MIDDLEBURY — Caleb Daniloff spent more than a decade of his life running away from sobriety.
He is now using the sport of running as a means of maintaining his sobriety, clearing his mind and pushing his now-healthy body to endurance levels he could never have imagined during his days of binge drinking.
Daniloff, 42, has chronicled his remarkable and poignant journey to sobriety in his first book, titled “Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past One Marathon at a Time.” In it, the Cambridge, Mass., resident candidly describes his descent in alcoholism at an early age and how his discovery of running — while a resident of Middlebury — placed him firmly on the road to recovery.
Daniloff figures he was 12 years old when he got his first taste of alcohol. He and his family were living in Moscow, where his dad, Nicholas Daniloff, worked as a foreign correspondent before he was ultimately arrested and expelled by the former Soviet Union’s KGB on bogus charges of espionage. The Daniloffs had enrolled young Caleb in a Soviet school, where during the course of five-and-a-half years he became fluent in Russian, learned “more about Lenin than Lincoln” and picked up some bad habits.
“The Russians started drinking and smoking almost right out of the womb,” Daniloff said during a Monday morning telephone interview. “It was very much steeped in the Russian culture of the time.”
And Daniloff took to the vices like a champion. He was the last to leave the parties — assuming he hadn’t blacked out.
He ascribed the behavior during those earlier years as trying to fit in with his peers, trying to be cool and remain popular as the mysterious American visitor within the more cloistered Soviet scene and culture.
“In Russia I was a partier, but it was not out-of-control alcoholism,” Daniloff recalled.
It evolved into alcoholism upon his repatriation to the U.S. during and into his late teens. All of a sudden, he was re-immersed in Western culture and was no longer a novelty. He was somewhat of a stranger in his own country, looking to fit in.
“The transition back was more difficult,” Daniloff said.
“(Alcohol) became an escape; a crutch.”
He continued his partying into high school and college. Daniloff recalls a particularly low point when his dad delivered the commencement address at his prep school the day he was expelled.
The booze continued to pour into Daniloff’s 20s, as a student at the University of Vermont and then as a young scribe at the Addison Independent during the mid-1990s. Alcohol abuse left a wreckage of failed relationships, lost jobs and strained family relations. His vivid accounts of specific alcohol-related humiliations include sneaking out of a hospital where he had sought help to quit drinking; putting the moves on the younger sister of a former girlfriend who had left the apartment to make a beer run; and having hands so shaky that he was only able to write an “X” on the signature line of a credit card receipt for a six-pack of beer at a liquor store.
Also included: The full police report of his arrest for drunken driving on Route 7 in Middlebury late one evening in April of 1996. This resulted in the temporary loss of his driver’s license and other penalties. Part of his penance: Writing about the incident in his “Clippings” column in the Independent.
He continued to lean on the bottle while in graduate school in New York, but turned the corner in 1998 when his girlfriend (and now his wife) Christine broke up with him. He decided to quit drinking in an effort to save the relationship and got the tonic he needed from the exercise he sought out to put his abused body back into shape.
Daniloff took his first baby steps to good health at Vermont Sun Sports and Fitness in Middlebury. He tried swimming, but ear infections took their toll. But he then hopped on a treadmill, which punched his ticket toward physical and emotional salvation running the rustic roads of Middlebury.
He quickly added mileage and personal best times to his regular runs in and around Middlebury. Daniloff worked his way up to marathon distances and decided to enter some lengthy races to challenge himself and provide material for “Running Ransom Road.” During the course of a little more than a year, he entered seven races (mostly marathons) in communities in which he had committed his most egregious drinking sins. The races took place in such locales as Moscow, Burlington, Boston, western Massachusetts and Middlebury, where he entered the 2010 Middlebury Maple Run, a half-marathon.
The Middlebury race offered familiar terrain for Daniloff, including an approximately 6-mile stretch along South Street Extension that became a daily morning ritual for him during his years spent in Middlebury.
“That (South Street Extension) run became a very spiritual hour of my day,” said Daniloff, who after a while was able to memorize the contours of the road and the familiar scenery. The rustling leaves, chirping wildlife and even the scent of manure comforted him during his runs and allowed him to think of his sobriety and his future.
The 2010 Middlebury Maple Run also allowed Daniloff to revisit the landscape where he had abused alcohol and created some hardships for those around him.
“Every one of my apologies had been drafted on this road, at six miles an hour,” Daniloff writes in his book. “My sweat the ink, my lungs pushing the words up to my brain. It had taken me five years without the bottle to realize that not drinking was hardly enough; it wasn’t the same as slapping a nicotine patch on your shoulder. Things could never be right until I reached out to those lives I’d injected with turmoil, the ones I’d left behind.”
He reached out to those people — his parents, wife, friends, former girlfriends — meeting personally with as many as possible, while writing to the others.
Daniloff finished the 2010 Middlebury Maple Run in one hour, 51 minutes and 36 seconds — his personal best for a 13.1-mile half-marathon. He finished all of the other races he ran, again taking note of familiar scenes that brought back some painful memories that he was able to reconcile. He brought a digital recorder on his runs to record his thoughts in real time.
Daniloff began writing “Running Ransom Road” during the fall of 2009. He’d write about each race after crossing the finish line. Then came a year of revisions and a year of further refinement through his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The 233-page tome hits book stores on Oct. 9, not a moment too soon for Daniloff.
“It was as grueling as a string of ultra-marathons,” he said of the time it took to get the book from the starting gate to the finish line.
Release of the book finds Daniloff more at peace. His future marathons will offer him a blank mental canvass on which to imagine his life and his next book. He ran Chicago in 2011 and will run Philadelphia this fall. He wants to run Boston next year, while Big Sur, Los Angeles and London are on his list. Maybe even an ultra-marathon some day.
“I feel somewhat done with the meanderings of the past,” Daniloff said. “I am looking forward to taking a different path in my mind.
“Sobriety leaves a void; it has to be filled with something,” he added. “As long as that void is filled in some manner with positive things, I don’t fear a relapse.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]