True dangers of a running addiction according to Stephen Kerr

Cautionary tale of a once-promising athlete now recovering from the curse of a range of addictions that turned his life upside down

Some people will tell you that running is their drug and they are hopelessly addicted and nothing else they know of can top that runner’s high. They are naturally in the main and certainly don’t need to count themselves among the lucky ones.

Stephen Kerr is telling me that running was his drug and addiction too until it spiralled downwards into gambling and alcohol abuse and endless lines of cocaine and left him emaciated and living out of his car with no hope at all. He’s now coming up on six months clean and sober and absolutely counting himself among the lucky ones.

Kerr is 29-years-old and from Armagh City and we first and last crossed paths in snowy Budapest 10 years ago this December. He was there to run the European Cross-Country for Ireland, our best finisher in the junior men’s race in 37th place, mixing inside the top 10 early on. I was there primarily to see Fionnuala McCormack defend her senior women’s title, which she did, in the process leading the Irish women’s team to gold medals and one of the finest hours in Irish athletics.

At that point in his young life Kerr was already a champion runner, winning his first All-Ireland title at age 15, and after finishing school at St Malachy’s in Belfast he followed that well-worn US scholarship path down to McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It wasn’t Villanova or Providence, still there’s a strong Irish connection there too going back to Fanahan McSweeney, who ran the 400 metres at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.


That same December 2012, Kerr was named freshman cross-country runner of the year, his prospects brimming. He got through the indoor season before his first serious injury knocked him back, and then on his 20th birthday he knocked back his first drink.

He passed out that night and instead of realising the danger it became the story of his life since, his once natural runner’s high replaced by fear and self-loathing and alcohol and coke and pills. Not necessarily in that order.

“It’s hard to believe it’s 10 years ago,” he says when we first talk about Budapest again. “Ten years that just dropped down the drain really. You lose a weekend, then you lose a week, then you lose a month. Next thing there are years gone by and you’ve done nothing with your life and that’s hard.”

The reason for our conversation this time is that Kerr wants to share his story not for a pat on the back but to alert firstly, and secondly assist, anyone else who may find themselves going down a similar path in life. He’s started up an open forum under Running For My Life and the positive feedback this first week alone is telling. In part perhaps because he’s increasingly not alone with his worst addictions and especially when it comes to cocaine.

Kerr openly admits his addictive personality, which may or may not have drawn him to running in the first place. Within weeks of winning the All-Ireland Under-16 cross-country in Waterford he placed his first bet, and that was the start of something which ran wildly out of control until just before last Christmas, when he checked himself in for a five-month stint at the Cuan Mhuire rehab clinic in Athy.

Hard as it is to pinpoint any one trigger moment, Kerr reckons his early sporting success somehow set it up: from a well-known sporting family in the city, his father Dermot a renowned masters runner and owner of Armagh Sports and Trophies, the original high was purely adrenaline and endorphin-based until that was no longer high enough.

“The high I got that day, winning my first All-Ireland under-16, is pretty much the high I’ve been chasing my whole life. That following March I started gambling, was fully addicted straight away. Gambling on anything, just the buzz of it, into the bookies, coming out with some money, it just kicked on from there.

“I didn’t drink before my 20th birthday, and after Budapest I went back to McNeese and had my first drink, on my 20th birthday, and got blackout drunk. That would stop most people, it didn’t stop me. It did the opposite.

“That European cross-country was probably a pretty good run, but the way I looked at it, I wanted to be in the top 10. In my head it was a bad run, and I started thinking I just wasn’t good enough, began running myself down. My whole running dream just disintegrated in my head.

“Then when I got injured, I just took to the drink real bad, I had so much free time on my hands, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to be one of those statistics, I really wanted to make it in America, and when it didn’t happen for me, it all fell apart. There is a big gulf between junior and senior and not many make it through, but I always thought I’d be one who did.”

At the end of his second year in McNeese he got the boot, his scholarship cut, so he transferred to university in Liverpool where everything went from bad to worse.

“That’s where I found cocaine. I ended up in treatment for the first time when I’d just turned 23, came out and started running again, playing Gaelic football again. But it would be six, seven weeks off the drink, then back on it again, bingeing.

“I’d be missing football games, people would see me out drunk on the town, but they didn’t know the extent of it. I’d be putting pictures online of me running, to make it seem like everything was okay, when behind the scenes it was falling apart, gone. I’d get back running occasionally, but it was a front, a mask.

“So yes I was addicted to running, actually Gaelic football first, with Pearse Óg, we were winning every championship growing up. Then running became a different thing, the high that gives you. If you don’t get that high you go for the quick fix. Only that doesn’t work.”

Kerr is back running again, 80 miles last week, with no major goals other than being the best running version of himself. Expecting his first child with his partner next week, he’s busy back working too, as an electrician in Dublin, still in recovery mode he knows and he always will be.

“Society has normalised cocaine as a social drug. People tell you it’s not addictive, but not if you have an addictive personality. Once I took my first line that was it. It just got to the point where I realised I can’t do this myself, I’m beat, and that’s part of the message, because the treatment has worked wonders.

“It is getting worse out there, the gambling and cocaine, in this country, it’s taking control. People would never have expected that from me, but it’s not always that person on the side of the street. It’s more and more not that person, it’s your next-door neighbour, it was me.”