EASTHAM — When he was in the seventh grade, Joe Navas, a 51-year-old Eastham resident who became one of Cape Cod’s best distance runners, began experimenting with caffeine pills. Sometime after that, he had his first drink — an experience he found “hugely psychedelic and life-altering.”
By the time Navas graduated from Nauset Regional High School in 1988, he was a heavy drinker and a chain smoker. He kicked off his daily regimen with a 12-pack and in the evenings would polish off a fifth of vodka. Navas was also blacking out multiple times a week. His memory was cratered with holes.
“I was desperate,” he said, and “so tired of feeling out of control.”
He went sober at age 22. It was an undertaking that offered Navas several years of reprieve. Optimistic, he thought he could start drinking again — in a healthier fashion. But that notion, he said in retrospect, was “foolish.”
His relapse had him waking up in various Provincetown locations: in unfamiliar condos, beneath boats, at the police station. He spent years waiting tables, sticking to jobs that ensured, at all times, easy access to alcohol — his go-to remedy when anxiety and panic attacks struck.
At 28, Navas learned that he had serious liver damage. That’s when his doctors at Outer Cape Health Services told him, “If I didn’t stop, I’d end up in an institution — or dead,” he said.
This time, he roved around for other activities, trying out biking. Exercise, it turned out, eased the transition from substance use. “It helped me realize that I could breathe again,” he said.
In the winter of 2001, Navas began taking short runs, starting off with two-mile jogs. His stamina increased, and eventually he hit five miles, averaging nine minutes per mile. At the time, that was a workout “that damn near killed me,” he remarked.
Just six months later, he finished a five-miler in Hyannis, averaging a brisk 6:15 per mile. He found himself itching to get faster. His weekly mileage piled up while he shaved down his splits. In due time, he earned himself a spot with the Cape Cod Athletic Club.
He raced across New England, taking on courses that ranged from 5Ks to marathons and chasing down Cape legends like Falmouth’s Ken Gartner.
Navas also had a brief stint training for the breakneck one-mile. At the 2011 New Balance Indoor Games in Boston, he cut his old 9:00 pace in half, sprinting to a 4:33 personal best. “But never again,” he said, shuddering at the thought of the mile. “It was a painful, horrible thing.”
Long-distance running was more natural for Navas, and he became a regular at the Boston Marathon. There, he proposed to his wife, Kristen, after crossing the finish line in 2008, ring in hand. In 2011, he and the Whirlaway men’s masters group won big, taking home the team title. And in 2013, Navas was shuffling toward the parking garage, achy after logging another 26.2 miles, when two bombs exploded half a mile away on Boylston Street.
At that time, Navas was on the board of the New England branch of USA Track and Field as its master’s chair. In the days following the bombing, that organization sought to support runners who were affected and raise money for the family of Martin Richard, the eight year old who was among the three people killed.
“Serving on that board showed me that runners are some of the toughest people I know,” Navas said. “They don’t panic or freak out.”
Those anxiety attacks Navas fought off with alcohol in his teens and 20s have waned since he took up running. One reason, he thinks, has to do with regularly subjecting himself to oxygen deficit, particularly in the thick of a race, mustering the power to surge past a competitor.
“At that point, you’re trying to get your body to use resources it doesn’t have,” he said. “You want to catch your breath, but from a racing standpoint, it’s going to set you back and lose you time.”
Navas learned to push himself to the edge, then recognize he was there and let it go, reeling himself back in. “Over time,” he explained, “I became more intimate with that feeling. With anxiety, it was the same thing: recognize it before it took hold, let it go, and relax.”
When Navas took on competitive running in earnest, addiction remained a nagging thought. He realized he had to be careful not to transfer his addictive tendencies to the sport, he said. “For me, addiction is about making bad decisions about how much my body could take.” So, he said, he wrestled with the balance between what he desired and what his fitness level really was.
The summer of 2011 offered him a lesson in moderation. There was one week when he was at his peak, “totally killin’ it.” He set a 5K course record on a Saturday, headed to Vermont for an eight-miler on a Sunday, and blazed through another 11 miles, training in sizzling heat. He felt invincible. But come autumn, his body broke down, landing him in the office of an orthopedic surgeon.
“When I was an alcoholic, every day was compartmentalized,” Navas said. “But as a racer, I’ve realized that all these pieces are part of a long-term picture that gets you to the starting line.”
For the past two years, Navas has taken a breather from racing. Nagging tendon and calf injuries have kept him to 20 miles a week. If he hopes to take up competitions in the category for 50-year-olds, he says, he needs to be hitting weekly mileage of between 50 and 60.
On a 10-miler through the woods with Yoshimi, his Weimaraner, Navas maintains a 7:30-ish pace. But he thinks Yoshimi can handle going further, maybe up to 15 miles. To get there, he says, “I’ll need to convince myself to run a little more slowly” — he’s got the dog to consider — “and for my sake, too.”