My First Year of Not Drinking Alcohol Was Weird

For the first eight years of URP, beer was an integral role of my life and I shared it openly with all of you. I published beer reviews, we talked about beer on the show, I was an early promoter of the Beer Mile, and breweries sent me cases of beer with hopes of me mentioning their brand.

Beer has also been a big part of my personal life for a few decades. My family celebrates both beer and with beer. My friends are in brewery clubs and grow hops in their yards, and I’ve got a massive collection of custom stemware. I’ve hosted beer tours and blind beer tastings in Sacramento for years and regularly return home to find a package on my porch with some new beer I’ve got to try. Hell, I had a book deal that gave me with the coolest assignment in the world of writing: Write a guide book that shows all the running trails and their proximity to breweries in California.

Then I stopped drinking and a lot of things changed. Some good, some bad, but because my beer life and drinking was such an integral part of URP that I shared with all of you, I feel some responsibility to share what happened and where I am today.

But let’s back up a bit. Why’d I stop in the first place? I stopped at the end of December of last year (one year ago today) because I had a 24 hour run in Auburn on Jan 12 and I make it a point to abstain from alcohol and caffeine for two weeks before big races. I’d done that for years, and yeah, I’d have to be sober for New Year’s Eve, but so be it.

Vertical Beer Mile, circa 2011.

Alcohol has been an unintentionally large part of my life for years. Aside from the beer obsession, any social situation I was involved in had alcohol. I suspect most adults to be the same. Every single holiday involved a lot of booze, and all of my friends and family drank. I drank beer six or seven days each week, but I mixed in my appetite for wine (Malbecs are my favorite), whiskey, gin and tonics (no lime, please), and run and cokes. I’d rarely have enough to get drunk, but when I did, I wasn’t a person I liked.

In social situations I’d have a few drinks to loosen up and be social as I think most people do. But all too often, one of two things would follow. Either I’d sit down somewhere and pass out (“I was just napping!”), or I’d get obnoxious and say things I regretted. I wasn’t picking fights with people or making horrible racist jokes, but I’d wake up the next day and be saddled with a load of regret, trying to put together what I said, then trying to reconcile who was there and might have heard me. There was a tremendous amount of regret and shame that I do not want to relive.

Those were the bad times. Most were good though. We’d be hanging out with friends after dinner or after a run, I’d have a few beers and all was positive and enjoyable. During those times, I handled alcohol just like everyone else.

Over the years, I’d tried to cut back my consumption. “Just on weekends” very quickly turned into “Thursday is pretty much a weekend” and by that point all my momentum was gone. “One drink a night” simply meant pour a huge glass of bourbon in a 16oz tumbler. And “three nights each week of my choosing” quickly unwound into “I’ll drink an extra day this week, then not drink for an extra day next week.” That extra day next week was pretty elusive though.

I left all my clothes in Vermont to bring back this collection.
(This was not a decision I regret.)

These were all symptoms of something I’ve dealt with for as long as I remember, and that’s a total lack of moderation. It may sound weak or appear to be a copout or a dodge, but quitting something entirely instead of enduring the arduous task of moderation was a lot easier–and turns out, more effective–option for me. I’ve tried to moderate for years, and it just didn’t work for me. Could I have tried again and again to moderate? Sure, but why? Drinking wasn’t helping me emotionally and as I click off more years into my 40s, my metabolism sure isn’t getting any better and the extra alcohol calories were making me feel bad about myself. I wish that I had the strength to moderate my activities, but like someone recommending to any of us that we should really stop running ultras and switch to more moderate 10ks, that was an idea that simply wasn’t going to happen. That was something I had to come to peace with and was more of a struggle than I’d though.

So one of the most significant childhood memories I’ve got is of my grandmother, and like most grandmothers to young kids, she meant the world to me. She was spunky, doting, hilarious, and she loved the hell out of her six grandkids. We lived not too far away and would visit them often, vacation together, and spend every holiday as a big family. She was also a serious alcoholic, but that’s not something I knew until I witnessed one of her drunk episodes where she became someone I feared, someone I hated, and really someone I didn’t understand. How could Mama Pat say those horrible things to my grandpa and not care that her ten year old grandson was in the next room? And that tone of her voice? Who was that?

