Bodywork

From Drug Addict to Ironman

Shane Niemeyer started exercising in prison after hitting rock-bottom. We talked to him about his path to become a regular Ironman competitor who's now gunning for a spot at the World Championships in Kona.

Niemeyer races the Ironman 2013 GoPro Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.     Photo: Paul Phillips

In his new memoir, athlete and coach Shane Niemeyer opens up about his journey from a drug addict and convict to a top Ironman competitor. The Hurt Artist, co-written with Gary Brozek and set to release May 20th, reveals how Niemeyer’s suicide attempt in prison marked a personal turning point. Today, Niemeyer lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado, and has qualified for the Ironman World Championships four times. We talked to Niemeyer about his new book and life story.

OUTSIDE: Was it hard to open up about your past?
NIEMEYER: My past is my past. There are a lot of things I’m not proud of, but they happened. Going through the process with the writer, Gary Brozek, helped me examine my life in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. We talked for hours at a time. I was really open to him. If I were writing the book alone, I would have left some things out. It was painful.

How well could you remember the parts of your life when you were doing drugs?
There was a stretch of my life when the only way I could piece things together was through criminal justice and rehab records. I’d been to three different psych units and rehab four or five times. There was a two-inch file of documentation on just one psych institution I was in.

Why was your suicide attempt in prison a turning point for you?
At that point in my life, I had no hope. I had despair. To look at death by suicide as a viable solution is a really tough place. Having come through that crisis in tact really shook something inside of me. The only thing I had left coming through that was freedom, because I had nothing to lose. Before, I was afraid I’d be a failure. On the other side of that, there was a huge relief, and an emerging sense of hope and gratitude. I realized how lucky I’d been. I knew I needed to quit using drugs and alcohol.

What was it like to start physical training in prison?
Prison is a place to reform yourself. All you have is time. If you can use that time to your advantage, you can really create a new life. In the beginning of me working out, there were no facilities. I was really out of shape. My liver was still swollen. I was really toxic. I was overweight. It was hard in the beginning to walk up stairs.

How soon did you start to see a physical transformation?
In the beginning, progress is so fast because you’re not working from much. For my first workout, I did a few sets of six pushups and a few sets of sit-ups. It was something. The next workout, I did more. In four, five, six months I was lighter and much fitter.

Were you the only one training in prison?
There was definitely a group of inmates working out. I was probably more serious than most. I wanted to be more than fit. I’d developed an urgency that I needed to achieve something great.

Why did you choose Ironman training?
I think I took a very pragmatic approach to taking a new identity for myself. I needed to improve as a person. The physical part was crucial for a lot of reasons. I didn’t know what to do with my guilt and shame, and the exercise became an outlet for those emotions. It was like a release valve. I knew I needed to do something big to swing my life the other way. I wanted to channel my extreme behavior in another direction.

Do you think Ironman training appeals to you because it is another form of addiction?
Everyone who is a competitive cyclist or swimmer of runner is a little bit tweaked in the melon. Distance triathlons definitely suit people who are a little compulsive or imbalanced. Most well-rounded athletes do other things, and Ironman is pretty one-dimensional. I know a lot of elite athletes who freak out if they miss a workout. There’s an obsessive element to it. I try to avoid being too over the top, but if you only want one thing, to be successful you have to be one-dimensional.

How do you avoid fixating too much on your training?
A lot of athletes talk about themselves so much. My training and my workout. They lose touch with humanity and what’s going in the world. I try to make sure I follow the same process I did in prison. I try to stay in the present moment, be aware of what I’m doing, and be aware of others around me. I try to be compassionate. I read a lot and try to expose myself to new ideas.

How has your wife, triathlete Mandy McLane, helped you stay grounded?
She takes me down a couple of notches. She’s a professional athlete and one of the top women in the country, but she identifies herself as a speech and language pathologist first.

What were your biggest mistakes in starting Ironman training?
I read an article in prison that said pros going to Kona biked 280 miles a week, ran 50 miles a week, and swam seven days a week. I tried to jump onto that. I spent a lot of time over-trained. I still tend toward that at times. Another huge gap has been my lack of attention to detail in nutrition. If my caloric intake is off 20 percent, it impacts my entire day.

What was your first race like?
I raced a Half Ironman. It was very demoralizing. I didn’t realize I could have cramps like that. Everything locked up on me. That was five or six months out of prison. I didn’t realize how I could get to the point where I could finish a whole Ironman three months later.

Did you finish that Ironman?
The whole Ironman actually went a lot better. Crossing the finish line was a culmination of 14 months in prison, and all the training I did there. It meant I’d stuck with something, that I’d achieved something. I hadn’t achieved anything in so long.

What are your racing goals this year?
On [May 17] I race Ironman Texas. I want to go Top 15 and get my spot to Kona. I raced and qualified for the Half Ironman Championships a couple of weeks ago, so that is one box checked off.

How have you done at Kona in the four years you’ve gone?
I haven’t had a good race out there yet. I can be very insecure at times, wondering if I belong. I’ve been trying to work on my mental game. The heat also plays a role, and I’m trying to work on my nutrition.

Do you regret any part of your past?
I regret that I hurt people, my family, my community. I hurt society. You’re not making any contribution. The lying and the deception. Not being a good person.

Are you in a good space now?
I am definitely in a good place. My life is the way I envisioned it when I was in prison. My former life seems like a bad dream.

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