The guy who takes a seat at our communal dining table has uncombed, almost shoulder-length blond hair and a fit upper body. He could pass for a surfer in his 20s, but it turns out he’s a 38-year-old Army veteran.
It’s October 9, 2015, the first night of a trail-running camp in Texas. We’re off the grid in a rural compound with no-frills dormitories, surrounded by hills with miles of rocky trails, two hours northwest of San Antonio.
He politely introduces himself as Chad Prichard from Denver, and soon says, “I thank God for giving me this opportunity. This whole thing is awesome.”
Some 60 men and women from all over the country who actively serve or are retired from the military are taking part in the camp, which supports veterans through athletic and social programs. Ultrarunner Liza Howard of San Antonio, winner of the 2015 Leadville Trail 100 Run, organized the camp and recruited several top names in the sport to serve as mentors, including Meghan Arbogast, Jason Schlarb, Nicole Struder, Paul Terranova and others. Everyone wears a red shirt with the eagle logo of the nonprofit that brought us together: Team RWB (short for Red White and Blue).
What brings Prichard here? His answer is simple. “This has saved me,” he explains, meaning getting in shape and connecting with Team RWB a little over a year ago.
Over the course of the three-day camp, Prichard earns a reputation as a runner with an abundance of raw talent and a positive personality. “He’s a natural athlete,” says one of his mentors, ultrarunner Matt Hart of Boulder, Colorado, “and the most excited, energetic and enthusiastic member of our whole group.”
Watching Prichard charge up hillsides or attack the camp’s obstacle course, it’s hard to imagine that three years ago, he was overweight and barely able to hold down a job due to heavy drug abuse. He had been homeless for a short period, diagnosed with chemical-induced schizophrenia, divorced, bankrupt and alienated from his two young children.
“Back then,” says Prichard, recalling his cocaine-addled days, “I couldn’t understand what you’d be saying because voices were constantly talking in my head.”
During a group session at the camp, Prichard stands up and shares the story of his journey from a working-class Midwestern upbringing to serving in the Army, to substance abuse, to rebuilding his life and becoming a runner. He’s packed in more drama and scrapes with death by age 35 than most people ever come close to experiencing. “I sometimes tell people I don’t know what was more of a culture shock—going to war, or coming home from Iraq to a bankruptcy and divorce,” he says.
“My prayer,” he adds afterward, “is I can give other veterans a message of hope, that no matter what hole you’ve fallen in, you can get out.”
In the weeks that follow, he feels so inspired by the trail-running camp that he nurtures dreams of becoming an accomplished ultrarunner and signs up for the January 9 Bandera 100K, giving himself just three months to train.
“Trail running gives me the opportunity to push myself to be better,” he says. “There are so many things I could do athletically, but I love that ‘let’s go for an all-day run’ mindset.”
A Young Recruit, Married With Kids
Prichard’s father died of ALS when he was 12. His mother moved him and his three younger siblings from Iowa to a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, and remarried.
He didn’t feel drawn to athletics as a teen, because he was small, only 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds. Cross-country running or track didn’t occur to him as an option.
“I wish I had seen the movie Prefontaine in high school, because I didn’t ever think running could be so impactful,” he says in hindsight. “That guy [Steve Prefontaine] was picked on—he didn’t make any teams and was tiny—and I was the same way.”
Nor was Prichard academically inclined. “It wasn’t because I was stupid, or that school was hard,” he recalls. “I just lost interest.” His mother tried to be supportive, he says, but his relationship with her and his siblings weakened as they coped with their individual circumstances.
“It wasn’t just me who lost my dad and had to move to a new city and start over,” he says now. “We all had to go through suffering.”
As a high-school senior, Prichard met with an Army Reserves recruiter. A military career seemed appealing after a challenging adolescence. “I wanted adventure, to be able to travel,” he says. “And I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” That year—1995—he had a growth spurt of about five inches, which enabled him to pass the Army’s size requirements. The recruiter enlisted him immediately.
Prichard trained at 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. Needing money, he moonlighted as a cook at an Applebee’s. Then 20, he started dating the 19-year-old hostess, who became pregnant two months into their relationship.
“Losing my father made me really scared for this child,” he says. “I didn’t want him to grow up fatherless, so I thought the solution was to get married.” Their son was born one month after their wedding, in 1999.
Prichard enrolled in classes at DeVry University, earned a degree in computer networking and got a well-paying job in sales and IT for Gateway Computers. But a serious auto accident—his truck was rear-ended—left him with a concussion and back pain.
Around this time, Prichard started drinking heavily: two to six beers a day and a 12-pack on weekends. The pressures of making ends meet, raising a child and coping with pain from the accident frayed his marriage. He and his wife separated and then, in early 2001, reconnected for one night. She became pregnant with their daughter. “I tried really hard to make it right,” he says. They moved back in together to raise their family.