After that, an intervention was attempted in which I was used as partial bait to get her into treatment. She ultimately chose to not go to rehab (more precisely, she chose alcohol over her family) and stormed out of the room while we were in tears, begging her to be a good grandma, mother, and wife and to get help. It was tough and has had a profound impact on me to this day. Hers was an extreme case, but I wanted to ensure that I’d never put anyone in my family in that situation and from what I knew about myself, there was only one way to ensure that. (We later reconciled, my grandmother slowed down her consumption, and she passed away a few years ago in good graces with everyone.)

The rest of my family is completely capable of having a health relationship with beer. They go on beer tours, my parents travel around the world running and visiting breweries, and no one has a problem. My younger brother quit drinking a few years ago, and it seems if there were an “alcoholic gene” in the family, I had the potential to exploit it.

So back to this year. I made it beer-free to the race and ran like shit. It wasn’t my day, and I left after six hours or so, got some sleep, and came back to click off some more miles. I didn’t deserve a beer after that, so I waited a few days until I really wanted one. That turned into a week, then two weeks, then all of a sudden, I’d gone an entire month without drinking. At that point, if I’d wanted a beer, I would’ve had one, but my body and/or mind didn’t want alcohol, and I figured it’d be best to not force it.

My local beer nerd club. Note the shoes.

There was a fair bit of pride and self satisfaction that came along with it, but also some fear that I was about to become someone I didn’t really care for…and that’s an ex-drinker. People have very strange reactions when someone stops participating in a social activity, and I felt that a lot. When offered a drink, I’d politely decline and after we got past the “for how long?” questions, I’d feel some emotional distance between us. Not sure if it was because of possible failed past attempts at quitting or a “you’re not on my team anymore” attitude, but I always did my best to avoid being the guy who’d increase that level of animosity.

And sure, there was an element of control. I was proud of my month. I was proud that I–me, no one else–had done something that most people I knew had never accomplished. One thing that draws me to endurance running is the fact I’m doing something on my own and hold 100% of the responsibility if I succeed of fail, and that same emotion was certainly present for the first few months. In a weird way, it was a challenge and it was exciting to see how far I could go.

So one month turned into two months into three. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of support at home, with Sam thinking this was some phase and questioning my reasoning to quit something I loved so much. How was I supposed to write this guidebook if I wasn’t drinking? What was I going to do with the site since beer was such a part of it? Who’d host my beer parties? And we had a vacation coming up…was I going to NOT drink on vacation? Not getting that support was difficult for me, but never once did I ask her or anyone else to modify their actions around me or did I comment on anyone’s behavior. This was something I was dealing with personally and didn’t want to affect anyone else.

Social situations were weird at first. Close friends and family quickly realized I was serious and stopped offering me beer, but anywhere I went professionally (races, conferences, shows), I was offered beer, and generally it was really good beer! I’d politely decline and explain that I wasn’t drinking and hadn’t been since December. Ninety nice percent of the time, the next question was “is this forever or just a temporary thing?” I’d answer that I didn’t really know, but that I was feeling pretty good and that my attempts at moderation had failed and that this was my way of taking control of that aspect of my life. Most people said cool and we carried on.

I mentioned it a few times on the podcast and/or social media and was amazed at the support from the community. I’d mention I hadn’t drank for 5 months, and would get dozens of messages about how it’d been 3 years, 15 years, 30 years for them. These were messages from friends, runners, and mainly people I didn’t know abstained from alcohol. Those messages of support helped a tremendous amount and if you sent one to me, I appreciate it. Thank You.

Here’s another thing though…I never liked using the term “three months sober” or “sobriety.” For whatever reason, I’ve always associated those terms with recovering alcoholics and that’s not something I consider(ed) myself. I’m a guy who stopped drinking before it really ruled my life.

