Great Neck native Rob Vassilarakis, 40, has come face-to-face with the hell of drug addiction, but he narrowly escaped with his life thanks in part to a different kind of addiction: an addiction to running.
Rob Vassilarakis running for the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge team
Growing up, he had difficulty fitting in with his classmates in high school. At age 17, he told his mother he was gay. She kicked him out of his house as a result.
“She said to change or leave, and I told her I couldn’t change, so I left,” said Vassilarakas.
Using the money he had saved up from working in high school, Vassilarakas moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
Vassilarakas worked for Sound Factory as a dancer and promoter for New York City clubs. Through this experience, he was introduced to crystal meth. He eventually became infected with HIV.
“It had consumed my life,” he said. “I ended up homeless on the streets strung out on crystal meth. I couldn’t hold a job, and I had alienated a lot of friends.”
From 2003-2005, he was hooked on the drug. His friends became upset with his self-destructive behavior.
“It was more than I could bear, and at that point, I realized I’m alone…except for the people I get high with, I’m alone,” Vassilarakas said.
In October 2006, Vassilirakas checked into the Addicts Rehabilitation Center in Harlem and graduated a year later.
Eager to reconnect with friends, he went to support his friend Joann Pate—a breast cancer survivor—who was running the 2009 New York City Marathon.
Vassilirakas got off of the train and found himself directly on the marathon course.
“I was overcome by the energy coming from the runners,” he said. “It was a high…a feeling that they were emanating, and I was loving it.”
In November 2009, Pate took Vassilirakas on his first three-mile run. It took him five days to fully recover.
“I had struggled with some relapses when I came out of rehab,” Vassilirakas said. “Since I have found running, I have not so much as been triggered or had the slightest desire to get high, and it will be three years in December.”
Vassilirakas finished last year’s New York City Marathon at 4:57:00 running for Harlem United. But this year, he’s taking a more competitive approach and plans to finish in about four hours.
For the first 13 miles, Vassilirakas will run with the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge team, representing the Bronx. The four other members of the team have also overcome adversities. The winner of this group will receive a Tiffany trophy and a $1,000 donation to a charity of the runner’s choice.
Though some 45 thousand runners will cross the finish line at the NYC Marathon on Nov 6., it is not likely many will have come as far as Vassilirakas to get there.