The Courage to Change: from Addict to IronMan

by Rachel Mayan

“I realized I had lived half my life drunk or high. . . . For some [new] reason, I understood the consequences: if I keep drinking, I’m going to die.”

Jamie Niergarth woke up one morning in a fog. Not his usual fog of a high or a hangover – but a fog where all the choices he’d made over the last 15 years hung heavy like smoke in the air around him. He was surrounded by the reality of his lifestyle, and for the first time in a long time, he could see the darkness for what it was.

It had started when he was 14. Casual underage drinking for fun slowly grew into a need, and drinking buddies progressed into friends with additional benefits – the benefits of getting altered in new ways, until pills entered the picture and stuck around.

Getting drunk, getting high – it became as common a habit as brushing his teeth, and it bled into his twenties. He wasn’t doing anything but drinking, partying, surrounding himself with the wrong people.

All the war stories of an addict ensued. The DUIs. The alienation of friends and family. Playing drunk roller hockey and fracturing his face. He had taken out a home equity loan not to fix his house, but to finance his $100-to-$200 a-day pill addiction, and before he knew it, the money ran out. He was soon $100,000 in debt, living in a house that he’d already lost to drug-addicted friends but would eventually lose to the bank, and depressed and anxious with no more means of temporarily quieting the pain.

That morning, February 16, 2009, 29-year-old Jamie woke up with a sobering clarity of the world he’d created.

It was a dark place – the darkest state of mind he’d ever been in, and eventually and slowly, he arrived at a place of quiet surrender that had been half his life in the making. He picked up the phone feeling hopeless, feeling lost – but most significantly, feeling resolved to stop living the way he’d been.

Within two days, Jamie was admitted to a rehab center.

Around him were sights he never wished to see – pregnant women having seizures; people withdrawing; fights and sneaking in drugs. It felt like the roughest type of reality, and it took a while to dawn on Jamie that he lived in that world, too. He was a part of it. He was one of them; but he didn’t want to believe it.

For a while he wouldn’t talk. The tragedy around him was shocking. There he was in a foreign but severely familiar place trying to make new of his life not knowing who he was when he wasn’t using. There came a lot of fear in realizing that he’d spent half his life intoxicated and now, outer shell removed, had to reenter the world as a functioning adult without the know-how to be that person or what that looked like for him.

It took five or six months for Jamie to start opening up, and another three months before he left the outpatient facility and entered the world again.

Jamie’s days were spent just trying to get by — trying to function and have healthy human interaction. Every day for 100 days, he went to recovery meetings, talking to people and trying his hand at blending back into society. It was a struggle for him just to get up, eat, and move forward with his day.

“It’s a big shock,” he says. “You have to find out who you are, and it’s a lot of fear. I was scared of everything and anything. It took me [a while] to become clear. I was just in a fog.”

From Rut to Run

A year into his sobriety and after many months of a “wake up, eat, go to meetings, go home” routine, Jamie found himself at 200 pounds. For a guy whose build comfortably supports 155 pounds, Jamie was 45 pounds overweight and at another crossroad between “Continue” and “Change.” He decided to start running.

Jamie at 200 pounds

“I started with half a mile on the treadmill and couldn’t go any further,” he remembers. But he stuck it out and pushed forward. Eventually he got up to running three miles, and then he started getting into 5ks. The weight began to melt off, and the sense of achievement alone was encouragement to keep pushing.

“My 5k times were around 35 minutes, but I did it, and I continued to do it, and then I just kept progressing up. When I start doing something,” he says, “I tend to keep doing it, and then I take it to the extreme.” He did a 10-miler, then a half marathon, and finally a marathon. A year later, in 2011, he got into triathlons. He started with the Sprint distance, then went on to do an Olympic.

Today, Jamie has completed six marathons, three half IronMans, and two IronMans. He’s qualified for the Boston Marathon and has plans to better his time to have a more competitive shot at getting selected in September. He can run a marathon in close to three hours but has his sights on going sub-three.

“In all that time, I’ve just continued to progress,” Jamie says, but it wasn’t without consequences. The strain Jamie was putting his body under was causing injury to the point where he developed knots in his quads that wouldn’t go away.

