Running event showcases impact of state’s special courts
BROOKINGS — Brookings resident Gordon Opatz says he was always athletic, but wasn’t a “school athlete.” When life decisions landed him in the Brookings County Drug and DUI Court, he was looking for something he could do to both occupy some time and improve his life.
“I started running for some exercise,” Opatz said Sept. 23 after completing the 15.2-mile Jack 15 road race. “That year in May there was a challenge that came out — to run 90 miles in May for veterans’ suicide awareness. I thought that was a good goal; 3 miles a day is one I thought I could manage.”
Opatz said although he didn’t hit 3 miles each day, he did complete the 90-mile challenge.
That was the first step in what became an outpouring of support that eventually led 11 people to don blue T-shirts with white “Recovery Runners” lettering on the front and participate in the Jack 15 race. It was a fitting gesture, as September was National Recovery Month.
The Brookings County Drug and DUI Court is one of 17 Problem Solving Courts within the framework of the Unified Judicial System of South Dakota. There are also Mental Health Courts and Veterans Courts.
Participants, if approved, are sentenced to a Problem Solving Court by a circuit court judge, and begin a treatment program that can include intensive supervision, treatment for substance use disorder and mental health, court appearances, getting a job, and maintaining a place to live. In lieu of being incarcerated, participants remain in their hometown and earn a living, often with family nearby as support, as they address the problems that led them into the justice system.
The Jack 15 is a road race from the small town of White to the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings. Participants can run alone or as part of a relay team. The race has been held for more than 60 years, making it one of the oldest road races in the state. Runners of all skill levels and a handful of walkers test themselves over the 15.2-mile course, cheered on by family and friends who drive ahead and wait for them to pass.
Shouts of “Way to go!” “You got this!” and “You’re almost there!” ring out as exhausted runners struggle along the route. For many, those calls of support keep them plodding toward the finish, similar to the way support can help people in the state’s special court programs.
For Opatz, the support during the race came not only from those along the side of the road, but from the 10 people who made the commitment to run with him.
It is an honor to work with these programs and get to walk — or in this case run — beside folks on this journey.
Judge Abigail Howard, who oversees the Drug and DUI Courts in both Brookings and Huron, remembers how the challenge began.
“Early on in his program, Gordon had mentioned that the last time he felt good about himself was when he was able to exercise,” Howard recalled. “He had previously been active in CrossFit when he was sober and was looking to try to get active again.”
Howard noted that Opatz had shared how he was trying to meet the challenge for veterans’ suicide awareness.
“I was so impressed with his conviction that I told him if he stuck with running, I would run a 5K with him,” Howard said.
The goal was for the pair to run in the Hobo Day 5K, but when discussion began on the Jack 15, Opatz found there were others willing to lend their support.
Teams formed within the Drug and DUI Court family — one team of program participants, and another made up of professionals, including Howard. While Opatz completed the race on his own, the teams broke the course into five segments, with each team member running at least a 3-mile leg. Several also jumped back in for the final leg, to finish the race with other team members.
The support for each other was tangible. Sometimes, that’s what it takes.
“Gordon struggled with many losses during the program, and with the many ups and downs that come with so much loss,” Howard said.
She said when that occurs, it’s hard for a participant to build consistency and even harder to remain physically active. Participants must work within the program or face the prospect of being terminated. Howard said Opatz was up for termination twice, but she decided both times to keep him in the program.
“He has been sober the entire time he’s been in our program,” she added. “He simply struggled with creating basic routines and consistency in life to follow through with some of his goals.”
Howard and the team noticed a change in Opatz as he entered the final two phases of the program. He was beginning to feel better and build routines.
“Once I saw him get a good handle on a few pieces, I told him we could commit to running the Jack 15,” Howard said.
Opatz encouraged other participants to join in. He trained by himself and with others to prepare for the race.
“I also told him that I would start training as well — and I did — to show that we practice what we preach in these programs,” Howard said.
Opatz said the mutual support was important.
“Many wouldn’t have done this if there wasn’t someone egging them on and supporting them,” he said. “Heck, there are some of the team members who don’t run at all. It is great to see them come out and try, to be supportive.”
“To say I am proud of the participants and the team is an understatement,” Howard said, after sprinting the final 50 yards of her leg, the finish of the race. “To have so many participants show up in support of Gordon, and so many team members rally and agree to run the race with us, felt like a real movement for recovery in our community.”
Watching each other run in the race helped the program participants and professionals see each other not just as parts of the justice system, but as people.
“It is an honor to work with these programs and get to walk — or in this case run — beside folks on this journey,” Howard said. “And I think if you would ask each of them, although they may have signed up for this race because of Gordon, like I did, they likely each got something much more profound out of the experience as well. It is certainly a memory that I will carry with me forever.”