“There have been two defining moments in my life, 30 years apart, where I’ve felt completely at peace, completely at home, and like I’m where I’m meant to be,” says Carl Adams. “They were my first drink, when I was 13, and my first time in the woods doing outdoor fitness. They almost triggered the same feelings in my mind, but one was going to kill me and the other would keep me alive.”
Adams, 44, is a Londoner who grew up in Margate as the latest in a long line of publicans and bookmakers. He stepped easily into a career running pubs and bars, and admits he had some great times gambling and, as he puts it, “drinking enough to make Oliver Reed blush”.
“Addiction is in my blood really,” he says. For one period in his twenties he gave up alcohol, but took up Ecstasy instead, to the tune of about 50 pills a week. In August 2019 he finally completed his first full year alcohol-free. Last year he also finished the 215-mile Ultra Great Britain across Scotland. He gives major credit to a passion for running which has grown steadily from watching others doing it in Kenya on a belated gap year, to shifting his regular workouts from his local gym to the Kent woodlands, to starting the fitness company Primal Roots with his business partner Steve Denby.
Denby too has overcome addiction, to cocaine in his case, to become a personal trainer and health and motivational coach. The pair started Primal Roots in 2013 as a social enterprise, to help recovering addicts and ex-offenders to fulfil their potential. They run outdoor sessions for a mix of paying punters and those with the kind of problems that would usually prevent them from participating in such a gathering.
“There’s generally 12 to 15 people at a session, nine or 10 of whom would have paid, but they’re training alongside people in recovery and people that are registered homeless,” Adams explains. “We never identify those that are there because they’re struggling, but we let them tell their stories if they want to. They usually do.”
After his 18 months travelling, Adams studied Community Devlopment for an MA at the University of Kent and went on to work with organisations similar to Primal Roots, which offered fresh starts to struggling individuals by training them in gardening, cookery and carpentry. The newer company is his first time in the foreground, now that he’s qualified as a Coach In Running Fitness with England Athletics.
Connections to the Probation Service and the Kent homelessness charity Porchlight bring participants their way, with free kit provided by the clothing reconditioning company ReRun. They find that doing the sessions outside in nature is a major positive. “Any exercise you do in the gym, we can do a version of that in the woods. We’ll lift logs, stuff like that,” says Adams. “The woods are a great leveller.”
The sessions have grown from one evening a week to three days, and Adams is working his notice on his day job, with Action With Communities in Rural Kent, to make Primal Roots a full-time thing. He wouldn’t be so naïve as to claim it’s the answer to people’s problems with addiction, but it clearly helps. “We don’t take any credit for anyone’s recovery. All we’re doing is providing one of the platforms on which they can rebuild their lives. The only answer is that individual.”
With their first-hand knowledge of addicitve behaviour, the organisers can offer valuable support, but Adams says that the most powerful encouragement comes from other regulars who have been in that position more recently. One newcomer found that he had been cellmates with a longer-term attendee who was doing well.
And though some would say that running and fitness can be a new addiction in itself, he’s dismissive of making any comparison. “Addiction is an escape, whereas running in the woods, that’s about transformation,” he explains. “I’m not the same person that I was even 10 years ago. Nothing – physically, spiritually, emotionally – is the same.”