At the height of the global coronavirus pandemic, Leigh was actively trying to die. As a fitness trainer, hers was one of the first industries to fall victim to the coronavirus and as New York received stay-at-home orders, Leigh relapsed behind closed doors. Having struggled with addiction throughout her 20s, Leigh had overdosed on a combination of crack, meth and pills at the age of 24. Paramedics were able to restart her heart and she later woke from a coma in hospital, but even this run-in with death wasn’t enough to scare her clean. It wasn’t until Leigh found running almost three years later that she slowly phased out her drug use. It’s a story she documented for Women’s Health US, detailing her addiction and recovery, one that saw her connect to running as a means to quiet the external noise, to lift the cloud of self-doubt, and find comfort in the natural world. It was October of 2019 when the editorial came out online and Leigh had just started shooting up again. She felt guilty, living a reality that was incongruous to the woman she’d described in the piece. But most of all, Leigh felt pain. Running had been her compass, her check-in. And it had been stolen from her. When a member of the NYC running community Leigh had been a part of sexually assaulted her, she removed herself from the sport entirely.
When it happened, Leigh shut down. Her thought process at the time was, “Oh, well I wasn’t raped this time, nothing terrible happened, I was able to get away.” Only now, with the distance of months, is she able to see the trauma such an experience caused. “I separated myself from certain friendships, from people who stood by and watched it happen. I lost a lot of respect for people, but I didn’t realise how much pain it had caused me,” says Leigh. “I pushed people who were really close to me away.” But as the world’s scientists and health officials united in a quest to find a vaccine for the coronavirus, society fractured. Lockdown forced us all into isolation with the endless scroll of social media serving as our only intel into the outside world. Videos of police brutality and the murders of Black men and women bled with gossip and Instagram filters. Protests were immediate, the world galvanised into action and discussions of white privilege and racism. In her apartment in the heart of China Town, Leigh was in the thick of it. Her own personal pain turned to anger. She wanted to be there for her friends, to show up for racial justice, to be an active participant in the events that were changing the world. But while she might have been familiar with life as a functioning addict, the pandemic brought with it new challenges. Leigh knew she needed to see someone, to consult a therapist, but the waiting list was exhaustive. The government grant she’d applied for as a result of Covid business closures was going straight into her arm. Still, no help was available, not unless she was prepared to wait three months.
Held hostage to Covid-19, daily news reports became nothing but a numbers game, an exhaustive and devastating list of lives lost, of case numbers and community transmissions. But there was one non-Covid statistic released this year that proved particularly grim: 93,000 deaths, or rather 93,000 people who died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2020. According to the provisional data released by the National Centre for Health Statistics, the figure represents a 30 per cent increase from 2019 and the highest number of fatal overdoses ever recorded in the US in a single year. As the pandemic brought our lives to a standstill, it also compounded feelings of stress, anxiety, isolation and economic uncertainty. For those grappling with addiction, the pandemic exacerbated their struggles as the addiction epidemic came to be steamrolled by a new health crisis. Across the United States and Canada, the effects of overlapping health disasters were explicit. STAT News reports that in British Columbia, officials recorded nearly five overdose deaths per day in 2020, a 74 per cent increase over the previous year. In Australia, substance abuse in lockdown worsened as treatment restrictions pushed the rehab system to breaking point. Much like Leigh, those seeking treatment were only knocked back as a survey of residential rehabilitation facilities in NSW found 21 per cent had wait times of between three and six months. Resources were being stretched and redirected; anti-addiction medication was harder to obtain. In the isolation of their own homes, addicts were left to their own devices. Some died, others relapsed, and Leigh was trying to kill herself.
“I just gave up. I decided that I was going to try and kill myself but in the best way I knew how, which was to see how much I could handle in one shot. Not handle, but like, ‘Ok, this has got to be the amount that kills me, there’s no way I can survive this,’” Leigh recalls. “And then I did. So I got up off the floor and thought, ‘Well, got to do it again. Get some more. Add more.’” Leigh had gotten clean before, but key to her recovery was running. She’d been an active kid, and a rather competitive one at that, but when she first took to running at the height of her drug use, it had been almost a decade since she’d intentionally set off for a jog. There was no intention behind it, no expectation, and perhaps Leigh didn’t know it would come to be the thing it is for her today. But in running she found a focus, a connection of foot fall and land, breath that rattled the ribcage and drowned out all thoughts. She found quiet, the elusive flow state, a time she could carve out for herself where she was free of stress, internalised self-doubt and criticism, of the judgments of others. Running brought a sense of hope and identity and Leigh knew that if she was to break the cycle of speed balls that had come to colour her life in lockdown, she would need to reclaim it once again. She booked flights to Mexico with nothing but the desire to just get out of the city, to get far, to go to the ocean. She told her dad that it was this or rehab. The day her plane took off for Mexico on July 28, 2020 was the last time Leigh shot up.