Then 9/11 hit, and reservists like him were readied for active duty. The terrorist attack “fired me up,” Prichard says. “I wanted to get involved.”
A friend suggested he train to become a Civil Affairs specialist, an intelligence and combat-support position. Needed in any mission involving civilians, they frequently get deployed, and Prichard eagerly signed on.
At Christmastime 2002, when he was 25 and his kids were 3 and 1, he received notice he would go to Fort Bragg for intensive training on Iraq’s geography, culture and language. Then he’d deploy sometime in March, with the first wave of the invasion.
“I admit I was scared,” he says, “but the fact was I was a trained soldier and willing to do whatever it took.”
Leaving his young children “really sucked, but I couldn’t concentrate on how bad it was to be away, because we truly had to focus on our mission. Everyone had friends and family they left behind. If we wanted to get back and not get killed, we had to focus on our mission.”
In the Red Zone
Prichard got assigned to a team whose mission was to support the 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade Combat Team by assessing and improving the infrastructure in an area northeast of Baghdad.
They were deep in the “Red Zone,” an area designated as unsafe. “Our threat level was at the extreme,” says Prichard’s friend and team sergeant James Loehr. Their six-man Civil Affairs team was embedded in a safe house in the Sunni Triangle in Eastern Iraq. Only two of these teams were assigned to live there—12 American soldiers surrounded by some 40,000 Iraqis, with backup troops more than 20 miles away.
Those dozen soldiers gathered intelligence from civilians, helped rebuild services such as water treatment plants and communications, and identified targets such as mosques and hospitals that should be protected from military action.
“Chad was amazing, and we nicknamed him Face from The A Team,” says Loehr, referring to the 1980s TV show’s smooth-talking second-in-command, who’s able to get the team what they need. “He was the picture-perfect Civil Affairs soldier, because he was able to win hearts and minds, and he made friends with neighbors in the area we lived in.”
Loehr recalls how one time, a suicide bomber, trying to get near the soldiers by enticing them with food, accidentally detonated himself too early. Some people in the neighborhood thought the American soldiers killed the man. Prichard, first to the scene, “did a great job keeping the crowd calm,” says Loehr. “He told kids to get the leaders to let them know it wasn’t our fault.”
Suicide bombers weren’t the only regular threat. Improvised explosive devices blew up right next to their vehicle on several occasions, and, other times, makeshift grenades were thrown over a wall and toward their safe house. “I have no idea how I survived,” says Prichard, mentioning a captain close to him who died and a sergeant who lost an arm.
Nonetheless, he speaks with pride about his time in Iraq: “I got to help Iraqi people get the supplies they needed, get the parts to get pumps working again. … Our role was very rewarding.”
A Disastrous Homecoming
Prichard and his wife did not keep in close touch during his year away, and, on his return, he felt something wasn’t right between them. He suspected she had developed a relationship with someone else.
A few days after he returned home, Prichard says he and his wife got into a fight that turned physical, and when he restrained her, she accused him of domestic violence. The police arrested and jailed him until the charges were dropped days later. Then—still only one week back from Iraq—he discovered his house payments were delinquent, his car was about to be repossessed and his wife wanted to file for divorce.
They separated, and, with the help of his mother, Prichard shared parenting duties with his ex-wife. “I told my mom, I’d much rather go back to Iraq and have the risk of getting blown up or shot—this was way more painful,” he recalls. “The divorce and bankruptcy sent me into depression, and I became a very angry person. I felt like I fought for this country, and now I’m falling apart and this country doesn’t give a crap about me.”
He was deployed to West Africa for part of 2005, to help train the Mali National Guard, but felt adrift again upon returning in early 2006, the year his Army service officially ended.
He tried to resume his old career as a computer-network administrator, but “couldn’t do a desk job” after having been in the field as a soldier. Looking to try something different, he took an unpaid internship at a theater company in Kansas City. He realized his skills translated well to working the lights and sound for shows, and he enjoyed it.
Prichard then embarked on a new career as a roadie in the music industry, touring with some big-name acts like Jackson Browne and Everclear. But heavy partying—drinking, smoking pot—went hand in hand with his new profession, and his role as a father became increasingly difficult to maintain.
“It got to the point where I looked at having my kids as work,” because he would have to sober up to take care of them, he recalls remorsefully. “It took me away from my life. I’d party hard and wake up the next morning feeling like crap, and I’d drink and do a bump of cocaine just to get back to normal.”
After his ex-wife and their children moved to Colorado in 2008, Prichard’s contact with them all but dried up. He devolved to the point where, nearly daily, he would ingest at least a gram of cocaine, along with prescription drugs—anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and sleep-aid medications prescribed by the Veterans Administration—a case of beer, a pack of cigarettes and marijuana.
