Long road home : Running provides path back to health for Nikiski man

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2011

The slender man in sunglasses could pass for any casual jogger.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Ben LaVigueur runs a training route near his home in Nikiski earlier this month. In January, he won a 50-mile race with an pace averaging a little more than 8 minutes per mile.

Dressed in long sleeves and stretchy black pants, he trots past a cracked fishing vessel perched on wood stilts, a mailbox with peeling numbers and a husky man bent over the hood of a dented sedan.

With each step, he looks straight ahead.

A pickup truck approaches and he shuffles to the shoulder, the soles of his shoes crunching gravel and sand. Soon he crests a hill and disappears, turning for home under the April morning sun.

Had someone predicted this five years ago, when he was addicted to methamphetamine, the jogger would have shrugged.

Had someone predicted this five years ago, when he was locked in prison, the jogger would have scoffed.

But he is grinning now.

That's what sets Ben LaVigueur, 33, apart from others on the go.

"I've finally come full circle," he said.

Nikiski's wooded back roads, dotted with potholes and lined with walls of stale black snow on a recent Tuesday morning, meant nothing to LaVigueur the teenager. Little about this blue-collar community did.

Born in Petersburg, LaVigueur moved to Nikiski at the age of 4 with his father, Lee, his mother, Diane, and his younger brother, Gabe. Ben and Gabe, six years apart, attended school while Diane worked as a lifeguard at the Nikiski pool. Lee, who is retired, was a plant engineer at a fish processing company.

Ben wanted out of Nikiski.

Lee, 61, sensed his son drifting away during those teen years.

"Ben and I never really clicked when he was younger," Lee said. "When he was in elementary school, yes, but once he got into junior high and high school ... he would rather do his own thing than worry about what the rest of the family was doing."

When he was 18, Ben moved to Colorado, where his friends attended college.

"Come down, check it out," they urged in 1996.

He was in jail by 1997.

Drugs and alcohol led to the arrest, Ben said, a prelude to a cycle that defined his life for a decade.

Ben spent about five years in Greely, Colo., where substances were a crutch on which he leaned, and a leash to which he was chained.

He bounced between jobs, was in and out of court and watched a long-term relationship fizzle.

In 2001, he moved to Boulder, Colo., an outdoor and arts community nestled beneath the jagged Flatiron Mountains.

Those were good times, Ben remembered.

He enrolled in nursing classes at Front Range Community College in Longmont, Colo., and avoided serious trouble for about three years.

"That was one of the better times in my life, ever," he said.

But in 2005, it went to hell.

That was the year the Public Broadcasting Service program "Frontline," in association with The Oregonian newspaper, chronicled the abuse of methamphetamine in a documentary called "The Meth Epidemic."

The documentary was released amid a swift rise in meth abuse nationwide as the man-made drug reached across suburbia and into thousands of homes.

Research suggests a high induced by meth increases a human's normal level of dopamine, the brain's primary pleasure chemical, by more than 1,000 times, creating a feeling of euphoria the brain can't produce on its own.

At the same time, it destroys the part of the brain that generates dopamine.

A friend offered Ben the drug -- "I wasn't afraid of it," he said -- and he was hooked from day 1.

"All it takes is once," Ben said.

Like a ball of yarn tumbling downhill, his life unraveled.

He piled up debt. Dropped weight. Lied to family and friends. Lost two jobs. Blew a chance at becoming a nurse.

All that mattered was the next fix.

"It became my top priority," Ben said. "I closed myself off and was doing it every day."

Ben's girlfriend left when she learned of his addiction -- she lived about two hours away when they dated -- and his desire to use increased.

When she began talking to him again after the split, a male friend intervened, convinced she was making a poor decision. Ben reacted in a fit of rage, bashing the man's vehicle on the heels of a weeklong bender.

"I went ballistic," he said.

He was put on probation and avoided jail time with the stipulation that he stay clean.

There were stretches of sobriety, but he always relapsed.

Finally, after a series of failed drug tests, a judge determined Ben wasn't fit to care for himself.

"I just couldn't stay clean," he said.

