Life’s marathon: Former addict embraces running as worship

November 2015 Posted in People
Michael Traeger plans to run the Boston Marathon again in April 2016.

Michael Traeger plans to run the Boston Marathon again in April 2016.

By Steve Ritchie

Michael Traeger didn’t hit bottom when he was expelled from Silverton High School. Or when his father, Mike, died in a tragic car accident just before Michael’s 18th birthday.

Hitting bottom happened some years later, when Michael was 23. He was living out of his backpack in Salem, with no money and no place to sleep. He was also feeding an addiction to drugs and alcohol that was leading him into some dark places.

Traeger now says that period of his life was a fog for him, but he has a “crystal clear memory” of taking out his phone one day, and flipping through his contacts, looking for someone he could hit up for money for his next fix, or a place to crash.

When he couldn’t find even one person to call, Traeger finally came to a painful realization: he was in real trouble.

“Man, I thought, I don’t have anyone left to call,” Traeger said. “There is no one I can turn to but God and I called out to Him.” He knew then that his “bad choices,” which started when he was 13, had finally led him to this spot. Traeger began partying during high school, and, after his dad’s death, moved on from marijuana to alcohol and then to hard drugs, including prescription painkillers and, eventually, heroin.

“Alcohol was a numbing agent for me” Traeger said. “I stayed in that rut for quite awhile… I hadn’t talked to my dad in a couple of years (before he died). We were on rough terms because of choices that I was making. So I had a lot of regret, and that was the only way I knew how to cope with it at the time.”

Traeger eventually decided to call his aunt, Nikki Muhr. She reminded him of a place that might offer him a pathway to recovery: Mountain Ministries Ranch in Washington. It took him six more months before he found his way to the ranch, and, once there, he had to find a way to deal with the physical pain of withdrawal.

“You kind of feel trapped (by withdrawal). You want out of (addiction), obviously, but you just don’t know how to get out of it. It’s horrible. You won’t die but you feel like you want to.”

Traeger’s “cold turkey” withdrawal experience was so bad that he couldn’t sleep at all in his early days at Mountain Ministries. He would go into the chapel in the dead of night, and lay by the cross, praying to God to just give him one hour of sleep that night. It took time, but his prayer was answered. Traeger began to be able to sleep a little, then a little more.

Traeger said the goal of the year-long Mountain Ministries program is for the men there to “get clean and sober, and also that Christ will touch your heart. I told God I was tired of hurting others, hurting myself, and hurting Him. I said I am going to seek Him and I am not going to give up. At that moment my whole heart and mindset was changed.”

Traeger stayed the entire year at Mountain Ministries. He became the “tire specialist” there, repairing and changing tires on all the ranch’s vehicles. He also began running again, something he had enjoyed and shown talent in during his one season of cross country at Silverton High School.

“It has been a huge part of my recovery,” he said about running. “I was in a program with 30 guys in a tight, confined area. It was hard to find time to get alone and be able to breathe and be with God. So I would go out and run up and down this quarter-mile gravel road.

“I started to realize I really love running and I feel good afterwards.”

Traeger came back to Silverton clean and sober. He set about making a new life and new friends, which he found in abundance at Silverton Friends Church. He began to reconcile with his family. And he kept running.

“Running is an act of worship for me,” Traeger said, comparing his distance running to a musician who plays in a worship band. “It’s a way of thanking Him for what He has done . . . for Him giving me something to be passionate about.”

A friend convinced him to run in the Silverton Hospital Fun Run, but he didn’t bother to enter, figuring he wasn’t going to win or place high. To his surprise, Traeger finished second in the race, and he was embarrassed that he didn’t have a bib number on his chest when he went through the finish chute.

Once he got serious and got his feet wet in a few races, Traeger set a goal to run the legendary Boston Marathon. He qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon, one year after the tragic bombing that occurred near the marathon finish line. That made an already special experience even more memorable for Traeger.

“My goal (at Boston) was to break three hours and I ran 2 hours 59 minutes and about 30 seconds.”

Traeger has since dropped his marathon personal record by nearly 10 minutes, running ran 2 hours 50 minutes and change at the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. He won both the Silverton Hospital Fun Run and the Homer’s Classic 8K this summer.

Future plans for Traeger include running his first 50 kilometer (30 miles) trail race on Nov. 7 at Silver Falls State Park. He has qualified again for the Boston Marathon, and hopes to return in 2016.

Traeger, now 28, trains by himself and coaches himself. He runs between 40 and 60 miles per week when training for a major race. “It takes me just a little bit longer to recover now from a long run – like the 21-mile run I did at the Falls last weekend.”

Squeezing in that much mileage can be tough, he admits. Traeger has worked as a tree climber for several years, and just joined Asplundh, the company that clears tree branches away from power and phone lines. The work is physical and tiring, but helps keep him in great shape, he says.

“One thing I noticed doing tree work is that it keeps me limber. Being able to move and stretch keeps my body pretty flexible.”

Another major life change for Traeger happened on Aug. 22 when he married his girlfriend, Chrissie, at The Oregon Garden.

A program coordinator for the Salem Boys & Girls Club, Chrissie is not a runner, but admires Michael’s dedication to that pursuit, and to his life change.

Michael and Chrissie were introduced by his best friend, Jason, and her best friend, Joy, who also happen to be married to each other. Despite Jason and Joy’s hopes that Michael and Chrissie would get together, she said she had many doubts.

“I knew about his past before I met him,” Chrissie said. “I was a little skittish at first because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be with someone with that kind of past. I wasn’t sure that he would really be able to change . . . After awhile I began to see that (some) people can change and find a way out of addiction. He is one of those rare people. I knew after three months that his character was a lot different.”

Michael agreed with her description, adding, “I had to be a little bit persistent with her.”

When he returns to Boston next year to run in the marathon, Traeger hopes to take Chrissie, his mother, Erin Ellis, and brother, Justin Ellis, with him. He has set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the expenses of the trip. He is also working with middle school students through the Wyld Life organization, and loves to share his story of redemption, forgiveness and life change.

His mother says that people have always been drawn to Michael, even when he was quite young.

“Michael always had a charismatic, magnetic personality,” Ellis said. “Now that he’s come through to the other side of the bad choices that he made he is able to use that part of his personality to inspire people and encourage them to make changes that they need to make too.

“He started making really bad choices around that (middle school) age so he can relate to the choices they are making and maybe help save someone the pain that he went through.”

On Dec. 18, 2015, Traeger will celebrate five years of being clean and sober, likely with a prayer of thanksgiving and a 20-mile run.

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