From veteran to homelessness to ultra runner

July 30, 2017

 

 

 

Along the main street in Leadville, Colorado, Chad Prichard is relaxed. He speaks in soft, calming tones to his service dog, Woody, who he is still training.  As an acoustic guitar player’s chords and soothing voice fill the air, we chat on a park bench.

 

Prichard lives in Denver but is in Leadville for the marathon race. For him it’s one of the endurance challenge events that make up the Leadman series. In August, Prichard will take on the premier event in the series — the Leadville 100 ultra.

 

We chat about Prichard’s time in the service, his difficulty in returning from war, and his rise from the depths of despair and anger. The person Prichard is today is in stark contrast to the angry, drug-addicted homeless veteran he was only a few years ago.

 

***

 

The up and down (15,600 feet of climbing and descending) nature of the Leadville 100 resembles Prichard’s life in a way.

 

After high school, he wasn’t ready for college.

 

“I think the military for me was something where I could do something with my life at an early age,” he said. “I wanted to see the world, honestly. I wanted to get away from home and see what else was out there. And I couldn’t afford to do that without a job. So the Army kinda pulled at my heart so I signed up.”

 

Prichard was assigned to the Army Reserves Center at the Richards-Gebaur Base near Kansas City and became a part-time heavy-vehicle operator for the 179th Transportation Company. He also took a part-time job at Applebee’s, where he began dating the hostess. Two months into their relationship, she became pregnant with their son, Tanner.

 

They married in 1999, around the time Tanner was born. Now ready and inspired for college, Prichard obtained a degree in computer programming from DeVry University and started working for Gateway Computers.

 

Struggles beset the young family, which now included daughter Madison, over the next several years. Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.

 

“When 9/11 happened I remember it clearly,” said Prichard, who worked for Sprint at the time. “I didn’t know about it until I got to work that morning. The funny thing is I got on the phone that morning and asked if any unit is looking for volunteers, I’m signing up.” He just transferred out of his unit and was in the Individual Ready Reserves (former active duty or reserve military personnel) at the time.

 

Prichard wasn’t able to go to Afghanistan immediately but ended up joining a civil affairs unit, which deals with the infrastructure of a city. “When I joined the civil affairs unit, a year later I was in Iraq,” he said. “Our job was to make sure — whatever area we were in — the least impact was felt in the city. We try to have the least collateral damage as possible. Our job was to win hearts and minds. If whatever systems aren’t working, let’s prioritize them and get them up and running. By doing that it helps our intelligence because we are making friends. You help them, and sometimes they throw things out for you.”

 

In other words, they showed Iraqis how to build things so they would respect it more. “Otherwise they might just blow it up tomorrow,” he said.

 

Returning home a changed man

 

Prichard beams with pride about his service. After struggling in his 20s, he had found a place where he fit, if only temporarily. Transitioning back to the civilian world, however, would post a significant challenge.

 

“I talk about the good things we did, but we were in a war zone,” Prichard lamented. “To deal with war and IEDs, and friends dying, and bad guys killing grown people. It was bad. Coming back and trying to be normalized after that environment was really hard.”

 

 

Prichard described having a chip on his shoulder when he returned. “We, as a society, were taking things for granted and complaining about dumb things. It built up this wall of anger inside me.”

 

The foundation of that wall was formed with his experiences in Iraq.

 

“I tell my friends and my mom that the turning point in learning that something was wrong with me was when I saw suicide bombers,” Prichard said. “When I first saw that (long pause) it was horrific. It happened many times. I didn’t know how to handle that. For my own sanity, I had to compartmentalize it, almost make a joke out of it.”

 

With the horrors of war etched in his mind, Prichard struggled with those demons as well as the realities of home — marital and financial troubles.

 

“When I came home, I was angry,” he said. “And I couldn’t figure out why. If I was angry, it was because it was ‘that jerk’s fault.’ He pushed my buttons. He was the idiot. Or it was my ex-wife’s fault. She should have known better to not have done that. It was that way for a long time. I was never the one who was wrong. It took me two years before I realized I needed help. I’m starting to see a pattern. I have a problem.”

 

Prichard can now see that he returned home from Iraq with the signature wound from the war on terrorism — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 

“I just couldn’t keep friends,” he recalled. “I had a lot of friends prewar and not very many after. A lot of people separated themselves from me. PTSD is a real thing. We go through traumatic events and in our minds go through some sick stuff to normalize it. And try to come home and rewire back to the way it was, and it just doesn’t happen.”

 

In his desperation, Prichard started drinking. A lot. Then came the drugs — marijuana, cocaine, LSD.

 

“I sought help but I also increased the alcohol,” he said. “I started making it not just a weekend thing but an every day thing. And drugs definitely started seeping into the picture because I didn’t want to feel the pain. I wanted to have fun and have joy. But pushing that (the pain) away just didn’t work. Drugs only work for a short period. Because you need more and more drugs to suppress those feelings.”

