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Sprinting to Confidence and Connection

Ex-opioid addict Shea Boland found his way out through fitness, and now leads community-building sprint workouts

Everyone starts and finishes together.

With the warm Austin sun shining down, a pack of 60 plus runners sprint as fast as they can across the grass field at Zilker Park. Once every runner reaches the finish line, the high fives begin to spread throughout the group. Every encouraging gesture serves as a reminder that no matter the pace, everyone who participates in the ATX Sprint Squad is connected in their efforts.

These moments exemplify the reason why personal trainer Shea Boland created the community sprint workout. Stemming from his experience recovering from a years-long addiction to prescription drugs and heroin, Boland has made it his mission to build connection and help others in the process.

“This is about bringing people together through fitness and movement and creating fun opportunities for people to connect with each other and to not feel so alone,” Boland says. “I’m a firm believer that the best antidepressant out there is human connection, and what better way than through movement?”

Boland’s own life was transformed by connection on several occasions. It was connection that encouraged him to seek help for his addiction and it was connection built through fitness that helped keep him on the path to recovery.

Surviving a “living suicide”

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Boland became heavily involved in the party scene from a young age. Smoking weed recreationally as a teenager gradually escalated to heavier drug and alcohol use through college. By the time he was 23 years-old, Boland received two violations in one month for driving under the influence (DUI).

Shortly after the DUIs, Boland’s younger sister was prescribed with opiate medication for arthritis. While both siblings were confined to their house, they connected by sharing the pills. Boland says he used the opiates to cope with the emotional pain of “feeling stuck” at that point in his life.

“There was no denial. I knew that it was wrong and I knew that I was better than this and I didn’t want to do this necessarily, but I’m going to quit it eventually and that became what I call a delusional sense of optimism,” Boland says.

A year later, he was using opiate medication every day. Boland was an addict who was trying desperately to lead a double life, a habit that would continue for several years.

Eventually, he opened up to his parents and they arranged for him to do a 30-day program in Billings, Montana. But throughout the program, he didn’t feel fully committed to his recovery. While attempting to “white-knuckle” his battle with addiction, Boland wasn’t able to fully suppress his desire to use. After being sober for 20 months, he relapsed.

“I was no longer contributing to the lives of those around me, I was being a taker,” he says. “This sort of shrinking started to happen, this defeated feeling, like a slow sort of living suicide where I was just giving up and living to use.”

At 25 years-old, Boland checked himself into a detox center and came to the realization that he needed to leave Montana. Attracted to the idea of year-round sunshine, he decided to move to a sober living house in Los Angeles, California. But while Boland enjoyed being sober for a time, he started to feel the pull of a double life once again. As a former DJ in Montana, he missed that aspect of his life and began to network at parties. While he vowed to stay away from the hard drugs, he started to drink in social settings.

Eventually, the members of the sober living house caught on to his behavior and he was kicked out. Soon after, Boland purchased pills from a woman he met at a pharmacy and quickly spiraled into an addiction even worse than before. In his return to opiate addiction, Boland also started using heroin.

“It only lasted for about five months, but that was really scary because my ability to maintain that double life became nonexistent. The cracks were starting to show,” he says. “I was turning into a straight-up junkie who was about to lose all ties with my family.”

In his darkest moment, he called his parents and pleaded for help. His father flew into town immediately and helped him create a plan for recovery. Together, they chose Arbor West treatment center in Austin, Texas.

On October 25, 2012, he got high for the very last time at the Los Angeles International Airport, but he arrived in Austin with hope.

“I’ll never forget when my dad put his hand on my shoulder,” Boland says. “He said, ‘You can do this,’ and kind of teared up a little when we hugged each other.”

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This post is dedicated to all those who have passed away as the result of their addiction, to the hardened souls still out there putting up the fight and to the family members who have been to hell and back doing the best they can to save their loved ones. I’ll never forget how powerless I felt over my opiate addiction. I wanted so badly to quit but the odds were against me. There was no way I could beat the game without a drastic change in lifestyle. I received the gift of desperation and then the spiritual work started. Life has blossomed in ways that I couldn’t have ever imagined. And to think this journey started in such a dark place! My intention behind this post is to give hope to those suffering from this disease-that recovery is possible. And to reassure those that have lost loved ones that I’m doing my small part to give back to those who need it most. No matter who you are, if this post resonated, the biggest piece of advice I have for you is to not do this alone. Find a community to open up to, find like minded people who are struggling with the same thing-it is the quickest way to start getting a grasp on what the f**k is happening. Much love my friends! I’d love to hear your experience, strength and hope in the comments below…

A post shared by S H E A B O L A N D (@sheaboland) on

Fitness for healing and community

For 90 days, Boland stayed at the Arbor West facility. While the first few days were a difficult adjustment as he endured withdrawals, Boland soon embraced the program and all of the lifestyle benefits he was introduced to—therapy, bonding, meditation, and, the most influential of all, fitness.

“I tried to soak up everything at that treatment center. I was teachable, I was open-minded and I was determined to stay sober and to live a good life because I knew that I never wanted to go back to where I came from,” he says. “That place really saved my life.”

The treatment center introduced Boland to CrossFit, a training regimen that he immediately connected with. Through weight training and fast-paced movements, Boland experienced camaraderie, connection, and healthy competition with fellow recovering addicts. Every cheer from his workout partners and every word of encouragement helped build a sense of empowerment.

“That was such an important thing for me at that time because I was learning how to walk all over again and trying to live a new way of life free from drugs and alcohol,” he says. “That feeling of empowerment had a ripple effect on this new path that I was on.”

After the program ended, Boland moved into a sober living house until July 2013 and got a job at a restaurant in town. Still following a weight training regimen, Boland realized that he wanted to become a personal trainer so he could follow his new career goal of serving others.

For several years, Boland has trained clients in the Austin area at HEAT Bootcamp. About a year and a half ago, he became interested in the aerobic benefits of sprint training and put together a series of sprint workouts for himself and friends. But the exercise became even more meaningful when Boland realized that the format of a group sprint workout can be used to build community.

“The format allows connection. So when we’re all lined up on the starting line, and I’m yelling out to people to meet someone new and to give everybody high-fives to show your support, and then counting them down with ‘ready, set, go,’ everybody just starts,” Boland says. “When they hit the finish line, they all start talking and a rapport begins to build.”

Photo: Courtesy Shea Boland

In January 2018, he created the ATX Sprint Squad Instagram and the account has since accumulated 2,251 followers. Every Saturday morning at 10 am, the workout brings dozens of people of all abilities together at the park.

The group begins each workout with a dynamic warm-up which builds into 20 100-meter sprints–the first five sprints at 50 percent effort, sprints 6-10 at 75 percent effort, and sprints 11-20 at 100 percent effort. After the final sprint, the group does 30 jump squats together.

The encouragement given throughout is a weekly reminder for Boland that human connection can save people, just as it saved him.

“After seeing so much growth with my personal training business and the growth of the sprint squad, I feel so optimistic for my future,” Boland says. “I feel this overwhelming desire to just really commit my life to service, to being of service for those in need.”