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What happened when this runner’s high became a running nightmare

Marathon legend Dick Beardsley tells the story of his recovery from addiction to painkillers and the farm accident that started it all.

Dick Beardsley: Legendary marathoner, Minnesota dairy farmer, survivor, motivational speaker and recovery celebrant.
Photo by Jill Beardsley

When Dick Beardsley was last in the media limelight, it was not because of a running victory (which he had enjoyed in 1981 and 1982 at Grandma’s Marathon), and it was not because of another riveting finish-line drama (as there had been in 1981, when he tied with Inge Simonsen at the London Marathon, and again in 1982, when he ended the Boston Marathon just two seconds behind Alberto Salazar — after colliding with a police motorcycle).

Instead it was because he’d been caught forging prescriptions for Percocet, Valium and Demerol in such large quantities that law-enforcement officials thought he was dealing. But, no, he was taking them all himself — about 80 to 90 pills a day.

“It was to the point where they weren’t even doing any good anymore,” the Minnesota native and marathon legend said in a lengthy phone interview Sunday from his new home in Austin, Texas. “I had terrible headaches, and was burning a hole in my gut.”

The jig was up on Sept. 30, 1996, after Beardsley walked into the Walmart pharmacy in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and submitted forged prescriptions, as he had done so many countless times before (there and elsewhere at all the little drugstores along Highway 10). The pharmacist, a friendly man who had patronized Beardsley’s fishing guide business, did not look up or issue his customary greeting. Beardsley flushed, instantly aware of what would happen next.

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After a pause, the pharmacist came out from behind the counter, took Beardsley by the arm and steered him down an aisle where there were no customers. “Dick, everybody knows what’s going on,” he said.

3,000 pills in a month

Beardsley said he felt “relieved,” and agreed to go immediately to his doctor’s office, where U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Regional Drug Task Force agents were waiting. “I knew I needed help,” he said. “And I knew if I didn’t stop, one of these nights I was going to take a handful of pills and probably never wake up.”

The agents had evidence that Beardsley had written prescriptions for more than 3,000 pills in the month of August alone. After he persuaded them that he had not given away or sold a single pill, they packed him off to treatment, telling him that it was his one and only get-out-of-jail-free card.

Beardsley, who didn’t start using until after his competitive running career, eventually pleaded guilty to one count of a fifth-degree controlled substance violation, and was sentenced in 1997 to five years’ probation and 240 hours of community service. A judge, who was impressed with Beardsley’s progress in treatment, waived a hefty fine in exchange for 200 more hours of community service — speaking to groups about his addiction.

The humiliation of getting caught, Beardsley said, was nothing compared to the unwanted media attention that followed his booking. His name, he said, was everywhere — from the Fargo Forum to the Star Tribune: “Beardsley charged with forging drug prescriptions.” TV cameramen were staked out in Detroit Lakes, waiting for his court appearances and even a scheduled talk at the YMCA. Rumors flew that he was dealing cocaine. His lawyer decided, finally, that he needed to call a press conference with his client, during which Beardsley came clean to the world.

But if anyone could transform shame and humiliation into jubilance and exultation, it would be Beardsley.

Running the trap line

Beardsley got his runner’s running start in the undeveloped swamps and woods along a 3-mile-long trap line he’d set en route to school in Wayzata. Once at school, he’d hand over his .22 rifle and ammunition clip to the principal, and stash any dead animals (muskrat, mink and beaver) in the lunchroom cooler. A janitor would help him skin the animals at the end of the school day. He’d repeat the same drill on his way home.

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press
Beardsley on his dairy farm in Rush City, Minnesota

He lusted for the great outdoors, and, though not a farm kid, he eventually would work on dairy farms for a living, and then buy a dairy farm or two of his own, and then own a fishing guide business.

Dad was a traveling clothing distributor, and Mom a medical secretary. Beardsley, who had one older and one younger sister, remembers clapping his palms over his ears to shut out the arguments and shouting that would ensue after his parents had been drinking.

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Neither parent saw much of a future in running or dairy farming. But Beardsley, primed for competition from his woodsy treks, shut out the nay-saying and trained first at the University of Minnesota in Waseca and then at South Dakota State University.