 

That cycle exacerbated the anger in Prichard. “Everything just merged.”

 

Hitting rock bottom

 

Prichard hit his low point in the spring of 2012. He became homeless.

 

“My drug use, my drinking, my inability to keep a job, my friends were getting really tired of me,” he remembered. “I couldn’t pay my bills. I became homeless and that was my rock bottom ultimately.”

 

Looking back, he went to war amid “the all-American dream” — a 700/800 credit score, a brand new house, a wife and kids, and a decent job. “Now, I own nothing. I am homeless. My pride is in the way for me to talk to anyone to get help. I hid that (alcohol and drug use) from people.”

 

He was especially worried about letting his mom know the truth. She had been abused by her alcoholic parents. “She never drank and I didn’t want her to see me in that state of mind.”

 

Eventually, he talked to his mom about his tortured journey.

 

“She asked, ‘Why didn’t you come to me?’ She cared enough. But by the same token, I didn’t want to go to my parents. I’ve already used them enough. Screw up, go to them. Screw up, go to them … ”

 

No longer an Army stud

 

A friend of a friend heard about Prichard’s plight.

 

“He paid for an apartment for one year,” said Prichard, describing him as a millionaire. “I had some debt, unpaid utility bills. He wiped all that clean. I didn’t ask him for that. This is where I think a little grace came my way. My life had been hell for a long time. I dealt with it wrong. I got a second chance.”  

 

While living in the apartment, Prichard did not get sober right away. It was a progression toward recovery.  “Living in that apartment, my health really started going downhill. With that health going downhill, I knew that I needed a clear head to figure it out.”

 

That’s where it clicked. The drugs and the alcohol were the problems. “Luckily, I figured that out. I said a little prayer and by the grace of God.  I really believe that if you set your mind to something you can really overcome anything you are in that’s crappy. But you have to WANT it. And I wanted it.”

 

With Prichard on the road to recovery, he took stock of himself for the first time in a long time. He had chemical-induced schizophrenia. He was overweight. His joints hurt bad. “I was horribly out of shape. But I had this mirage that I was this Army stud. But I wasn’t.”

 

Just saying no to drugs

 

He knew that he had to get healthy. He knew that he had to get sober. He knew that he needed to use a pathway of nutrition and exercise to get there.

 

“To be honest, I prayed for a miracle first,” Prichard said. “Nothing happened. No angels came down. But later I realized that didn’t happen for a reason. Knowing me, if you would have fixed me, I would have just broken me again.”

 

Around New Years 2013, he came up with a plan. “This weekend I am going to quit hard drugs — cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, any hard-core drugs. No more. None of those.”

 

On Jan. 7, 2013, he walked away from hard-core drugs. Then he weaned himself of alcohol on March 7, 2013.  About a year later, he quit marijuana. “Weed was kind of my thing,” he said. “It wasn’t a daily thing but I realized it was a mind-altering substance so I decided to walk away from that too.”

 

Prichard says quitting cigarettes was the hardest. But once he set all his vices aside, another one popped up.

 

Each day that he didn’t drink or do hard drugs, he rewarded himself with ice cream. “So for those two years of my life, I ate a lot of ice cream,” he joked. “Eventually I had to wean myself off of ice cream.”

 

As he cleaned up, his diet also improved. Then he was ready for exercise and joined a gym.

 

***

 

 

Now, Prichard is fit and trim. As we sit and talk, pedestrians pass by with their dogs.

 

“Woody, leave it,” Prichard commands in a soft but gradually firmer tone each time. “Leave it.” Woody obeys. He’s still in training and tired from the hike he took with his master in the mountains of Leadville before we met.

 

Prichard soothes Woody, stroking his back and with a heartfelt, “Good boy.” Their relationship is one many veterans and their service dogs share — a mutual love based on their abilities to bring calmness to the other.

 

***

 

Getting fit and finding ultra running

 

Prichard moved to Colorado to be closer to his kids. Even though he could barely run a block without becoming winded, he worked out and found a group called Phoenix Multisport.

 

“It’s a sober active community — that was probably the biggest milestone for me in sobriety,” he recalled. “To be around a bunch of former addicts who were bettering themselves and moving on from a life of drugs and alcohol and replacing all the bad times with exercise and stuff, and dealing with stress in a better way. It is a community of people who get me. I didn’t have to tell them my story.”

 

Phoenix Multisport has a simple rule: stay sober for 48 hours and you get a free gym membership. It works — its success rate is around 60 to 70 percent.

 

“I thought I wanted to be a triathlete but there was always something missing,” Prichard recalled. “There was always something missing in Crossfit. There was always something missing in Olympic lifting.”

 

Perhaps it was a fluke or perhaps it was meant to be. Whatever it was, Prichard found ultra running.