“You just drink all day—it’s literally an all-day event,” he says, trying to explain how anyone can tolerate that level of intoxication. “It caught up to me really bad. It was like committing suicide every day without pulling the trigger, and, with the amount of drugs I’d do, there were times I felt like my heart would blow out of my chest.”
In 2011, he became homeless for a few months. “I would sneak into people’s basements and sleep wherever I could. I hated it.” Because of his drug use, he was rarely working, and his reputation had deteriorated. A friend rescued him by paying for an apartment in Kansas City: “He saw that glimpse of person in me that still could get through this.”
Toward the end of 2012, Prichard says, “I looked in the mirror, and realized I looked horrible. My skin was messed up. I had a beer gut. I didn’t have muscle definition.”
Still worse were the auditory hallucinations: the voices of God and the devil, waging a good-versus-evil debate in his head. “It was scary, it was constant, and it was just so hard to function,” he says. “I said a prayer and said, ‘I need to get away from this.’ I was willing to do anything to get my head right.”
Early the next year, Prichard went to the VA in Kansas City, saying he needed help to get clean and sober, but the agency had a six-week waiting list for drug rehab.
“There was that fighter in me that said, ‘I fucked up, it’s time to move on, this is not fun anymore, this is evil,’” he says. “So I just started quitting”—first cocaine, then alcohol, and finally cigarettes and marijuana. It took the better part of 2013 to end his substance abuse. “Learning to get ready in the morning sober was so hard. Just doing simple things sober was so hard.” His mother and a Kansas City church provided some emotional support.
That summer, he decided he needed a change. “I needed to get away from Kansas City,” he says. “I needed to go somewhere where no one knew my name, where I didn’t have a favorite bar. And the more sober I got, the more my vision became clear that my priorities were out of whack, and I needed to be more in my children’s lives.”
He moved to the suburbs of Denver to live near his ex-wife and reconnect with his children, who are now in the 8th and 10th grades. His relationship with their mother “got way better,” he says. Rather than always fighting, Prichard and his ex-wife found a way to collaborate on co-parenting while living in separate households. He began visiting his children one day during the week and caring for them every other weekend.
From Addict to Athlete
In Colorado, several individuals serendipitously stepped into Prichard’s life to help him and, ultimately, to steer him toward trail running.
First, he found Phoenix Multisport in Denver, a support group and gym devoted to helping individuals recover from alcohol and substance abuse through physical activity. Founder Scott Strode inspired Prichard with the message, “I’m an athlete, not an addict.” He took up running for fitness and ran several 5Ks in the summer of 2014, getting his time to under 21 minutes.
While working out one day at Phoenix Multisport, he met Pete Mangold, a representative of the Denver Chapter of Team RWB. With Mangold’s encouragement, he became involved with the chapter, ran a couple of 10Ks and participated in his most inspiring run to date: the Old Glory Relay, a coast-to-coast event in which hundreds of veterans, each running a short segment, carry the American flag across the country.
Ultrarunner Dave James of Flagstaff, Arizona, a two-time USATF 100-mile champion, was an Old Glory Relay leader, and met Prichard when Prichard was assigned to run to the highest point on the relay: Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide, at 11,300 feet elevation.
“I basically had to sprint to keep up with him,” says James. “His breathing going up to 11,000 feet wasn’t labored at all. I told him, ‘You really have talent.’”
“Dave James motivated me to think, ‘I’ve got something I can be good at,’” Prichard says. “I thought, now that I’m sober, the sky’s the limit, and, to be honest, marathons sounded boring. So I heard the word ‘Ironman’—a marathon and bike and swim—and I thought, ‘I’m gonna do that.’”
With a borrowed bike, Prichard started training, in between nursing classes at the University of Colorado Denver and part-time work as a student-assistant medical researcher. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled to become a nurse and hopes, in the long term, to specialize in physical therapy, which he became interested in after his car accident in 2000 left him with soft-tissue damage.
By 2015, Prichard felt like such a new person that he added “The Sober Chad” in parentheses to his name on Facebook. He finished four sprint-distance triathlons and one Half Ironman as precursors to a full Ironman.
Then he stumbled into a different kind of endurance event. A Team RWB member needed a pacer for the Leadville Trail 100 Run, Colorado’s legendary “race across the sky.”
“I’m like, ‘It’s running, I’ll figure it out,’” he says. “I fell in love with it.”
A Blind Date at the Leadville 100
Prichard showed up at the mile-75 aid station of the Leadville 100 last August with virtually no trail-running experience. He was looking forward to experiencing the final leg of the race, but his runner hadn’t made the cutoffs at the earlier aid stations. Prichard found himself stuck.
