Triathlons help Winona woman resist substance abuse

WINONA -- Sarah Hunter is turning her life around by running straight. Hunter is an alcoholic who gave up drinking almost two years ago. To help stay sober, the 39-year-old single mother of three maintains a rigorous athletic training schedule. This...

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WINONA -- Sarah Hunter is turning her life around by running straight.

Hunter is an alcoholic who gave up drinking almost two years ago. To help stay sober, the 39-year-old single mother of three maintains a rigorous athletic training schedule. This summer, she competed in more than 20 athletic competitions. Some weekends, she competed in multiple races.

This summer, she placed fifth in her age category at the Trinona Triathlon, second in her age category at the BK5K, and second in her age category at the Lake Harriet 1-mile and 2-mile swim.

Hunter received an invitation to the USA triathlon national competition next August because she placed in the top 10 percent in her age category at a competition in Chisago Lakes this summer.

Even with all that success, if you ask Hunter about the past year, she will talk about earning her college degree in peace and conflict studies from the College of St. Benedict. She will talk about the master's programs she has applied to this fall. She will talk about being sober for her three children.


"I partied in my late 20s, and it never caught up with me," she said. "In my mid-30s, I had three kids, and I realized I couldn't do it anymore."

Eye-catching recovery

Her story of recovery and renewal caught the eye of Winona filmmakers Terese Tenseth Market and Robert Pack, as well as Winona singer-songwriter Amanda Grace. Market asked Hunter if she could follow Hunter's recovery with a camera. Everything from Hunter's races to her family life to her career prospects are going to be shot.

Market said her film, "The Huntress," is about recovery from substance abuse and all its challenges. According to a press release, the film will follow Hunter as she pushes herself at athletic events and life. In the film, Market examines how and why Hunter chose to focus on athletics as part of her recovery. She also examines how Hunter balances being a single mother of three with training for a variety of physically demanding events, all while displaying the courage and persistence it takes to overcome substance abuse.

Grace has offered to write music to help Hunter in her recovery. She wrote a song called, "Running Down The Sun."

"The premise of the song is that us valley dwellers run in the dark even at the breaking of dawn. We can't see the powerful light of the sun behind the bluffs, but we keep going," Grace says on her blog .

'I will put everything out there'

Hunter said she started asking for help with her alcohol addiction eight years ago, but she didn't have the support structure to follow through. She said she always gave up alcohol when she was pregnant, so she knew could do it, she just needed to surround herself with the right people. She attends Alcohol Anonymous meetings and talks to a therapist. She said goodbye to bad influences and keeps those who support her nearby.


Neither Market nor Pack has known Hunter for long, so it would have been easy for Hunter to keep some dark times to herself. She knew secrets would not help others, so she decided to be completely honest.

"I know that only by telling the truth can I really help people. I just don't want people to go through the same pain that I went through," Hunter said. "Nobody wants to share their (problems) with everyone, but if my experiences help others, I will put everything out there. That's what I have agreed to do -- answer truthfully."

In the past year, she has traded emotional pain for actual pain. A collegiate runner in the mid-'90s, she was often injured. Those injuries as well as giving birth to three kids left Hunter out of shape. Getting to a point where she could swim five miles was a painful stretch.

"Everything was tough from training to dealing with personal issues," she said. "My motto was if one doesn't kill me, the other one won't. Getting in shape was a long, painful process."

Healthy helps healing

Hunter is not the only recovering substance abuser to use exercise. Mike Frisch, executive director of Cronin Home and a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, said exercise is important in staying sober.

"I can tell you that it's essential to anyone that is in recovery that when they feel healthy, they are well-rested and well-nourished, it's a lot easier to handle stressful decision."

Residents at Cronin Home in Rochester are provided many ways to get or remain healthy, including an exercise room and a healthy menu.


"Staying healthy is a very important component of recovery."

Market said she hopes to have the documentary done next spring. There is a Facebook page (The Huntress) where people can stay up to date on the film.

"Everyone will be able to relate to this film," Market said. "Just like everyone knows someone who has cancer, everyone knows someone who has struggled with substance abuse. I also believe Hunter has used this film as a tool in her recovery, and I feel great about that."

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