 

“I was trying all these things,” he said. “But a couple of years ago a friend said I should go pace the Leadville 100. I had been working up to the half Ironman distance. I had completed one half Ironman in 2015. Something was magical about pacing the Leadville 100.”

 

His original runner had issues so Prichard ended up pacing Amy Rusiecki, the race director of Vermont 100, for the last 25 miles to the finish. “I had never run more than 13 miles in my life at a half Ironman and I only did that once. And I didn’t tell her that either.”

 

It was not only his longest run to date, it was life-changing. “Crossing that finish line, running on those trails, having those conversations, having met the people on the trail … this is what I have been looking for,” he said. “I knew from that day forward I wanted to do the Leadville 100.”

 

‘I’m nervous. I’m scared. And I’m excited.’

 

Two years later, not only is Prichard doing the Leadville 100, he is doing the whole Leadman series. “I’m nervous. I’m scared. And I’m excited,” he confided.

 

As he prepares for the Leadville 100, Prichard has completed two 100-mile races: a 24-hour run in Longmont, Colo., called America’s Heroes on Sept. 11, 2016, and Rocky Raccoon in February. “It was amazing.”

 

The 9/11 race “brought tears up. It brought more meaning to me than just running at that point.” He finished the 100-mile race in 23:27.

 

While Prichard serves as an inspiration to others, he doesn’t have to look far to find those who inspire him.

 

His coach, David Clark, and his mother are the two that come to mind quickly.

 

“David is not a veteran but he fought an issue with being over 300 pounds and was a huge addict,” Prichard said. “He’s run Leadville 100 seven times, and Badwater and run across America. He’s accomplished so many things. He has just been teaching me a lot, not just about running but about mindset. Like suffering and how we can control that. We can’t control what happens to us but we can control our suffering. For someone like myself who has been through a lot of suffering, it helps me a lot to understand how to be a better person, how to have peace in my life.“

 

After a pause, he talks about the strong woman who raised him. “My mom inspires me for staying sober all these years,” he said. “And how she was beaten and she never beat me once. I wish I had listened to her.”

 

Now, thanks to friends and family, he is focused on his goals: “I want to finish college,” said Prichard, who is pursing a nursing degree. “Being in college makes it hard to train for this sport and also afford the races. But I have been blessed. I have people who believe in me and see what I am doing. My big dream is to do the Grand Slam (of Ultras). And I would love to do some races in other countries like the Marathon des Sables.”

 

Clark has seen Prichard rise from a low point to now, where anything is possible. "I have seen Chad make the move from focusing on the circumstantial or mechanics of sobriety to happiness," he said. "Ultimately it is the inward search for happiness the unlocks all our potential. People, places, relationships, things or experiences can never do that for us. The health, strength and ability to be happy always comes from deciding to be happy and letting go of everything that doesn't deliver on that."

 

And when it comes to ultra running, Prichard's coach says his future is also bright.

 

"He is a beast. I have seen him get better and better each month and I am quite sure he is gonna do some pretty epic running before it's all done," Clark said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see his name at the top of a race or two next year."

 

***

 

The day after our interview is the Leadville Marathon. We greet each other briefly in the line for the restroom on race morning. Prichard’s endearing personality is on full display even as nerves are flaring among runners heading out on the journey.

 

But Prichard is not like most runners here. The rocky ascents and descents are nothing compared to what he went through only a few years earlier. He’s ready for this challenge.

 

Hours later, we pass by each other — I’m heading up Mosquito Pass as he is barreling down. We exchange pleasantries. He looks good. He’s running well. He’s happy. He’s at peace.

 

***

 

 

 

‘I’ve found peace’

 

As Prichard worked to put his life back together, he also prioritized fixing the relationship with his children, who are now teenagers.

 

 “It’s taken a few years to mend some of the wounds,” he said. “Our relationship is good. We’re not the all-American family. I got divorced in 2005 and we’ve been separated ever since. I missed my kids when I was in the military and they were young. Then I was out of their lives for eight years. They saw the worst of me. They have been through hell. They got some of that anger sideways. I never beat them but they heard a lot of yelling.

 

“But now, we’ve built a nice foundation.”

 

Beyond his nutrition and fitness, Prichard does yoga and strength training to keep his body fit and mind at ease. “The more I humble myself and work hard, the more amazing things come my way,” he said. “The awesome thing is that you don’t have to be fully fixed to help other people in that process. You can still have a positive impact on the world.”

 

Prichard has come a long way from the angry veteran he was.

 

“I’ve had leaps and bounds therapy,” he said. “Through all those therapies we’ve touched base on recovery. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion. I’ve learned that it’s OK to be angry; its what you do with that that matters. But now I have the tools. And I have come a long way. I’ve found peace. Things don’t set me off anymore.”

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