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Columnist Holly Bennett reviews the new book The Hurt Artist–My Journey From Suicidal Junkie To Ironman.
I know Shane Niemeyer from the Boulder endurance sports circle. He’s a personal trainer at my gym, we swim in the same Masters group and we sometimes bump into one another at social functions. He’s always one to share a smile and a kind hello, and he has a quirky-sweet way of asking, “What have you been up to?” Nothing feels forced with Niemeyer; despite only knowing him slightly, I can tell he’s authentic, genuinely wanting to press pause on whatever might seem more important to connect with a friend. I can tell he’s a guy who savors life’s moments.
I knew of his difficult past, though not in detail. I remembered that his story had been highlighted in the 2010 NBC Ironman broadcast–a once suicidal drug addict turned triathlete–but I didn’t recall the full extent of what was shared on air. When his book was published I looked forward to reading it–in part, admittedly, out of curiosity for the difficult truths within. But more than wanting to know what led Niemeyer to try ending his life, I wanted to know what made him live–and thrive–after that attempt.
The Hurt Artist is hardly feel-good summer reading. It’s raw and uncomfortable and will make you squirm. It will give you pause the next time you pass someone down and out in the streets, perhaps with a newfound compassion for the person behind the pained, drug and alcohol-reddened eyes. It will turn your concept of determination upside down. And above all else, it will make you consider the question of motivation–where it comes from in your own life, whether the actions you take every day are done with purpose and direction, and whether any obstacle in the future will again feel insurmountable.
Something in Niemeyer was strong enough to survive his premeditated suicide attempt, and I dare say it wasn’t his robust physique; it would be months until he began to transform into an athlete, one who would eventually qualify for the Ironman World Championship four years running. At the time, his body was ravaged from years of drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, plus he was significantly overweight. But something in him did fight back against his deep self-loathing–something I imagine as more than simply dumb luck that his death-jump did not prove fatal. He awoke to find himself still very much alive, yet different. Every past effort to get straight, every notion that he was indeed too far gone and desperately needed help, had failed to click successfully into place–much like a bike’s chain that continually clunks along, making a bothersome noise, never truly finding traction, and ultimately wearing away to worthlessness. But when Niemeyer came to after what was meant to be his death, the chain found its cog. He was still a broken man, but now with drive and desire to heal.
The how’s of Niemeyer’s transformation–his incredible journey through the pain and desperation of addiction, the process of bettering himself both intellectually and physically in prison (imagine triathlon training in the confines of a cell block) and ultimately discovering purpose and pleasure as a personal trainer, triathlete, husband and reformed family member–are best left to the book.
But I will call out one of the book’s many moments–a single sentence, actually–that struck me. “I do think it’s possible to be both lucid and delusional simultaneously,” wrote Niemeyer. He was describing the period of intense drug withdrawal following his suicide attempt and incarceration in solitude, the time during which he happened upon an Outside magazine article featuring six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott. It was Niemeyer’s introduction to triathlon–and an immediate, if uncommon, call-to-arms for the heretofore-floundering young man to set his sights on Kona, the first step toward reconstructing his life. To latch onto that lucidity (albeit laced with delusion–I mean what seemingly dead-end convict decides to become an Ironman?) at his lowest point, and to carve a clear path of promise out of his personal darkness, speaks to Niemeyer’s character–one that clearly belongs on a racecourse or a gym floor inspiring others, and no longer behind bars.