In Mexico, Leigh started running again but unlike before where running was something she found to quieten the noise, this time she came to define it as something inherently personal. She had to make it her own: this was running on Leigh’s terms. Mexico in August is hot. Clouds hang low like a faulty air-conditioner, releasing a hot mist onto the streets. Mexico in August is not a place to lay idle on the beach. And so Leigh would walk up and down the sand, and when the mood struck she would jog, running into the ocean, running to explore the streets, pulling off for some ceviche and a drink when hunger struck. It was tough, as running so often is for those coming back to it. But Leigh liked the feeling of knowing the challenge before her, knowing that she had conquered it before and could do so again.
Leigh isn’t a runner who loves talking about running. In fact, there are few things she’d like less than talking about the sport. But if you ask her how she did it, how she reclaimed running for herself, she’ll tell you simply (but in the most poetic of ways, as is always the case with Leigh): “There’s no watch, no tracking app that I’m using ever. There’s no one with me. It’s just me. And I’m in this place that’s perfect, and that’s why I went. I knew that I’m not going to feel great and that I’m going to have reactions and outbursts to things that I’m feeling and can’t explain. Everything’s going crazy when you’re getting off drugs and you don’t know why you feel certain things at certain times, it doesn’t ever make sense but when you are just in a place where there’s no one you know, you can do whatever you want in your own time and it’s usually sitting or reading a book, or wading in the perfect ocean, or going for walks and taking in the beauty of where you are. It makes that discomfort easier to bear. There’s no external noise, it’s just in here [pointing to her head].”
She stayed in Mexico for three-and-a-half weeks. By the time Leigh left, she was able to run to the entirety of All Night Long (All Night) by Lionel Richie. The song is six minutes and 24 seconds. “That’s really how I approached it. You can feel good, it’s about moving and being present,” Leigh explains. “You don’t think about what it is your body is doing. You rest when you want to rest. You walk when you want to walk. And there will be a hill so steep that you can’t run up it, it’s faster to walk than it is to run even. And that was how I took it back.”
Deep in the desert, all traces of civilisation have been left behind. If the prospect of new experiences was what united Team Satisfy, they’d found it now. The LA route had been mapped out carefully, with the team taking a discerning eye to the navigation in an effort to ensure every turn was calculated and no mile an unnecessary addition to a rapidly escalating total spent on foot. Runners from rival teams could be spotted in the distance or behind, music blaring out of the speakers of the navigational vehicles. But eventually the traffic lights and sidewalks give way to deep sand and uneven terrain. Soon, even the van is having to trespass narrow, dusty trails, the weight of it groaning as wheels cautiously roll across a splattering of rocks. At this point, each of the runners has countless miles on their legs. They’ve been trading shifts for hours, running through cramp and dehydration. Under the blanket of nightfall, with the bouncing strobe of a headlight and their own feel to guide them, they begin to enter a kind of hallucinatory suffering, an extended nightmare of run-stumbling to that ever-elusive Edge.
Leigh is out there, shiver-sweating her way through the desert. She’s now spent close to 26 hours without so much as a nap. But something has gone awry. Along the way, wrong turns have been made. At one point, the van even gets stuck in the thick sand and with no cellphone reception or alternative route, the team has to scramble to find a solution. They dig into the dirt, wedge their footing into the ground, pushing with everything they have at the vehicle’s rear. It becomes clear to the team that the top placement they were chasing has now slipped out of reach. Logistical errors have added close to 40 miles to the runners’ journey and the youthful exuberance of good vibes and high energy they’d exhibited early on in the journey has dissipated. Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is sleep-deprived. No one is in their element. And yet the thought of not finishing is never entertained.
This is not a team that will destroy their bodies just to prove a point. But it is a team of individuals who know what it means to do something with consistency. Team Satisfy don’t look at running as a sport, but understand that for many it’s a ritual. It’s a means of practising self-respect, a ritual that doesn’t need to be steeped in religion to be considered sacred. This is what pulls them through. It’s what gets them out of that desert and up into the morning light. Alongside her teammates, Leigh continues the descent towards Las Vegas, the bright lights of the city burning like the hum of a night light, the vibe lifting.
