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Facing a 20-Year Prison Sentence, This Army Vet Used Running to Transform His Life

Runner’s World logo Runner’s World 5/17/2019 Taylor Dutch
a man standing next to a forest: Three years ago, U.S. Army veteran Shawn Livingston was facing 20 years in prison for drug possession charges; today, he is a trail runner who mentors high school students and veterans in Austin, Texas. © Shawn Livingston Three years ago, U.S. Army veteran Shawn Livingston was facing 20 years in prison for drug possession charges; today, he is a trail runner who mentors high school students and veterans in Austin, Texas.

When Shawn Livingston runs, he runs as if he has something to prove. With every step, he thinks about solving nagging problems, rebuilding relationships, and continuing the progress he has made over the years. For the recovering drug addict and Army veteran, running is more than just medals at the finish line or personal bests; it’s proof that he’s taken a more positive route in his life.

“I almost run with a chip on my shoulder, like I have something to prove, like I’m coming from behind,” Livingston told Runner’s World. “I just want to excel and show my family.”

Almost three years ago, Livingston was facing 20 years in prison for drug possession charges. Today, he is an accomplished trail runner who mentors high school students and veterans in Austin, Texas. Running has played a pivotal role in that transition, and has helped Livingston discover a new purpose in life.

“Some people ask me if I regret anything from my past, and I don’t, because I had to go through all that to become who I am,” he said. “[My past] allows me to go back and work with vets or kids who are getting in trouble. If I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t be able to use it to try and inspire people.”

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A post shared by Shawn Livingston (@iam_shawnlivingston) on Mar 14, 2019 at 2:22am PDT

A Snowball Effect

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Livingston was very active in sports, and especially loved basketball. While he enjoyed running while dribbling a ball, he detested running as a standalone exercise and considered it a “punishment” that took him away from the game.

After he graduated from high school in the spring of 2001, Livingston attempted a semester of college but didn’t enjoy the continuation of academics at that point in his life. On September 11, 2001, he watched the World Trade Center collapse as the target of massive terrorist attacks. In that moment, Livingston decided that he wanted to drop out of school and join the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

For six years, he was on active duty orders in the Air Force Reserve, but never transitioned into active duty Air Force. In 2007, Livingston decided to join the U.S. Army and became stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. A year later, he was deployed to Iraq.

While in the middle of a training drill in Iraq, Livingston suffered a back injury so severe that the next morning, he couldn’t rise out of bed due to the pain. A doctor informed him that he had two herniated discs, and prescribed him pain killers to cope. Afraid of being perceived as a soldier trying to get out of service, Livingston continued on by masking the pain with medicine and cortisone shots.

“That whole deployment was excruciating. If we weren’t out on a mission or doing something, I was laid-up,” Livingston said. “I was a lot less active than I normally was. It got to the point where they had to stick me out in this remote base where there wasn’t a lot of activity going on. It gave my back time to heal, but I gained a bunch of weight and got super out of shape.”

He continued, “All the while, the pain pill problem was going on, so that just added to it. And then when we came back from deployment, everything fell apart for everybody.”

Soon after Livingston returned to Fort Hood, a series of tragedies involving murder, suicides, and drug overdoses among his friends and acquaintances took place. While these devastating incidents were happening, Livingston was using painkillers and eventually turned to heroin, which landed him in prison for a period of time on drug possession charges.

“It was a snowball effect-a bunch of untreated problems and [poor] mental health with addiction on top of it. It was bad,” Livingston said.

Getting a Second Chance

About three years ago, Livingston hit rock bottom when he received two additional felony charges for heroin possession and was facing a 20-year prison sentence. Feeling defeated, the only request he made to his lawyer was time to rebuild what he had left of his relationship with his mother and sister.

“I said, ‘If you can just give me some time to clean myself up, [I want to] try to rebuild and make things okay with my family,’” he said. “If I do have to go away, I want to make sure my family is okay.”

He was able to spend eight months in an intensive treatment facility, where he began to become more health conscious and mindful of his recovery. He took long walks, reintroduced himself to exercise, and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. When he left the treatment center, Livingston received a surprise: Sixteen people from the treatment facility, who knew about the potential prison sentence Livingston was facing, wrote letters on his behalf that detailed his good character and progress at the center.

Livingston gave the letters to his lawyer, who presented them to the judge as evidence of his progress. The judge granted Livingston probation instead of a prison sentence, on the condition that he would continue his recovery progress.

“I knew this was my last shot,” he said. “I’d given so many years of my life to getting messed up. You forget who you are or what you’re about. They [members in the treatment facility] were the perfect example of what I needed to do.”

In 2016, he moved to Austin and joined A New Entry, another treatment facility, for six months. It was there that he discovered Back On My Feet, a running group with a mission to combat homelessness. His first run took place with a group from the facility in June 2017, and it wasn’t easy. Still smoking at the time, Livingston could barely run for two miles straight, but his inner competitive drive soon kicked in. 

‘Running Is My Medicine’

Eager to improve in running, he quit smoking within the first month and continued to show up to early morning runs with Back on My Feet. That group was also where he met his mentor, Penny Lane, who introduced him to trail running.

“A lot of guys say they want to be better and don’t. He did,” Lane said.

“She saw something in me that I didn’t see,” he said.

[Want to start running? The Big Book of Running for Beginners will take you through everything you need to know to get started, step by step]

In 2017, Lane convinced Livingston to enter a trail race, where he earned his first medal. In that moment, he felt a sense of accomplishment and confidence that he hadn’t felt in many years. From then on, Livingston moved up in distances from 10K to 30K and 60K on the trails, and clocked several top 10 finishes in 2018: 5th in Pandora’s Box of Rox Half Marathon, 5th in Texas Trail Running Festival Half Marathon, 8th in Capt’n Karl’s Colorado Bend 30K, 1st in Paleface Marathon, and 4th in J&J Race and Trail Running Reunion 50K.

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A post shared by Shawn Livingston (@iam_shawnlivingston) on Nov 14, 2018 at 2:51pm PST

In the process of his recovery and treatment, running began to positively affect every aspect of his life.

“Running is my medicine,” he said. “I had been on depression medication and anxiety medication- pain pills and all this other medicine-and running was able to do something for me that none of that stuff could.”

From his daily habits to sleep patterns to diet and the positive community he surrounded himself with, running became more than just exercise to him. It was also a tangible way to show progress to himself and his family.

“For years I created these illusions that I was okay,” he said. “Running became this one thing where I could show them.”

One of his greatest accomplishments came in November, when Livingston completed his longest race yet at the Pinhoti 100 Miler in an overall time of 27:43:35. The feat was made even more special when his mother and sister surprised him at the finish line.

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A post shared by Shawn Livingston (@iam_shawnlivingston) on Mar 22, 2019 at 3:09am PDT

Looking back on his transition to sobriety, Livingston credits running and the community surrounding the sport for changing his life-a sentiment that is obvious in an upcoming documentary he is starring in called Woke the Monster. He hopes his story inspires others to embrace an activity they’re passionate about, too. Whether he’s helping veterans who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues at A New Entry or hiking trails with the teenagers at American Youthworks, Livingston wants to introduce avenues to not only stay sober but find joy in life again, just as he has.

“I feel like there was a reason for me to go through all of that to be able to do what I do now,” he said. “I genuinely care about helping people and want to see them succeed.”

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