By Henry Howard
MTA member Ryan Deguzis has a lot going for him: he’s a classical musician, teaches students, has a steady girlfriend and recently finished his first ultra marathon.
But it wasn’t always like this. Like millions of Americans from all walks of life — millionaires to soccer moms — Deguzis battled an addiction to alcohol. He’s been sober for 3 ½ years now.
“Running was one of the things that helped me escape alcoholism,” he says.
Musician Conquers Alcoholism, Then Ultras
Deguzis, who started running during a stressful freshman year at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, hit tough times after he graduated from that college. It was 2008 — the midst of the recession. Few businesses were hiring, and jobs for classically trained violists were scarce.
He fell into a dark place, comforted by the bottle. “It’s not a moral disease. We whisper about addiction and mental health, especially in Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook shooting. Our society kind of whispers about it. ‘Oh, did you hear about John’s son?’ It’s not something to be ashamed about. It’s a disease of the mind.”
Deguzis tried to use running as the “end-all, be-all solution.”
“Even when I was drinking at the worst, I was so stubborn,” he says. “My secret power is my stubbornness, it’s also my weakness.” He tried to run all day, figuring that his desire to drink would go away.
It didn’t. “That’s not the way it (alcoholism) works. It gets you when you are down.”
Like many who overcome addictions, Deguzis first had to acknowledge he had a problem. Once he did so, he got the help he needed. “I went to a sober house and I had to go to meetings and people could call me out on my BS. I couldn’t get anything by them because they were experts in addiction.”
After receiving treatment at the sober house, he laced up the sneakers and signed up for a half-marathon. “I made sure I was rigorous in my training and used the time to reflect on how I was feeling that day. Did I have cravings during the week? Was anything bothering me? Was anyone bothering me?”
For Deguzis, running was an important part of the solution.
“It was a great way to teach myself to be hyper aware of anything that might be tugging the little demon inside to come out.”
Vermont 50 Miler
With the demon under control, Deguzis continued to run and completed his first ultra marathon, the Vermont 50, a few months ago. “It was definitely not until the last three miles when I knew that I was going to finish. There was a cutoff time of 12 hours so I wasn’t sure at mile 47 whether I was going to make it, or what the terrain was going to be like.
“The first reaction was that I was just glad to be done with it. At that point, I was getting tired of running and walking. My legs had not really hurt but it was really hot for Vermont that day, highs in the 80s. I was ready to call it a day at that point. I was incredibly happy to finish. All the emotions that you run into at the end of a marathon, magnified at this because you can’t imagine how far a distance that is. It’s hard for the human mind to wrap itself around this.”
Training for the Atacama Crossing
So what’s next for Deguzis? Training for the multi-day Atacama Crossing in Chile. Total miles for the race: 155 miles over six days.
“I kind of took a gigantic leap forward but that’s what I do.”
Deguzis first heard of the Atacama Crossing on a Marathon Training Academy podcast (episode 109) and saw a documentary on the race.
“It sounded so cool,” he says. “I put it on the back burner but when I was training for the ultra I just completed, that race kept coming into my mind. All the planning, planning my calories, training in the heat, all the research about what to do … I love all that stuff.”
Deguzis, who will be raising money for mental health screening during the long race, says long-distance training and running offers him a lot of time to think and reflect.
“At first I think about people, everything in the past, people that I have lost. And then after awhile, about 20 minutes, your mind goes blank and you go into this vegetative state. It’s kind of nice, It’s the opposite of when you are laying in bed and all these thoughts are racing though your head and all of a sudden this memory from middle school comes back and you — maybe you farted in the classroom and everyone laughed — and all these memories come running back and sometimes keep you up. But while running, you mind goes completely blank and it’s a nice contrast from our everyday busy lives.”
For the Chile ultra, his training will be largely the same but more miles.
“Training will be similar in the back to back runs: 20 miles one day and 18 miles but slower the next day. For this race, it’s a completely different beast. You have to conserve yourself for the week while eating on the run, and take care of any blisters each day, take care of any tightness. You have to be really in tune with your body during the event.”
Deguzis, who is a fat-adapted runner, knows he needs to approach the nutrition aspect of this race differently.
“Because my body is going to be in such deficit mode, I will need some kind of mixture of carbs,” he said. “I am still researching what I need to bring since I won’t have access to fresh vegetables.”
It’s been quite a transformation for Deguzis, who has re-established relationships since booting the bottle.
“I’m much happier now where I am than if I had that artificial happiness.”
Hometown: Newington, CT
Number of years running: 10
Point of pride (your time to brag): My super power is my stubbornness. If something seems impossible for me to do, either professionally or in my running, I will pursue a goal until it’s achieved. I’m a big believer in hard, careful work.
Favorite race distance: So far, any ultra distance. You have to slow down to conserve energy and the extra time gives you a chance to talk to fellow competitors. There is also a fair amount of solitude, due to isolated locations and smaller competitor fields, which gives me a lot of good reflection time!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Generation U-Can and a green smoothie.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: 4th Movement of Mahler Symphony No. 7 (Sounds stuffy but the last four minutes are pretty intense).
Favorite or inspirational mantra or saying: Thou Art That. An ancient saying meaning you are what you tell yourself. If you’re tired, you’re tired. If you’re happy you’re happy. It helps to keep you going in those later stages of races, when the body is screaming for you to just stop.