatrists. They tried to act as best they knew how.

Q. You describe the marathon routes and painful memories they evoked in vivid detail. Practically speaking, how did you manage this?

A. I ran several with a tape recorder. Whether I did or not, the first thing I did afterward was take notes. As for the horror stories in the book, they’re only the ones I remember.

Q. You’d set a goal of running a sub-4-hour marathon. Wouldn’t you have had a better shot without carrying a recorder?

A. (Laughs) I hadn’t thought about that.

Q. Why was that time so important?

A. Because it would have broken a symbolic barrier. There’s something kind of average-feeling about four hours, and a lot of my life I’ve railed against being average. Toward the end of the book, I was making peace with that. Being average is OK.

Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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