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Missouri man transforms his life from jail to ultramarathons

December 14, 2018

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — On a crisp October night, at least 20 people gathered in Three Creeks Conservation Area for the last run of the season. As he does for every run, Shawn Goertz led the runners to the start of the course and explained the route.

Then, Eileen Avery, one of the runners, stepped forward and handed an envelope containing $1,000 to Goertz. The gift was to thank him for six years of organizing the runs for the Thursday Night Trail Races Club, the Columbia Missourian reported .

He accepted the gift with tears in his eyes.

“It had a huge impact on me and my heart,” Goertz said. “I was greatly touched.”

It hasn’t been an easy road for Goertz, 46, a former drug addict and alcoholic who bounced in and out of prison for years. After cleaning up his act, a thyroid cancer diagnosis tossed him another challenge.

So, running became his therapy — both an escape and a way to stay on track.

Goertz wasn’t always an athlete. After his last stint in prison ended in 2006, he moved to a halfway house in Columbia and began running.

“I ran on the roads for the first couple years, and I got caught up in paces and splits and how everything was supposed to be,” he said. “It became like a job, and I didn’t like it.”

One day in 2010, he decided to run on a trail in Rock Bridge State Park. There, he found his groove, as well as generous support from the trail-running community.

“I decided I wasn’t going to get caught up in paces or splits or times or anything like that,” he said. “I was just going to run and have fun.”

That year, he ran his first ultramarathon, and he has run one every year since — except in 2014, when his doctor told him he had thyroid cancer.

Ultramarathons are any races longer than 26.2 miles, but typically the standard is 31 miles (50 kilometers) or more.

While training for a race in February 2013, Goertz found it strange that he was gaining weight while running 70 miles a week. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if something was wrong with his thyroid, but he immediately dismissed the idea.

He ran the race but dropped out at mile 78 when he noticed swelling in his neck. Goertz was screened for thyroid cancer, and the test came back positive.

After radioactive iodine treatment and surgery to remove his thyroid and the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck, he worried he would never run again.

“There was a big period for about a year where I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this anymore,” he said.

Eventually, with support from fellow trail runners, he got back in the game.

“It’s just the community,” Goertz said. “It’s just different and so supportive, especially the trail-running community.”

The Thursday Night Trail Races Club drew its inspiration from a similar group in Minnesota. Tom Straka, a friend of Goertz who moved to Columbia from Duluth, Minnesota, got the ball rolling in 2013.

After about a year, Goertz took over and has been leading the group ever since. It is organized via a Facebook group and has nearly 500 members. The year is divided into spring and fall seasons, with six to seven races in each season.

Runners are awarded 100 points for first place, 99 points for second and so on. The male and female runners with the most points at the end of the season are declared the winners. This year, Fleet Feet gave a pair of shoes to each one.

“The whole idea of this is fellowship and to make friends and to grow a community and I think we’ve been successful at that,” Goertz said.

Eileen Avery, who gathered the donations for Goertz, said it isn’t easy to measure his impact.

“He is a beloved friend and community figure and an example of a human being turning their life around and becoming an incredibly positive force in the community,” Avery said.

The group hopes he will use the money for his dream ultramarathon, which will likely be one held at Lake Tahoe in July.

“My mom died in 2009 right before my first marathon,” Goertz said. “She wanted her ashes spread in Lake Tahoe, and I’ve never been able to do that.”

Goertz grew up in Novelty in Northeast Missouri where the population falls just shy of 150. When he was 17, his family split up, and he found himself homeless.

To find a place to stay, he began looking for parties so he could sleep wherever the party was. That led to drinking, methamphetamine and marijuana, he said, which dragged him into a spiral of addiction.

This addiction led to multiple stints in prison and rehab, followed by the inevitable relapses that would send him back to prison.

In December 2007, he tested positive again for drugs and was given a choice: Prison for the sixth time or rehab for the ninth.

“If the solution is always the same, I have to change,” he said. “I was in my own way.”

He went back into rehab, but this time, he confronted reality and made the decision to sober up. Monday marks 11 years of his sobriety.

About a year after he sobered up, Goertz began to fill the hole in his life with running. His hometown was surrounded by woods, so running on trails was natural for him.

“This is like my church,” he said about running the trails around Columbia. “This is where I find my peace and my serenity.”

He now works in HVAC sales, hikes, mountain bikes and helps others recover from addiction.

“Running saved my life,” he says. “I’m just trying to spread the joy.”

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Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com

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