Beardsley doesn’t complain about his parents, who divorced when he was in college. He doesn’t blame them. He knows they “did the best they could.” And he loves them.

He and his father had that familiar emotional impasse, in which the son says, “I love you, Dad.” And the dad says, “Me too.”

They had a breakthrough after Dad quit drinking, cold turkey just like that, on May 1, 1982. It was shortly after he’d seen his son’s spectacular finish at the Boston Marathon. Beardsley never forgot his father’s sobriety date. “I love you Dad,” he said after a phone call to commemorate the date. “I love you too D.,” his father said.

Little did Beardsley know that he’d have a date of his own to remember.

A storm was coming

Beardsley retired from competitive running in the late 1980s, and persuaded his wife, Mary, to renovate and operate a rundown dairy farm with him in the town of Shafer.

On Nov. 13, 1989, it was cold and the skies were overcast when Beardsley got up at 4 a.m. to milk his herd of 70 cows. He felt pressured and rushed: There was corn to unload, a neighbor was coming to help finish the combining, and there was a snowstorm in the forecast. Usually after milking, Beardsley would return to the house to hug Mary and his son, Andy, good morning, and tell them he loved them, and then walk Andy to the end of the gravel driveway to catch his school bus.

But this day he skipped the morning ritual and headed straight for his tractor to unload corn. He revved up the tractor and pulled the lever for the power takeoff to get the corn elevator moving. The drawbar (for stepping up onto the tractor) was wet ... or icy. His foot slid.

You have to imagine a steel shaft rotating at 600 revolutions per minute. And then you have to imagine a person’s leg being wrapped around that shaft like a spaghetti strand. And then you have to imagine what happens when the shaft runs out of leg. One agriculture safety web site reports that a human being caught on a power takeoff rotating at 540 rpms will spin at the rate of 9 revolutions per second — with little chance to escape.

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As he was being whipped around, and his head thwacked on the ground with each revolution, Beardsley made a grab for the shut-off lever, which was just out of reach. His mind was racing (why didn’t he say good morning and good bye to his family? would he ever see them again?). The machines were thrumming loudly, muffling his screams for help. He’s not sure how long this had been going on when suddenly things got very quiet and bright and still. Three words came to him: “Flick your hand.”

He did that, and by some miracle found himself standing naked, his clothes ripped off in the accident. In shock, he thought, “I must have forgotten to get dressed today. I’ve got to get home.” He took one step and face-planted into the dirt. His left foot was practically in his ear, which caused him to muse, “I know I’m not that flexible.”

With one unbroken hand, Beardsley grabbed tufts of grass and dragged his battered body 100 yards to the driveway where Mary could see him.

A ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling

There were many, many surgeries and therapies that followed — to repair broken bones, stitch ligaments, replace a knee, treat ghastly (and potentially deadly) infections, and, much later, to fuse shattered vertebrae.

But in those first few hours, lying in the emergency room, Beardsley remembered (and never forgot) the “warm and fuzzy” feeling he got from that first shot of Demerol.

Said Beardsley: “If the sheriff had come in and said, ‘Dick, here’s the deal, buddy: We need to take you back out to the farm and wrap you around that power takeoff, turn it on and let you slip around a few times to try to figure out how it happened,’ I would have said, ‘That’s A-OK with me, as long as you bring that nurse over there with that stuff called Demerol.’”

The shots were given so frequently that his hips began to “look like a pin cushion.” So the injections were replaced by an IV pole with a self-administering device, which soon was replaced by an automatic drip.

Each time Beardsley began to heal and withdraw from pain meds, there were more accidents: A driver blew a stop sign and T-boned the Beardsley family as they were returning from a weekend getaway in Wisconsin. There was a hit and run, while Beardsley was out running. There were falls.

There were so many accidents that one Frazee schoolchild, after Beardsley had given a presentation that included his litany of unfortunate events, asked him: “Mr. Beardsley, did you ever purposely get into an accident so you could get the drugs?”

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He was, and still is, flummoxed by the question.

After Dad died

Like many who live to tell the story of their addiction and recovery, Beardsley has moments of debasement and desperation permanently lodged in his memory.