So two things happened about midway through my first year. One, I gave up on waiting for the weight to come off. The lies! All lies! To this day, I’m exactly the same weight I was last year. Not one goddamn pound. Nothing. Sure I feel better, I guess, but my skin hasn’t improved, I’m not sleeping any differently, and my fitness hasn’t changed. So that was definitely a disappointment.

But also, I discovered non-alcoholic (NA) beer. Long gone are the days of Near Beer, which, as far as I know, was just beer flavored soda water. Now with the birth of microbrews and advanced brewing science, NA beers are really good and helped me quench my thirst for ales without trying to moderate myself with some “I’ll just drink beer” game I’d most certainly lose. I can hold a can of beer at picnics, I can have beer in a glass at parties, and I can still appreciate the new styles being brewed just like “regular” beers. I’ve talked to a bunch of recovering alcoholics who can’t/won’t drink NA brews because they’re “too close” to the real thing, but I don’t have that problem at all. (If you’re interested in trying out NA beers, I’d recommend Athletic Brewing. Fantastic, authentic beer that’ll fool any beer nerd. NFI.)

So I made it past my family’s awesome Memorial Day Picnic, I made it past 4th of July celebrations, multiple outdoor concerts, and a few short work vacations for URP. Those were the types of things that’d stymied my momentum in the past. I could go a week without drinking, but then oops, a picnic or party or concert or post-race festivities would get in the way and I’d rationalize it as “this is special, so of course I’ll have a drink.”

Eventually, Sam has accepted this is me now and appreciates the fact the refrigerator isn’t stuffed full of 22s any longer. When I run into people I haven’t seen in awhile and the issue of beer comes up, they’ll often express astonishment that “I’ve made it this far” and we move on.

Early this past fall, my friends and neighbors asked when my annual beer tasting would be, ignoring the fact I didn’t drink. Initially I was taken aback, but ultimately saw this is as somewhat of a success in that these people were past the point of being apprehensive about talking about beer with me and figured I could handle it. I found a lot of joy and pride in being able to host the 5th annual and look forward to next year. (And yes, I slipped some NA beers into the lineup.)

My annual blind beer tasting in the front yard.

I’ve also had a few sips here and there. When someone opens a particularly interesting beer, I’ll take a tiny sip and only one sip and am fine with that. Realistically, that’s happened probably ten times. Maybe for me, I need to quit something completely to learn how to moderate, but I don’t see myself drinking any more than little sips every few weeks. The very thought of trying to start drinking again with moderation is something I don’t like recognizing or even typing out. I don’t trust myself to control my alcohol, plain and simple and can see myself easily slipping into the rationalization mindset.

So summer block parties came and went, we went on a great trip to Vancouver, the glorious Northern California late summer/early fall BBQs continued, and I stuck with NA beer, juice, water, kombucha, LaCroix, or whatever else was available. Just like smokers often feel better holding something in their hands while they’re quitting, I felt the urge to hold a glass of something and I think that helped quite a bit.

So now we’re at one year exactly. One year. It’s been a lot easier than I thought, and maybe that’s hazy hindsight talking, but compared to other things in life like trying to be a good dad or responsible husband, not drinking hasn’t been that tough. I’m shocked every time I’m in the beer aisle at the market at see the number of new breweries and new beers, but when I look closer, I see blueberry cheesecake ales and artificially flavored sours and I realize I’m not missing much.

What does the future hold? I don’t know. At this point, I don’t see any good reason to start drinking again from a physical standpoint, and have no desire to create situations where I regret being around people I love.

So there you have it. As I reread this essay, I see that it reads like a race report. Why, how, what went right and wrong, and what’s next. More importantly, though, is the fact I’ve done something that plenty of people have done before me and many more will do again, and with the right inspiration or trigger, anyone can accomplish. If you’re considering doing the same and have any questions or want to talk, always feel free to drop me a line. I’m not looking for congratulations or attaboys, I’m just happy and proud of my decision and am looking forward to year two.

Happy New Year Everyone. Hope to see you on the trails soon.

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