Jamie refused to take the “easy road” and go to pills – even over-the-counter pain medication. With his addictive personality, he didn’t want to put himself in a vulnerable position. “I don’t ever want to go back to that again,” he says. He knew many people who had been there – gotten sober, started using again.  

“I’ve had lots of friends who’ve died,” Jamie says. “I’ve been to lots of funerals, and that probably could have been me.”

Jamie chose to seek physical therapy to relieve his running injuries. He came to Elite PT, where he worked with Danny Singles.

“He’s super funny, so it was a joy to come in,” Jamie says. “I looked forward to coming to physical therapy. I knew it was going to be hard work, but it is a better alternative than going to get pills to overcome the pain.” After working through his injuries, Elite eventually recommended Jamie see HAC Massage Director, Craig Bohn for regular therapy.

“Since I’ve been coming to Craig, I haven’t been injured in four or five years,” Jamie says. Jamie believes massage is some of the best therapy an athlete can do.

His ideal regimen would be going to Craig twice a month, but at a minimum he makes a point to get a massage with Craig before and after a big race. He applied that race routine during his last IronMan in September of 2018, and he says it made all the difference in his recovery. “Two days after the race, I felt fine,” Jamie says. “If I didn’t do massage, it would likely have taken me at least a week or two to recover.”

Massage has provided him more than just recovery and injury prevention, but a way to improve his mental health, too. Anxiety is something that has stayed with Jamie as one of the burdens that plagued him before sobriety. Even training brings anxiety, with the pressure to get in workouts or achieve PRs, but Jamie tries to keep the big picture in mind. “From going from a half mile to now trying to run sub-three marathons,” he says, “I have to keep it in perspective when I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything or feel like I’m not where I’m supposed to be.”

Jamie and HAC Massage Director, Craig Bohn

While exercise is a big stress-reliever, and as Jamie puts it, “it helps his brain be okay,” massage has played a big role. “It’s not just the physical part, but it’s mental, too. Talking to Craig, being connected with someone — it can change people in a way that maybe they’ve never experienced before. The human touch alone is a powerful thing.”

Jamie notes that Craig also provided an outlet for him. “He’s almost like a therapist to me,” Jamie says. “I’ll go in for a massage, and we’ll talk the whole time,” he laughs.

It’s caring people like Craig who have made a huge impact on Jamie in this phase of his life and given him perspective. People, he found, were one of the biggest changes he had to make. Before, his friends only brought him down, but the people he has met through sports have done just the opposite.

“I’ve met a lot of my best friends through running and tris over the past ten years,” Jamie reflects. “They’re smart, genuine, true, and they’ll help you.” Opening up and being social, which did not come easy at first, brought a new level of enjoyment to running and triathlons.

“The joy it brings to see friends achieve their [personal records] and other accomplishments – that makes me really happy,” Jamie says. “Seeing other people who you’ve trained with and who you’ve chatted with hit their PR – it’s the best feeling in the world.  It’s not just about me anymore. I love being out there, and I love helping new runners, chatting with them and encouraging them.”

Pressing On

Jamie is now ten years sober and plans to stay that way. For anyone dealing with something, whether it be addiction or any personal problems, he urges not giving up easily.

“When it’s hard is when you want to quit,” he says, “but that’s really when you want to gut through it and dig a little bit deeper – just a little bit, just give it a chance. Once you start to see – and it’s so blurry at first – but once you start to see a bit of light, you’ll get excited, and then you work toward the next little thing, it keeps getting better and better and better.

“I think people in the beginning are just so stuck and so hopeless that they can’t do anything. I think in that moment, they feel like they’re going to be stuck like that the rest of their life, but in all actuality, they can get out. I think asking for help is big. Reaching out towards others and practicing sport. I know not everyone is athletic, but for me, running changed my life for the better. Utilize your resources. Pain is part of sport – there’s always going to be pain associated with sport, but the important thing is getting through it in a healthy way.

“Whether it be addiction or any personal problems, we all have the strength to get through them.”


Hockessin Athletic Club opened its doors on June 10 2007. Boasting over 100,000 sq. ft., a 5-pool aquatics complex, and over 200+ weekly group and aqua fitness classes, it is Delaware's premier fitness destination. 100 Fitness Way, Hockessin, DE ·

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