BOISE, Idaho – The first time Shane Niemeyer thought about Ironman triathlons, he had just tried to hang himself.
It was 2003 and he was a 27-year-old homeless heroin addict in an Idaho jail, awaiting sentencing for drug possession and burglary. Guards put him in a straitjacket, so he says he used his feet to turn the pages of the magazine article about the endurance sport.
There was something about triathlons — and the commitment they demanded — that tripped a switch inside him: Maybe this was his way out, Niemeyer thought. Maybe he could spend his days swimming, cycling and running, instead of beating up Honduran drug dealers or burglarizing businesses to fuel his habit.
"I read the distances," said Niemeyer, now 35. "I read the average time triathletes spend training. It was overwhelming to me. For some reason, I figured that would help occupy my time."
Since his March 2004 release from a prison drug program, he's done eight Ironman distance races, covering a combined 140.6 miles in each. He placed 19th at a 2009 Ironman race in Wisconsin, out of nearly 2,400 competitors. On Oct. 8, Niemeyer finished his first Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii.
But Kona, a race many count among the world's toughest sporting events, wasn't his biggest accomplishment of 2010.
That came Dec. 10, when an Idaho judge finally released him from probation, marking what Niemeyer says is the first time in 15 years that he hasn't been in prison, jail or under state supervision. From now on, he won't have to ask a parole officer for permission when he travels to races.
"It's good to look back and think how human beings are capable of extraordinary things," said Niemeyer, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., where he's a strength and conditioning coach and hopes to begin a career as a public speaker. "But it goes both ways."
Niemeyer said his descent started early, in the central Illinois town of Bloomington along historic Route 66 where he grew up. He was arrested for theft, burglary and driving under the influence — all by the time he turned 18.
"I was one of those kids you don't want your kids hanging out with," he said.
He tried school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, but was suspended in 1997. The initial charges: Inciting a riot. Police breaking up a big college party videotaped Niemeyer encouraging the unruly crowd.
Niemeyer skipped Colorado and the law for Boise, but he brought his addiction with him: He estimates he may have "nine or 10 different mug shots" in Ada County, where Boise is located. He was convicted of burglary and drug possession in 2003, his first felonies, earning prison sentences of up to 10 years.
District Court Judge Thomas Neville, the judge who just released Niemeyer from probation, said he remembers Niemeyer as a broken man from an Oct. 27, 2003 hearing. He had just attempted suicide and was emotionally distraught.
"I told him to take care of himself, he had a lot to offer to himself and his family," Neville recalled, reviewing notes he'd taken in the courtroom that day. "I got Shane to agree he wasn't going to hurt himself, and that he was going to live. I really hoped that I had reached him."
At sentencing two weeks later, Neville directed Niemeyer to a prison drug program designed to help inmates with substance abuse problems.
In a letter in December to Neville, Niemeyer thanked the judge, telling him, "You have been instrumental in the reconstruction of my life."
While behind bars, Niemeyer would stay in shape by running in the small, rectangular yard at the county jail or at a state prison track where some inmates still remember him circling doggedly in his orange prison garb, said Brent Reinke, Idaho Department of Correction director.
"Our mission is to hold offenders accountable and give them opportunities to change," Reinke said. "Shane took us up on one of those opportunities, and now he's showing us all what's possible."
Niemeyer's first race was the Pacific Crest triathlon in Bend, Ore. in 2005, a 70.3 mile event that's half the Ironman distance. He finished in 5 hours, 8 minutes, placing 50th overall.
When he trains in Boulder now, he is surrounded by top triathletes and runners.
His time behind bars made him an observer, and he says he now sometimes sees how his workout partners have capitalized on the same neurotic, excessive personality traits that once turned him to drugs to transform themselves into top successful athletes.
A fine line separates our angels from our demons, he said.
"I see in them characteristics that went the other way in me," Niemeyer said.
Other athletes he works out with know something of his past, though not everything.
"I don't think they understand the severity," he said. "They have pieces, but they don't understand I've been in jail 25 times. It's hard to give somebody the whole story."
After Dec. 18, however, he has many more confidantes: That's when NBC televised a segment on Niemeyer's ascent from addiction and the prison yard to the blistering lava fields of Kona during its Ironman World Championship show.
Does he ever think about his old life?
Now and again, Niemeyer said, it comes to him in dreams. Doctors call it "euphoric recall," when an addict recalls only the positive experiences of his former life, not its darker side.
But that's as far as it gets, he said.
"It destroyed me," Niemeyer said. "Triathlon gave to me what I desperately needed: a purpose."
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