The judge handed down the four-year sentence on Feb. 3, 2006, a day after Ben's 28th birthday.

He was sent to Fort Lion Correctional Facility, a 500-bed unit located in Las Animas, Colo.

The first few months inside were the darkest days of his life, Ben said.

He was assigned a cellmate, a murder convict serving a 40-year sentence. The urge to get high was relentless, the withdrawals unbearable.

"It took my brain some time to start thinking straight," Ben said.

Then, midway through his sentence, Ben was accepted into a program that was run by the prison and allowed inmates to train service dogs to aid disabled people.

The program helped Ben see his situation in a different light.

"I began to think about the anguish I was putting my family through," he said.

The image is ironic: A man from Alaska, a place of vast open space, running laps around a fenced-in prison yard under the watch of armed guards.

At first running was an activity to pass time, something different in a world of orderly routine. Soon it became a competition among inmates, racing the clock, counting laps, setting and achieving goals.

Under the barbed-wire fences and watchtowers, Ben channeled his emotions through every breath and stride in the dry Colorado air.

"It felt good," he said. "It occupied my time, and I felt that if my body could function, then my mind could too."

The exercise gave Ben confidence -- and a sense of hope.

He reflected on the past and looked to the future during the runs. They motivated him to get out from behind bars.

"People do change. I have realized that life is full of choices. Granted there are circumstances that have an effect on how you make those choices, but when you are presented with situations in your life, you can choose either 'A,' 'B' or 'C,'" Ben said. "Some of the outcomes might not be too different, but they will lead you in a different direction."

Lee and Ben hadn't seen each other for six years when they hugged at the prison gates on Feb. 5, 2009, the day Ben was released.

"The minute that I met Ben at the gate of his prison, we were as tight as ever before. It became a strong bond," Lee said. "I just broke down. I knew, from talking on the phone and writing letters, I could tell there was a change going on with him while he was in there."

They shared an apartment near Denver while Ben's parole was transferred from Colorado to Alaska, allowing him to move home.

For the first time in more than 10 years, Ben was ready to turn his life around.

"I can look back on it now and say that I don't feel sorry for the person I was, but at the time I was going through a lot of the stuff, I did feel sorry for myself," Ben said. "That also had an effect on the choices I made."

Shortly after he was released, Ben learned his mother had cirrhosis of the liver.

The disease was in its late stages, Ben said, debilitating Diane at a steady rate. Ben had been to Alaska once since 1996 -- for less than a month -- so the news was devastating.

Instead of turning to drugs to cope, Ben continued to run. He trained, relentlessly.

Some days he ran 10 miles at a time, alone. He ran nearly every day during this time.

"The running helped me deal with the stress -- of what was going on with my mom, of moving back, of getting on track," he said. "It was like starting my life over again."

As Ben's endurance improved, Diane's health deteriorated.

His first competitive race resulted in a third-place finish at the 2009 five-kilometer Wagon Trail Run in Hope. Then he raced in the 2009 Everything But the Red Run on Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, another 5K, and he improved his time.

Gaining confidence, he entered the half-marathon portion of the 2009 Kenai River Marathon and earned second in his age group and fourth overall. Diane was at the finish line, the only race she saw in person.

Less than three weeks later, she died at the age of 56.

"I just thank God I wasn't in prison when she left," Ben said. "I wouldn't be where I am today -- at least not in this capacity."

The training reached new heights when Ben registered for the 2010 Little Su 50K race, an annual competition that sends runners, bikers and skiers into the snow-covered landscape of the Matanuska-Susitna valleys each February.

Some days Ben parked his car at the base of the steep Skyline Trail, ran up and down it, spent the night in his vehicle and repeated the process the next morning.

He ran at least 40 miles a week, and sometimes 60, running five or six times every seven days.

Only his job as a butcher at Three Bears in Kenai cut into his running time.

"I was gung-ho. I put everything I had into running and going to work," Ben said. "If it was minus 10 or dumping snow, it didn't matter. I trained. I trained hard, man."