There was the time after his father died of cancer that he raced back to the house to collect the leftover fentanyl patches and morphine. But his sisters, who were on to him, had already disposed of the medications.

There was the time that his doctor tore a page from his prescription pad to write down the telephone number of a chronic pain specialist. Later, when he was running out of painkillers, Beardsley remembered the folded paper, pulled it out of his wallet and headed straight for the nearest Kinkos.

There was the time that he blocked a University of Minnesota surgeon from leaving the room — three times — insisting that he give him a refill for Percocet. The disgusted doctor finally wrote out a prescription, and threw it at Beardsley on his way out. Beardsley did not discover that it was for one pill only until he reached the pharmacy window. The pharmacist didn’t bother with a bottle.

There was the time that he got down on his knees and pulled on a doctor’s pants leg.

And there was the time when he licked the paper cup after a nurse had dispensed one-quarter of a Valium to help him through withdrawals.

He made many deals with God, and one day was forced to say: “God here’s the deal: We have no more deal.”

To any medical professional who suggested treatment, he would say: “Treatment? I don’t need treatment — I’ve got willpower. I can run through brick walls.”

Timing, self-awareness (what was left of it, anyway), a desire to live and his encounter with the law all combined to convince him otherwise, and Beardsley entered treatment in the fall of 1996 after his Walmart outing.

The toughest part, it turns out, was withdrawing from the methadone maintenance, a University of Minnesota inpatient process that he remembers vividly: “I remember lying in my room at night, going through withdrawals, and the pain in my bones, in my arms and legs, was so intense that honestly if I had had access to a sharp knife or a saw, I would have sawed them off. In the morning it was a chore just to get my legs over the side of the bed and to put on a clean shirt and a clean pair of pants. But I never missed group. There were some moments I was so sick, I could not stand up and walk. I would crawl along on the floor, like a dog.

“After a while, I actually slept a little bit and the next night a little bit more and a little bit more. I was there for about three weeks. I finally felt what it was like to be me without all those drugs in my body, and I liked how it felt.”

A counselor named Sue (in outpatient back home) helped him through the shame and humiliation. For a while, he would get his gas and groceries out of town, unable to show his face. But one day she told him: “You know Dick, your close friends and family know who you are and what you stand for, and it really doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.” That gave him the courage to return to the gas station, and when he did his buddies greeted him with acceptance and affection.

Shout, don’t whisper

Beardsley, now 17 years sober, lives happily in Austin with his second wife, Jill. They complement each other: She’s organized, he’s impulsive; she’s deliberate and thoughtful, he’s devil-may-care. They love animals, and have six rescue dogs and two cats.

Photo by David Grice
Dick and Jill Beardsley on their wedding day in 2007

Beardsley speaks respectfully and lovingly of his first wife, Mary, for all that she endured. His son Andy is grown and self-supporting. He loves his two stepchildren “who are like my own flesh and blood.”

Together, Dick and Jill run the Dick Beardsley Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating others about the disease of addiction. He maintains his sobriety by running (50-60 miles a week), by giving back, and by telling his story (90-100 appearances a year).

He dreams of making a home again some day in Minnesota, and admits that he’s been spoiled by the hundreds of lakes within running distance.

His job right now is to convey hope, he said. “I can’t remember the last time I spoke somewhere where I haven’t had people come up to me and say, “I’m a friend of Bill W.” So many people out there are affected by [addiction]. There’s such a stigma about it. People come up to me who are in recovery, and they almost whisper. And I almost want to say, why are you whispering? This should be shouted for joy!”

Upcoming events:

Friday June 20, 4 p.m.: Grandma’s Marathon guest speaker at Edmund Fitzgerald Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

June 27-29 weekend retreat on “Running and Recovery” at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City. The retreat includes fitness and running level assessments and guidance about training and goals for beginners and seasoned runners alike. The cost of the weekend retreat varies (from $138 to $338). Those not able to attend for the whole weekend are invited to a $20 evening presentation at the center on Friday June 27, from 7-8:30 p.m. For tickets and to register call  800-262-4882.

Books of interest:

“Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race,” by Dick Beardsley and Maureen Anderson (University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

“Duel in the Sun: The Story of Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon” (Rodale, 2007).