Boston — At first glance, it would seem that the deck was stacked against Chris Herren in his quest to complete the Boston Marathon on Monday.
With only 10 weeks to prepare for the marathon to begin with, Herren, who said he ran only when he was being punished by a coach, didn’t have much time to build endurance for the 26.2-mile trek. The weather didn’t help matters either, and though the conditions were perfect in Boston for the race, an especially brutal end to winter made training for it miserable for the first-time marathoner.
“It was the worst winter ever,” Herren told me Saturday. “(The snow) followed me everywhere and made it as challenging as it possibly could to get ready.”
Add to that a series of training-related injuries -- a ganglion cyst on his ankle that had to be drained Friday and a partially torn tendon in his foot that prevented him from running for the final three weeks leading up to the race -- and Herren, who said he never reached more than 15 miles when he was able to train, would have had every excuse to drop out of the field entirely or quit along the way Monday.
But this is Chris Herren we’re talking about -- a Massachusetts prep hoops legend whose life spiraled out of control for the better part of 15 years, with drug addiction following him, slowly destroying his world from Boston College to Fresno State to the NBA and out of basketball altogether. This is Chris Herren, a man who will look you in the eye and tell you, unflinchingly, that he should be dead several times over.
Now sober 5½ years, Herren’s life of late has been dedicated to overcoming his own seemingly insurmountable odds while also motivating others to stay valiant in the face of their own obstinate demons. His foundation, The Herren Project, raised nearly $60,000 in advance of the Boston Marathon -- donations from people all over the world counting on him to run in the name of recovery.
The Chris Herren who overdosed on heroin in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot in 2004 would have never embarked on this kind of journey to begin with. The Chris Herren who was urged by a rehab counselor in 2008 to call his wife and have her tell his kids he was dead would have backed out long ago, as soon as things got tough, and consoled himself with his drug of choice rather than meet a challenge head on.
But that Chris Herren is dead, his memory a relic of a troubled past, replaced by a man dead-set on changing the world -- a man who lets nothing stand between himself and his goals, however lofty they might be. And so it should come as no surprise that Herren, on Monday, crossed the finish line in a race he had no business running, doing so in a time of 6:00:17 that at once meant both nothing and everything.
“It was, no doubt, the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, athletically,” Herren said after his time became official. “Every part of your body hurts, and I had to fight myself the whole time, thinking things hurt more than they really do. But finishing is a beautiful thing.”
Herren wasn’t the only representative from The Herren Project who completed the course at the world’s most prestigious marathon, though. He was joined, in body and mind, by two other recovering addicts whose own battles with -- and victories over -- addiction led them to the finish line along Boylston Street.
One of the four race bibs The Herren Project received from John Hancock's Non-Profit Program went to Kevin Mikolazyk, a childhood friend of Herren's who now acts as the president of Herren’s foundation. Mikolazyk has been sober for a decade, but life as an addict was unkind and left Mikolazyk destitute before he got clean.
“Ten years ago I was living on the streets of Fresno, Calif., and I basically had a couple bags of clothes left to my name,” Mikolazyk said. “I was a total mess, I had lost everything to my addiction, and if someone would have told me then that in 10 years I’d be running the Boston Marathon, I would have laughed them out of the building.”
Like Herren, Mikolazyk had no experience as a runner when he agreed to participate in the marathon, but felt it was worth the effort to challenge himself to compete -- if only for the effect it might have on the recovery of others.
“This is not about me running the Boston Marathon,” Mikolazyk said before the race. “We’re doing this so that people who are struggling and people who are maybe newly sober can realize that you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. I’m fortunate enough just to be one of the people who gets to show them that it’s possible. So while it’s nice to be doing it, it’s even nicer to know the impact it’ll have on other people’s lives.”
That sentiment was shared by Herren, who said he hopes that his celebrity status drew attention to the cause more so than the runner.
“Kevin and I, his father was my fifth-grade teacher -- we grew up a street away from each other; I could see his house from my house,” Herren said. “We’ve been together since kindergarten and we’ve gone through this road together. So doing this with him is like doing it with a family member, and then the rest of the crew who are running who have faced the same challenges that I’ve faced -- you can’t take away from how special this day is for everybody.
“There are a lot of people out there who think that their lives are over and their best days are behind them, and running this with the group we’re running with is evidence that no matter what, no matter how far gone you are, how dark it gets, there’s a way to continue.”
