Participants and team members run to show support

Photos by Curt Nettinga/Plainsman The ‘Recovery Runners’ prior to the start of the Jack 15.

BROOKINGS — Brookings resident Gordon Opatz says that he was always athletic, but wasn’t a “school athlete.” When life decisions led him to the Brookings County DUI Court, he was looking for something he could do to both occupy some time and improve his life at the same time.

“I started running for some exercise,” Opatz said Saturday, after completing the 15.2 mile ‘Jack 15’ road race. “That year in May there was a challenge that came out - to run 90 miles in May for veteran’s suicide awareness. I thought that was a good goal; three miles a day is one I thought I could manage.” Opatz said although he didn’t hit three miles each day, he did complete the 90-mile challenge.

That was the first step in what became an outpouring of support and led eleven people to don blue t-shirts with white ‘Recovery Runners’ lettering on the front and participate in the run. It was a fitting gesture, as September is National Recovery Month.

The Brookings Drug and DUI Court are part of the seventeen Problem-Solving Courts within the framework of the Unified Judicial System of South Dakota. There are also Mental Health Courts and Veterans Courts.

Participants, if approved, are sentenced to a Problem-Solving Court by a Circuit Court judge, and begin a treatment program that includes intensive supervision, treatment for Substance Use Disorder and mental health, court appearances, getting a job and maintaining a place to live. In lieu of being incarcerated in the prison system, participants remain in their hometown and earn a living, often with family nearby as support, as they address their addiction.

The Jack 15 is a road race from the small town of White north and east of Brookings, conducted by the Prairie Striders Running Club of Brookings. The racecourse uses county roads and ends at the very recognizable campanile on the South Dakota State University Campus. Modest cash prizes are awarded to the top finishers in the race. The run can be done alone or as part of a relay team. Each participant receives a t-shirt and those who run alone receive a medal at the completion of the course.

The race has been held for more than 60 years, making it one of the longest road races in the state.

Runners of all skill levels and a handful of walkers test themselves over the 15.2 mile course, cheered on by family and friends who drive ahead and wait for them to pass.

Shouts of “Way to go!” “You got this!” and “You’re almost there!” ring out as exhausted runners struggle past. For many, those calls of support keep them plodding toward the finish. It is not hard to draw a parallel between putting one foot in front of the other until the race is finished and working one day at a time to battle an addiction.

Gordon Opatz runs the final leg of the road race.

For Opatz, the support not only came from those along the side of the road, but from the ten people who made the commitment to run with him.

Judge Abigail Howard, who oversees the Drug and DUI Courts in both Brookings and Huron, remembers how the challenge began.

“Early on in his program, Gordon had mentioned that the last time he felt good about himself was when he was able to exercise, “Judge Howard recalled.  “He had previously been active in Crossfit when he was sober and was looking to try to get active again.” Howard noted that Opatz had shared with her about how he was trying to meet the challenge for Veterans Suicide Awareness. 

“I was so impressed with his conviction that I told him if he stuck with running, I would run a 5K with him.”

The goal was for the pair to run in the Hobo Day 5K, but when discussion began on the Jack 15, Opatz found that there were others who would willingly lend their support.

Teams formed within the DUI/Drug Court family - one team of participants in the program, as Opatz is, and another made up of some of the Drug & DUI Court Team professionals who oversee the program, including Judge Howard. While Opatz completed the race on his own, the teams broke the course into five segments, with each team member running at least a three-mile leg. Several also jumped back in for the final leg, to finish the race with other team members.

They may not have been as vocal, but the support for each other was tangible. Sometimes, that is what it takes.

“Gordon struggled with many losses during the program, and with the many ups and downs that come with so much loss,” Howard said. She said when that occurs, it is very hard for a participant to build consistency and even harder to remain physically active. Participants must work within the program or face the prospect of being terminated. Howard said Opatz was up for termination twice, but that she decided both times to deny the motion and keep him in the program.

“He has been sober the ENTIRE time he’s been in our program,” she added. “He simply struggled with creating basic routines and consistency in life to follow through with some of his goals.”

A quote on a t-shirt that encapsulates the Drug and DUI Court feeling of support.

Howard and the team noticed a change in Opatz as he entered the final two phases of the program. He was beginning to feel better and build routines.

“Once I saw him get a good handle on a few pieces, I told him we could commit to running the Jack 15,” Howard said.  Opatz encouraged other participants to join in and trained by himself and with others to prepare for the race. “I also told him that I would start training as well - and I did - to show that we practice what we preach in these programs!” Howard said.

“There is a great deal of support from other participants and those within the program,” Opatz said as he relaxed after the race. “Many wouldn’t have done this if there wasn’t someone egging them on and supporting them. Heck, there are some of the team members who don’t run at all! It is great to see them come out and try, to be supportive.”

“To say I am proud of the participants and the Team is an understatement,” Judge Howard said, after sprinting the final 50 yards of her leg, the finish of the race. “To have so many participants show up in support of Gordon, and so many Team members rally and agree to run the race with us, felt like a real movement for recovery in our community.”

Creating the teams humanizes those struggling with a substance use or alcohol use disorder, and it humanizes the professionals working with these folks Howard said. “It is an honor to work with these programs and get to walk - or in this case run - beside folks on this journey.  And I think if you would ask each of them, although they may have signed up for this race because of Gordon, like I did, they likely each got something much more profound out of the experience as well.  It is certainly a memory that I will carry with me forever.”