“Before I reached the Brooklyn Bridge I took a small detour past Ground Zero...Freedom Tower was almost complete and there was a feeling of hope, of renewal and recovery.
When Tom Fitzsimons reached Coney Island and stared out across the Atlantic Ocean he understandably expected to feel a sense of elation. He had after all spent the previous 100 days running 3,073 miles across America, from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to the iconic Long Island amusement park.
The epic challenge was his way of showing just how far he had come from the violent drunk set on a path of self-destruction, but on August 27, 2013 as he crossed his own personal finish line and marked exactly six years of sobriety he felt nothing.
“I’m not sure what I expected, but it felt like an anticlimax,” says Tom, who lives in Wakefield. “There were no crowds cheering me on, no one to acknowledge what I had done. It was just me and the ocean. Of course I was proud of what I’d achieved, but the sense of real satisfaction I had expected to feel just wasn’t there.”
Back home in West Yorkshire, Tom began to write about those 100 days and the years of alcoholism which had led up to and it was then that he began to feel the contentment he’d craved. The result is a book - It’s Not About The Beard - in which he not only chronicles his time running across America, but talks candidly about his addiction, the seeds of which he traces back to the death of his father in 1988 when he was just 13 years old.
Alcohol helped numb the pain and a couple of years later when he had left school and was working on a construction site he had the money to fund all-night drinking sessions in the local pub. Tom was never a happy drunk and even in the early years of his drinking he was prone to violence, often lashing out as those closest to him. By the time he was in his early 30s, superficially his life looked good. While still in the construction industry he now had a management role which came with a good salary and a company car.
“Personally I was unravelling. I had two sons, but my relationship with their mothers was short-lived and if I’m honest my drinking got worse after they were born. I just couldn’t control the urge to drink and I was incredibly selfish with both my time and my money.”
Salvation came when he met his now wife Zoe while on a stag weekend in the Canary Islands. Having moved in together, the extent of Tom’s drinking became clear and after yet another lost weekend when Zoe threatened to leave and take their two children with her, it was the trigger he needed to get sober. It was also when he started running.
“For a while I convinced myself that I’d finally found a way to control my drinking, notching up a pint for every mile I ran. But of course I hadn’t and when I ended up waking up on Monday morning after a weekend away with the rugby boys when I had drunk eight pints in 45 minutes I knew that it was all or nothing.”
On that Monday, Tom stopped drinking and that could have well been the end of the story, had he not been one of the millions who watched Felix Baumgartner parachute off the edge of space. Seeing the footage of the lone adventurer free falling through the atmosphere, Tom decided that he wanted a challenge of his own.
“Within a week I had decided to run across America,” says Tom, who quickly found a sponsor, plotted his route and within eight months of Baumgartner’s record breaking feat he was on a plane heading for California. “Initially I was thinking about doing a marathon a day, but I reckoned that there were enough hours in the day to do more than that, so we settled on 30 miles for 100 days.
“People say, how do you keep going day after day, but the truth is it gets easier as you go along, because you become fitter and fitter. I’ve always been mentally tough, you have to be when you drank as much as I did and still hold down a job. I knew I had to finish on August 27, so even on those days you woke up and your legs felt heavy, there was no choice, you just had to keep going.”
While the route took Tom through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Illinois and Pennsylvania, with just five rest days there was little opportunity to sightsee. However, there was a lot of time to think.
“On Highway 50 I went from seeing 50 cars an hour to four cars a day. When you’re running 30 miles day in day out on your own you have to find ways to keep your mind occupied and I spent most of it talking to people from my past. There were a lot of people who I had become estranged from over the years, but during those 100 days I managed to have the kind of conversation with them that I never had the chance to in real life.”
He also says that the epic adventure gave him time to come to terms with his past and forgive himself for the hurt he had caused during his drinking days.
“Alcoholism is a illness, but I got better and all I ask anyone is that they judge me not on the person I was, but on the person I am now. I was brought up a Roman Catholic, but when my dad died I lost my ability to pray, but in recent years I have found my faith again and that has really helped. Funnily enough when I was crossing one of the loneliest roads through Nevada I met a cowboy who also happened to the pastor of his local church.
“He told me about his own past, about the mistakes he’d made and then he asked if I would mind if he could pray with me. Honestly, it was like something out a film.”
In the 18 months since he finished what he called the Run4Sobriety, as well as writing the book Tom has also continued working with schools in a bid to raise awareness of the physical and emotional damage that alcohol can do.
“We don’t tackle the issues, in fact we tend not to talk about it or think it’s someone else’s problem. However, I know how young I was when I began using alcohol as a crutch and that’s not unusual. I want to tell people that by not drinking I haven’t given anything up or sacrificed anything, but I have gained so much.
“My life is unrecognisable from the one I had 20 years ago and I want people to know that they don’t have to have alcohol in their lives, there is another way to live.”
“However, he is under no illusion about easy that message is to get across.
“While I was out in America I grew a beard as a bit of a homage to Hollywood’s fabled runner Forrest Gump. After a while it allowed me to create an alter-ego called Mountain Man who would not quit and who could cope with the crippling pain in his muscles and the isolation of the lonely empty roads.
“As soon as the run finished, the beard should have come off, but it didn’t and for a while when I was talking to people about what they had done, they only ever wanted to talk about my beard - whether I conditioned it, if I had it trimmed.
“ As I told them, this story is about lots of things, it’s about addiction, despair, hope and joy, but it’s definitely not about the beard.”