During the Little Su race Ben carried a small piece of paper, which a friend gave to him, and in small black letters it read: "Run on your mom's wings."

Ben placed first in the men's foot race.

Lee was standing at the finish line when his son crossed.

"The first thing I said was, 'This was for mom,'" Ben remembered. "Here I was, doing what I said I would do. I felt great, knowing I could push myself farther than I first thought I could.

"I could see my life in little steps, getting better and better."

Ben said all the right things when he walked into the probation office in Kenai shortly after his release from jail in 2009.

"He presented himself as a good guy," said Eric Einerson, who was Ben's parole officer. "I think he came in with the right attitude -- 'I'm going to succeed, I'm going to do this.'"

Einerson's heard it all before, but with Ben, the transition was almost seamless.

First he went through group intake, established a case plan and completed treatment. Then he gained full-time employment and obtained a driver's license, all the while maintaining a clean record.

Ben and Einerson met on a monthly basis from March 2009 until about three weeks ago, talking about Ben's progress and goals. The whole time, Ben's training continued.

He recently was selected in a lottery to run the Mount Marathon race in July in Seward.

"It's not too often that I am personally inspired by individuals," Einerson said. "This guy inspired me, with his training and hard work. I can't say it's been very often, if ever, that I've been so inspired by one of my parolees. He got me fired up."

Alaska's rate of prisoners re-offending after they've been released is among the nation's highest at 50.4 percent, according to recent study released by the Pew Center.

Recidivism is discouraging and costly. The state could save $24.6 million if it shaved the recidivism rate by 10 percent, according to the study.

That wasn't lost on Einerson when Ben was released from parole nearly a year early. The Kenai office was so impressed with Ben's progress that it sent a letter to Colorado, urging the state to authorize his early release.

"I told Colorado he's been an absolute pleasure to work with," Einerson said. "If they've proven they can follow the rules and fit in with society, we want to let them go."

First they shared glances inside Three Bears, the man behind the counter and the smiling female customer. Then they shared phone numbers.

Now Ben and Michelle O'Brien, 25, of Nikiski, will share a future.

Ben entered the 2011 Little Su 50K foot race to defend his crown in February. Although he had competed a year earlier, he got lost on the course midway through the race.

He fell behind the leader and was forced to re-trace his steps, yet he passed the pack on the final leg of the course and crossed in first.

Upon reaching the finish line, rest was not the first thing on Ben's mind.

Dropping down on one knee was.

The victor finished, picked up a ring from his brother, Gabe, and proposed to Michelle.

"I won twice that day," he said, grinning, "because she said, 'Yes.'"

Added Michelle: "It was incredible. This was supposed to be his day, and he wanted to share it with me."

They lived a quarter mile from each other, but they didn't meet until late November.

Ben shared portions of his past on their first date.

Now they are inseparable, the couple and Michelle's 2-year-old daughter, Isabella.

"It was really impressive that he came forward with it. He wasn't trying to hide it and wasn't embarrassed," she said. "Everyone has a past and I try not to be judgmental. It definitely shaped him as a person."

The couple plans to build a home in Nikiski, though their wedding day has yet to be determined. Ben has scaled down his training since they met, but still runs on a consistent basis. On a recent Tuesday, he completed a six-mile run in Nikiski. He runs because makes him feel good, not because he is determined to win every race he enters.

Gabe and Ben are planning a bicycle trip to Costa Rica in the fall, a trip Ben will use to see new sights and run in a warm climate.

Michelle doesn't want her fiance to quit his hobby anytime soon.

"It's an inspiration to know where he has come from and where he is now," she said. "If he can overcome that, it shows he is a fighter. That's how he runs, too."

Back on the road, the jogger reappears. His cheeks are carmine and his chest is pumping.

His black shoes are freckled with mud, soggy from slush, puddles and snow. A chocolate Labrador zips toward the slender man, who extends his hand.

The dog's tail is wagging, its tongue hanging in the morning sun.

"Come on, buddy," the runner says, turning up a steep driveway. "Let's go home."

Wesley Remmer can be reached at wesley.remmer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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