Human Race: ‘Each time I went running, I felt better’

As Antony Mentessi walked to the start line of last year’s Virgin Money London Marathon, he began to cry. It wasn’t so much the prospect of the 26.2 miles ahead of him that so stirred up his emotions; it was more about the long journey he’d been on to reach this day.

‘I couldn’t hold back the tears as I realised I was actually going to run the marathon,’ says Antony, from Rainham in Essex. ‘When we rounded that first corner of the course, the wave of sound from the crowd hit me and I was in tears again. I just couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be here – to be running at all.’

Six years earlier, Antony’s life had hit rock bottom. His marriage to Lee, the mother of his baby daughter, had broken down. He’d lost his house after failing to make his mortgage repayments, wasn’t speaking to his parents and had been declared bankrupt. His life had fallen apart because of cocaine addiction.

‘I originally went back to live with my parents when my relationship ended, but after six months we had a blazing row after I came home out of my head on cocaine. I was thrown out. A mate said I could live in his caravan while I sorted myself out,’ says Antony, now 39.

‘The caravan was on a site where he kept his skip lorries at night. It had no running water, so I had to go to the gym in the morning to shower and shave before work. It was awful. I knew how far my life had fallen.’

Antony first tried cocaine when he was about 23, while hanging out with friends. ‘I was one of those people who never really drank, smoked or touched drugs. But I’d started getting into wearing designer-label clothes, and part of that lifestyle was trying cocaine.

‘The first time I took some I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. But after a few more times, unluckily for me, I really liked it. I would buy it for £45 a gram at a time from a supplier. I soon became a regular user.’

As well as taking cocaine socially, Antony started snorting it after coming home from his lorry-driving job. His habit quickly spiralled out of control.

‘Within a few years I was spending £200 to £1,000 on coke every week,’ he says. ‘We took out a £5,000 loan for a kitchen, but I spent it all on cocaine. I also sold my cars to pay for my habit.

‘Lee tried to get me to stop, but I didn’t listen. All I cared about was having another pinch of cocaine. I reached the point that even if someone had said another gram would kill me, I’d still want it. I couldn’t stop myself.’

Antony used cocaine for 10 years, until he was 33. In 2009, finding himself living in the caravan in the skip depot, he began to try to turn his life around. He started attending addicts’ meetings. He also avoided social situations that might tempt him to indulge again. As a result of his efforts, he was reconciled with Lee and his daughter. Eventually he moved back in with Lee and they had a son, who’s now four.

Although he was clean from cocaine Antony wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle. ‘I weighed over 20 stone, did no exercise and had a terrible diet. I’d tried fad diets, but nothing stuck for long.’

But in June 2013 he tried Herbalife’s healthy diet programme. He began losing weight steadily, which inspired him to be more active. ‘I’d not done any running for years but I suddenly had an urge to do it. I only had a pair of tennis shoes but went out and ran about 400m. I came home sweating and hardly able to breathe. But I did it again. I needed to take my dog out every day, so running helped us both. Each time I went, I felt better.’

As the weight continued to fall off, Antony revived an old ambition – to run the London Marathon. ‘I’d wanted to run it ever since going to watch it when I was 19,’ he says. He got a charity place with The Children’s Society and started training hard. ‘I ran three to four times a week. I remember my amazement when I first ran over 10 miles – I felt I could run all day. I didn’t suffer any injuries, but did get a chest infection a month before the race, which hampered my training.

‘When I told my dad I was running the marathon, he gave me the biggest hug in the world and said he was so proud of me for turning my life around,’ says Antony, who is now a taxi driver.

While he struggled over the last few miles, Antony loved the experience of completing the race, with friends and family there to support him, and he has since set a PB at the Southend Half Marathon. He has many other races coming up, including a second marathon, and has even inspired Lee to take up running.

‘I live a very clean life now,’ he says. ‘I run at least three times a week – it’s part of what I do. It makes me sad that for almost 10 years cocaine took away a big part of my life – so much of what happened then is a blank. But now my family is everything to me.

‘I used to be addicted to cocaine, but now it’s running that gives me a buzz.’