Don’t call Leigh Gerson a runner. Sure, she runs, but don’t use the term as one of identification. Because if you do, you’ll ignore so many of the qualities that make up Leigh. She’s an artist, a colour-correction specialist for hair, an athlete, and a woman with her own business. All of this is immediately apparent on our Zoom call. There’s the momentary lag, the realisation one or both parties have their microphones on mute, but eventually an animated Leigh buffers onto the screen. Just a week has passed since completing The Speed Project, but Leigh’s appearance gives no indication of the hardship experienced out there on the run. Instead, she radiates a quiet strength and energy, one that seems to transcend through the screen. You feel it even when separated by geographical distance. On the wall behind her stretches a giant chalkboard, filled entirely with her own writing. Some lines are crossed out faintly, others bracketed and underlined. They are the exercises for the strength classes Leigh leads via Zoom; exercises for mobility and agility; combinations that focus on power and strength; a column solely for conditioning. For those unfamiliar with the terminology associated with the human musculature structure, it’s unintelligible. But to the right, part of the wall has been gessoed and an artwork hangs. Even with the sketchy internet connection, it’s mesmerising. It also happens to be Leigh’s artwork. The setting might purely be circumstantial, but it’s clear that Leigh is not simply a runner, just as her story is not simply one of addiction.
When we chat in June, it’s been close to eleven months that she’s been clean. For Leigh, those months spent shooting up and waking on her bathroom floor feel far more recent. In conversation she is deeply earnest and transparent about her struggles, but she’s also curious. Team Satisfy finished tenth in The Speed Project after wrong turns served only to extend their journey. It was brutal, yet when energy reserves were depleted, Leigh still found a switch she could turn on. Inner strength or mental toughness, who knows? But it was there. It always is for Leigh, accessible only in movement. “I don’t believe necessarily that I’m an addict. I have zero coping skills. I run away, I feel something inside and I’m like, ‘Argh, how do I stop that?’ It’s uncomfortable. I don’t want to feel that discomfort,” Leigh ponders, leaning forward towards the camera.
She pauses in thought and her lips pull upwards into a smile. “It’s funny, because when you compare racing or endurance athletes or any other sport, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable…There’s always a point where you’re like, ‘I can either keep digging and push through this, or back off.’” For Leigh, the answer is always to keep digging. “Maybe you collapse at the finish or you throw up or something. Why, if I can handle that kind of physical discomfort, can I not handle it up here?” she asks, pointing to her head. “Or here?” Leigh wonders, hands to her heart. “It’s such an interesting dichotomy.”
After months of lockdown, the United States is slowly beginning to open up, albeit cautiously. Based in LA, Leigh has a sprawling city she wants to explore and running will surely allow for such discoveries. But in taking it back and defining it on her own terms, it also presented Leigh with a renewed sense of purpose, a focus by which she could approach her strength coaching. “I’ve always kind of been a loner, a bit. And because of everything I’ve been through in my life, I don’t really expect much from people,” she says. “I want to work with people who don’t necessarily feel like they have a place within the community. They’ve been through shit, they always kind of feel like they’re on the outside, and help them maximise their life.”
It’s a commitment to a passion, but also one that has been so deeply informed by personal struggle. At a time where social media seems to be groaning under the weight of influencers and fitness trainers plugging training programs and diet plans that are largely devoid of personalisation, Leigh discovered that her ideal client was herself. Hers is a coaching platform where authenticity is praised; it’s a safe space that encourages growth, the recognition that respecting our body is the first step to respecting ourselves and a refusal to not give up. “I want to see everyone thrive in their own space,” Leigh announces. “I don’t want to hide and mask who I am. I’m tired. I’m too old for that shit, it’s too much of an effort. I have so much that I keep to myself and inside and I just want to do the things that make me happy.”
Leigh teaches live classes, but as the pandemic continues to tighten its grip on some countries, she’s also made classes available on demand via streaming for clients around the world. When someone does a Leigh Gerson class, they let her know. Instantly, Leigh receives a text message, an email or DM. These are the people who felt lost, unseen, who had perhaps forgotten what it felt like to practice a small thing with consistency, a ritual that becomes sacred. These are the people who had forgotten what it felt like to be hopeful. “I have not been so happy as I was on the weekend of The Speed Project, because I got this whole sense of connectedness to a group of people through this experience. And that’s just brought me so much joy and I haven’t had that - I don’t know the last time that I had that, or if I ever had that,” Leigh says.
“I just want to do things that are going to recreate that feeling for myself and for other people. As soon as someone’s in that class, I get a text message, ‘Oh this is such a good class!’ That’s all I want; for people to feel good in here, and in here, and in their bodies. It doesn’t matter what that body looks like at all.”
To get in touch with Leigh for personalised coaching or group classes, head to her website here. As well as the live sessions, Leigh auto-uploads classes for on-demand streaming, allowing you to work out with Leigh on your own schedule, wherever you are in the world. You can also follow her story on Instagram, here.
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or just need someone to talk to right now, you can get support by calling Lifeline (13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kid’s Helpline (1800 55 1800).
If you’re struggling with drug use or addiction, you can call Lifeline (13 11 14), or talk to someone free and confidentially on the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline where you can receive support, information, counselling or referral to services (1800 250 015).