Then one of the top female competitors, Amy Rusiecki, 36, of South Deerfield, Massachusetts, came into the aid station. She had been a podium finisher at several ultras and was running her 10th 100-miler at Leadville, but stomach problems and low energy plagued her performance that day. She had received word that her pacer had to bow out due to altitude sickness. A friend at the aid station connected her with Prichard, and, without hesitating, Prichard agreed to be Rusiecki’s pacer.
“He kept saying, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and was formal in the way he talks, but at the same time he’s scruffy—he looked like a 20-something hipster trail runner,” Rusiecki says.
They hit the trail around midnight. “He was so encouraging and psyched about everything,” she remembers. When they passed other runners, “He’d say, ‘I’m gonna give you a Ric Flair Woo’” [the signature cheer of the wrestling celebrity], followed by a rousing, “Wooo!”
“I’m not really a trail runner,” Prichard told Rusiecki at one point.
“I said, ‘You’re keeping up, so you fooled me,’” says Rusiecki, who picked up the pace enough to break 27 hours.
A Rookie’s Plunge Into Ultras
On January 9, Prichard stood at the start line of the Bandera 100K, a tough Texas race with the tagline “a trail of rugged and brutal beauty where everything cuts, stings or bites.”
He had been following a weekly routine of one long bike ride, one long swim, two days completely off and only three days of running. Then a trail-running mentor from camp suggested in November that he add more trail-specific volume, so Prichard completed two 50K training runs in mid-December on rugged, snowy Colorado trails. That distance was the farthest he had ever run.
In the days before the race, he flirted with doubt and considered downgrading to the event’s 50K division. “I started to read an ultrarunning book and had to stop, because it was just stressing me out,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that.’”
But he stuck with the 100K, and at 7:30 a.m., just past sunrise, an exuberant Prichard took off with Lorenzo Sanchez, an Air Force vet and one of the mentors from the Team RWB camp. Sanchez, a six-time finisher of the Bandera 100K, had signed up so he could pace Prichard through the race.
Prichard’s overriding goal was to “have fun and finish with a smile,” but he also hoped to break 12 hours—ambitious for a first-timer, considering that it would put him in the top quintile of finishers at a competitive race.
The course was a double 50K loop in Hill Country State Natural Area, a remote wilderness preserve with dusty roads bordered by scraggly cedars and sturdy oaks. Protruding limestone and softball-sized loose rocks made running the singletrack trails feel like trekking up dry riverbeds. Sotol, a knee-high spiky green plant with barbed, serrated leaves, lacerated runners’ legs.
About five-and-a-half hours in, at the 50K mark—halfway—Prichard’s gait looked uneven, his right leg stiff from fatigue and from falling down multiple times. Still, he high-fived Sanchez and other friends and let out a “Wooo!” as he ran beyond 31 miles for the first time.
Watching from the sidelines, Joe Prusaitis, the race’s founder and first race director, said wryly, “That guy could get hit by a car and still be smiling.”
At mile 42, though, Prichard looked drained as he emerged from the brush. “I had a shitty”—he clapped his hand over his mouth—“I’m sorry, I mean crappy mile, and I hurt,” he said. “I kept telling myself I’d get out of that low, but, at the same time, I wasn’t, and it was kind of scary.” Ointment made his stiff, scratched-up legs feel better, and as he took off with Sanchez, his stride looked fluid again.
The sun set and temperatures dropped into the low 40s. Prichard and Sanchez caught up to another friend from Team RWB, and then met a fourth runner, whose headlamp was failing. The foursome became determined to finish together, so Prichard and Sanchez periodically slowed down to let the others keep up.
Shortly after 7:15 p.m., a cluster of headlamp beams appeared in the darkness near the finish, and “Wooo!” rang out from behind some bushes. Prichard burst into the finishing chute, his three running buddies sprinting behind. A large American flag unfurled over his shoulder.
A day earlier, Prichard had driven to the final aid station and stashed the flag so he could carry it the last five miles.
They crossed the line together in 11:46:03, tying for 33rd place out of more than 200 finishers. Prichard looked close to tears as he hugged the race director, but his expression changed to glee when the RD handed him a Western-style buckle as a finisher’s prize.
Prichard jumped and hollered, “I got a buckle and didn’t have to ride a bull!”
Later, when asked how it felt to finish and why he carried the flag, he said, “For eight years, I ran from my identity of being a veteran and wanted nothing to do with the military, because the trauma we all face from service made me into the angry, bitter person I was.” Trail running and Team RWB, though, “brought back the good parts of the military: the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the pushing each other to go further. I feel I’ve been given a second chance—if not my fifth or sixth chance—at life.”
Trail Runner contributing editor Sarah Lavender Smith mentored at Team RWB’s trail-running camp and crewed for Prichard at the Bandera 100K. She blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com. This article originally appeared in our April 2016/DIRT issue.