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Tim Mackness, left, runs with friend Wes Jones, along Government Street. as he nears the end of his marathon run in Victoria. He started at the University of Victoria then continued a route around the rest of the city, hitting points of personal significance along his way.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

When Tim Mackness woke up on Nov. 4, 2011, he was strapped to a hospital bed in Eric Martin Pavillion, Victoria's psychiatric hospital. This wasn't the first time he had drunk himself into hospital, or a police cell.

"I had been to detox a dozen times before," he said. "I had no reason to believe anything would change."

But something did change. Mr. Mackness has not had a drink since. Last weekend he marked two milestones – his 50th birthday and a year of sobriety – with a four-hour run through the streets of Victoria.

Along his 42-kilometre route, he was cheered on by his running group – a team assembled from the ranks of the city's most marginalized populations. They were there to applaud the transformation of someone who not so long ago seemed determined to drink himself to death.


Mr. Mackness plotted his marathon route to mark his life's milestones, starting at the University of Victoria, where he first encountered booze as a social lubricant in his first year of studies in 1981.

"In terms of my drinking career, that's where I started," he said.

The route then skirted the hospital where his mother died of breast cancer when he was 14 years old. "It was devastating. I was the youngest and no-one told me anything," he recalled. His mother was built of hardy Prairie stock – too tough to let on what she was going through.

After her death, his father, who had also struggled with chronic alcoholism, reappeared in his life, but it was not a happy reunion.

"I hadn't seen him in seven years. I understand his alcoholism now, but at the time I had a lot of rage, I blamed him." The boy was made a ward of the court and lived with different families. "It added to my sense of aloneness. My lack of purpose."

That lack of purpose found him at university with no particular goal in mind. "It was your typical Animal House scenario," he said. "I had no restraints or structure."

His studies didn't last, but he made his way to Campbell River, found a job, got married, fathered three children. The stability lasted a dozen years, but when his wife asked for a divorce, he turned back to alcohol as an anesthetic. "I couldn't function on my own. I was carrying around of lot of things I had never dealt with."

He went to college and tried to bury himself in his studies. Just short of landing two degrees, he managed to get himself tossed out. "I drank myself out of the program," he said. "They asked me to leave."

In the years that followed, Mr. Mackness cycled between heavy drinking and detox. He couldn't hold down a job. He followed in his father's footsteps – something he had vowed he would not do – and lost contact with his kids. "Eventually, it took everything," he said. "I had opportunities galore." And they slipped out of his hands. "I was drinking to die. I had no real drive to live any more."

Near the end of his run, with the light fading and the Christmas lights on the B.C. Legislature sparkling, he passed the cenotaph war memorial – a moment to recognize his high school physical education teacher Karl Klein.

Mr. Klein was a marathon runner who stayed in touch with Mr. Mackness through the lowest points in his life. "Karl and his wife prayed for me every week for 25 years," Mr. Mackness said. He doesn't understand why they didn't give up. Two weeks after Mr. Klein died during a running race, at the age of 67, Mr. Mackness finished his first 10-kilometre race at the cenotaph.

His run ended at a gym operated by the Victoria Cool Aid Society, an agency that provides shelter beds, dentistry and other services to the city's street population. This is where his path to recovery began.


Two years ago, Mr. Mackness walked into that gym, a stranger attending a Christmas party. It was hosted by a Victoria running group, Every Step Counts, designed for people with addictions and mental-health challenges. For Mr. Mackness, whose alcohol abuse had so thoroughly burned his bridges that his children weren't speaking to him, the event provided a foreign experience: He felt welcome.

During an interview in a café shortly before his birthday run, he recalled that party as a turning point in his life.

"I wasn't used to people saying to me, 'Please come back,'" he said. But they did. "So I kept coming back."

He began to manage longer stretches without booze. The program offers therapy through running, not talking. Participants are asked to check their issues at the door. So no confessions were required when he couldn't stay sober; he was encouraged to just keep running.

The running program began after the Victoria Foundation contacted Rob Reid, the owner of Frontrunners Footwear, one morning in the fall of 2008 to ask him if he would help with an outreach program for the city's street population. He turned up at their offices that afternoon, eager to talk about logistics and fundraising.

Every Step Counts now offers four running clinics each week, and Mr. Reid volunteers when he can. "It's a pretty special group," he said. "For people who had a lot of things going against them, this helps get the wind at their backs."

The program provides all new recruits with "gently used" runners to start. If they show up for 10 sessions, they get a team T-shirt. After 15 sessions, they are off to Mr. Reid's store, where they are custom-fitted for new running shoes. Frontrunners has provided 172 pairs of shoes to the program so far.

"It's a formula that can't be beat. We're on the street, making serious change for physical and mental health," Mr. Reid said.

Gillie Easdon, co-ordinator of Every Step Counts, recalled the moment, six months ago, when Mr. Mackness came to her to ask how he could become a volunteer. For her, that was a pivotal moment – when he found enough strength to look beyond his own needs. He also mentioned that he wanted to find a way to mark his path to recovery – which is where the plans began for his personal marathon.

"He said, 'I want to capture the profound changes in my life, I am no longer alone, I have reconnected with my children,'" Ms. Easdon said. "These were things that were not even on the table before."


At the finish line, Mr. Mackness was wrapped in a hug from his daughter, Lana, who has watched her father transform into someone she can admire.

Lana and her brother, Timothy, were cautious at first about letting their father back into their lives. But a year ago, Lana started running with her dad along the Dallas Road waterfront. By the time he ran the Good Life half-marathon in the fall, she could no longer keep up. And she was thrilled, because she could see that a lasting change had occurred. "A year ago, it was very day-to-day. Now, he has so much confidence – he's turned into a role model."

A role model because Mr. Mackness has found ways to give back to his community. He began hunting thrift stores for running gear to donate to the running program. "Classically, addiction is all take, take take," he said. "Giving back is very freeing for me."

It's now a sideline venture: He ferrets out quality shoes, cleans them up and either drops them off or sells them at cost to families in need. "I love shoes," he admitted. In the past nine months, he's turned around hundreds of pairs.

At the end of his run, Mr. Mackness sipped water as the scent of lasagne wafted out of the ovens of the Cool Aid kitchen. He was hosting a dinner for two dozen people who gathered to celebrate the completion of his marathon.

One of his birthday presents was a signed photo of famed marathon runner Dick Beardsley, who had experienced his own struggles with addictions. "He said to me, 'Your run will be a walk in the park, compared to your life,'" Mr. Mackness recalled moments after he crossed the finish line.

He is now taking training to do community volunteer work, "whatever that looks like," he said, "to rejoin life."