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Footprints in the Sand

Linda Quirk has run across deserts, over mountains, and through city streets to bring awareness to addiction treatment. Here’s her story.

The First Step

Linda Quirk had traveled from her home in Florida to Boston. It was the first stop on her quest to run seven marathons on seven continents in the course of one year. On the bus ride to the race site, a woman asked Linda about the “Run7on7” hat she was wearing. For a moment, Linda hesitated. She was again experiencing the guilt and fear that pervaded her life when her step-daughter was in the throes of methamphetamine addiction.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked herself. “Just open up. Just tell her.”

So Linda told her: about her stepdaughter’s illness, about her recovery, and about Linda’s mission to raise money for addiction treatment by participating in marathons all across the globe. When she was done, Linda’s new friend mentioned that her brother was also struggling with substance dependence. As it turned out, the facility where her stepdaughter had overcome her addiction, Caron Renaissance in Boca Raton, Florida, was located not far from where the woman on the bus lived. Linda knew that the doctors who had helped her stepdaughter could also help this woman’s brother.

So began the whirlwind journey that has taken Linda Quirk around the world and back since the Boston Marathon in early spring 2008. The following March, Linda reached her “Run7on7” goal by braving difficult terrain, as well as a foot injury, to finish the Antarctica Marathon on King George Island. Before Antarctica, she raced along the Great Wall of China, on Easter Island off the coast of Chile, through the savannas of Kenya, and in Iceland and Australia.

Along with her volunteers, Linda helped raise nearly $300,000 in donations in 2009. What had started as a way for her to give back to Caron Renaissance was slowly morphing into an international movement to erase the stigma of drug and alcohol addiction.

Finding Inspiration

In 2004, Linda and her husband helped bring her stepdaughter into treatment. They were able to rescue her from her precarious life on the streets of San Francisco and enroll her in a facility in Florida. When it became clear that she would not be able to stay clean there, the Quirks had to locate a Plan B. A phone call to a doctor in California who had worked with her stepdaughter in the past led the family to Caron Renaissance.

During a family therapy session at the treatment center, Linda came to appreciate how fortunate she was to have access to the resources that saved her stepdaughter.

“Sitting in there, I realized we could afford to pay for this treatment, but there were many, many families who couldn’t, or were mortgaging their homes [to be able to],” she said.

Drinking from the bottleAt the time, Linda was training for the 2005 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. She saw the famously grueling event as the perfect opportunity to raise money for Caron Renaissance’s scholarship program. When Linda crossed the finish line in Hawaii, she was greeted by her family in an emotional moment none of them will soon forget. She had raised $50,000 in her first race for charity.

Following the Ironman, Linda began to formulate the “Run7on7” campaign. The eventual success of “Run7on7” led to the organization’s most ambitious project yet: the 4 Deserts series.

Addiction Lives Everywhere

Started in 2003 by RacingThePlanet, the 4 Deserts is a series of multi-day endurance races across some of the planet’s most forbidding climates: the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Gobi Desert in China, the Sahara in Egypt, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Each leg of the series is a week long and covers 155 miles of often rough terrain. In 2010, Linda became the first American woman and the oldest person ever to achieve a 4 Deserts Grand Slam by completing each run in the series in one calendar year. To date, only 13 individuals (three of whom are women) have joined this exclusive group.

As with “Run7on7,” Linda assembled a team of volunteers for the 4 Deserts, a group which included therapists from Caron Renaissance and several people who had completed treatment there. Together, they raised nearly half a million dollars for treatment scholarships.

It was during the races that Linda had the chance to witness firsthand the transformative effect that participating in such an extreme fitness challenge could have for people who had lived through addiction.

“When you run these deserts, you carry everything on your back for seven days: your food, your clothing, your sleeping gear, everything,” she explained. “You’re brought down to the bare minimum. You have a lot of time out in these remote, beautiful desert areas to think and be by yourself. It’s a little bit of a struggle. You go through the real lows and you have the real highs. The same thing happens in recovery. When you think you’re at the lowest low, you will realize that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will work your way through it. And at the end, it’s beautiful.”

Making an Impact

During the 4 Deserts campaign, Linda decided to begin documenting her travels for a film project. In the different places she visited, she reached out to doctors at treatment facilities and others in the recovery community. What she discovered through these conversations was that the stigma attached to addiction crossed national and cultural borders. From South America to East Asia, addicts who sought help often had to brave the road to recovery without the emotional support of their loved ones.

“In a lot of other countries, the families are either not involved or don’t want to be involved, and the treatment centers are trying to figure out how to get them involved,” she said.

The doctors at treatment centers in China, Egypt and elsewhere participated in an informational exchange with the therapists Linda brought along. Addiction specialists overseas were most curious about the ways in which American facilities incorporated patients’ families into the treatment process. For many addicts, the particular dynamic in their families is an underlying cause of their illness. If family members are reluctant or unwilling to participate in the recovery effort, the addict will have to work that much harder to conquer their demons. This refusal to face addiction head-on has far-reaching social consequences. That, above all, is the truth that Linda Quirk and her organization aim to champion.

“There are very few of us who have not been touched in some way, shape or form by the disease. Everyone’s affected by this,” she said. “If there’s anything I’m fighting for, it’s to bring this disease to the same level as any disease that we’re raising funds for. We’re trying to put a different look on [addiction]: it’s the look of every single person. That’s what we’re trying to do. And once we get it to that level, people will start opening up, people will start talking, and more and more people will get the help that they need.”

In 2011, Linda and her team created Runwell, The Linda Quirk Foundation as a natural evolution of “Run7on7.” Last year, Runwell gave out $100,000 in scholarships to 12 different treatment facilities, 11 in the US and 1 in Cape Town, South Africa. The movement is just beginning.

Aside from hit TV shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention, we tend to ignore the harsh everyday realities of addiction: friends who overindulge on the weekends, homeless addicts begging on the street, crowds of cigarette smokers standing outside AA meetings. Linda Quirk works to bring awareness to the disease of addiction so that those afflicted and their families need not hide in shame. Instead of running away, she runs towards it, changing lives one footprint at a time.

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