Also joining Herren and Mikolazyk on the course was Pamela Hogue, a flight attendant from Chicago who will celebrate three years of sobriety on May 21. In the time since she got clean, Hogue had run two other marathons -- Chicago and the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. -- but the former Boston resident never expected to be able to participate in her hometown race.
“Every year I was out there (at the finish line) cheering and rooting for everybody and just standing in awe, because I never thought I could run,” Hogue said.
Hogue found herself on Herren’s team after submitting an application to participate on Herren’s website. Though she wasn’t initially familiar with Herren’s story, Hogue learned of his foundation after it helped a friend whose son was struggling with substance abuse. And though she never expected to be picked from the many entries Herren received, she felt it was important to thank him for his impact and let her own story be known.
“It was the first time that I actually came out and said, ‘This is me,’” Hogue said. “I didn’t think there was any way I was going to get this. There are other people who are involved in the organization (who wanted to run), and I didn’t even really watch basketball, but they picked me. ... When they contacted me and said they’d like for me to run with the team, I almost fell over. I called my friend, and I was shaking, I was almost crying. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I got it, I got it.’
“I know it sounds cliche and goofy,” she added, “but you know how it feels when you know that you know that you know you’re supposed to be somewhere? I know that I know that I know that I’m supposed to be here.”
Herren said he picked Hogue for the team because he was touched by the honesty in her application.
“You could just see the passion behind it,” he said. “You get all these requests and letters and emails from people who want to take part in it, and hers really rang true to us, where she was coming from. I wish we could have had 50 people run with us, and someday we will, but the group we have now is a special group, and we did this together.”
A fourth runner, Gabriel Torres, was supposed to join Herren’s team on the Boston course but was unable to participate after tearing his meniscus while training in San Francisco a week before the race. Still, Torres was able to raise more than $5,000 for The Herren Project, money that will go to help families all across the country.
That goal was furthered during the race as Herren and his team, decked out in foundation gear, trudged along the course. In addition to Herren’s time, Hogue finished in 6:19:57 and Mikolazyk finished right behind her at 6:20:20.
“For me, it’s about a mom who was on the marathon route, and saw a Herren Project shirt, and maybe that mom goes home and says, ‘Hey, I just saw Chris Herren running the Boston Marathon. Do you know where he was six years ago? If he can do it, you can do it,’” Herren said.
Added Mikolazyk: “(Chris and I) have been through the ups and downs and everything in between, and now we’re sober together and we’re able to help people, so it’s really a blessing.”
For Hogue, the marathon was more about conquering the next challenge on her ongoing push toward lifelong sobriety.
“I couldn’t imagine myself running three miles (before I was sober),” Hogue said. “If I didn’t make the decision that I made three years ago, I probably wouldn’t be here today, but the opportunities and the doors that I have open to me now are endless -- they really are. ... I think we put stuff in the way that inhibits us from being who we’re supposed to be. I remember three years ago I made that decision that ‘I don’t care how much it hurts, how many tears I cry, how raw it gets, I’m ready to be me.’”
And that wide-ranging impact -- from the hypothetical mother on the course to the teammates running alongside him -- made all of the struggle Herren endured to prepare for a marathon he was insane to run in the first place worth it.
“Listen, that was hard to conquer,” Herren said. “I started questioning myself from the beginning -- at Mile 8 I remember wondering if I had that much left in me. But at the end of the day, this is still a sport, and addiction is life. What I can say, though, is that I was afraid of each of them, I was afraid of both, and I was able to get through them.
“It’s a pinch-yourself type deal,” he added. “(When I was an addict), I wasn’t well enough to do 95 percent of the things in life, except exist. I existed. And now I’m living, and to look back and think that six years ago, I was a full-blown heroin addict, hopeless, and thought all my second chances were done -- to be here today is unbelievable.
“It’s a beautiful thing to challenge yourself and to push yourself when it looks so big and the top is unreachable, and then you find out you can get there, and that’s what this is about. Twenty-six miles is huge, and it’s something that I never imagined. ... (Running) was foreign to me before, but there’s great significance to it. You don’t look back, it’s perpetual motion, and when you look back you can trip up or run into something.
“I like that, because we’re all moving forward. We’re going forward.”