Caleb stands at the edge of the driveway, unsure which way to turn.
It's an April afternoon in 2007. Caleb is 25 years old. He weighs 250 pounds.
He is standing in the driveway attached to a Benson house that belongs to his Aunt Cathy, the last relative willing to take a last chance on him.
Aunt Cathy recently handed Caleb $100 to pay for his daughter Clementine's baby formula. He spent every last cent of that $100 on crack instead. She found out this morning.
I'm keeping Clementine, she said.
Caleb slams the front door and walks to the edge of the driveway and looks left. There's a crack house in that direction, within easy walking distance. And Caleb's final paycheck is screaming at him from his wallet.
Turn left, and he will walk the old, familiar route. His first Bud Light and his first joint at 12 years old. Making his first drug deal in the hallways of Fremont High School at 15. Trying coke and then crack and then meth by 18.
The first pull of chilled whiskey he takes each morning before he brushes his teeth at age 21.
The first night he sleeps behind a dumpster at age 22.
Caleb looks right. There's an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in that direction. It's 3 miles away. And Caleb doesn't have a car. Turn right, and Caleb will head toward things like sobriety and a steady job. He will walk blindly toward things that to him are as unknown, as unfathomable, as a meth binge is to a nun.
Let's be blunt about the 25-year-old standing at the edge of this driveway.
Caleb is a loser. Caleb is a mother's worst nightmare. We all know which way Caleb will forever turn.
What are the odds for Caleb at this moment? Ten to 1? Twenty to 1? Fifty to 1?
Caleb turns. He begins to walk. The walk is long, 3 miles, so he smokes two cheap cigarettes along the way.
When he reaches his destination, he goes to the front of the room and says, “My name is Caleb, I'm an alcoholic and an addict, and I don't have anywhere else to go.”
Caleb Smidt stops. He stops because he can't speak anymore. He can't speak because he's doubled over, and he is sobbing. He doesn't yet know that a single righthand turn has saved his life.
* * *
It's funny, because the lefthand turns start off so simple.
Mom is always gone, teaching dance lessons to pay the bills as a single mom, or out with her boyfriend. She's easy to head-fake.
Just feint right — “No, Ma, I already did my homework” — and then wait 'til she's gone and head left, out with your newest buddies, the ones who spend weeknights drinking beer and smoking pot.
The Fremont High teachers prove easy, too. The school is big, maybe 400 kids in Caleb's class; and Caleb is smart, maybe too smart for his own good. He can get B's and C's even when he shows up hung over or leaves early to get high or skips school altogether. By the time he's a junior, he has one good reason to keep showing up at Fremont High: That's where the customers are.
He sells them pot, and then later cocaine, and then later meth.
He partners with an older man from Omaha. He stashes Ziploc bags of marijuana and eight-balls of cocaine in his childhood bedroom. Once he makes $2,300 in three hours selling drugs in Fremont. He is 17. He buys designer jeans and the best car stereo. He buys his friends dinner and convinces himself he is the most popular guy around.
“Easy money,” he says. “As addictive as the drugs.”
After he graduates from high school, Caleb starts head-faking employers, at least for a little while. Sure, he is smoking half his drug profits away and snorting the other half up his nose. Sure, now he takes a pull of chilled whiskey in the morning and sometimes uses his lunch break to troll Fremont, looking for a seller.
And sure, now he sometimes shows up at work after staying awake for 24 or 36 or 48 straight hours, because you don't sleep when you are high on meth.
But at 72 hours, he sees traces of color behind customers when they walk away. The customers ... they have rainbow tails, he thinks. He sees a word in his head, goes to type that word on a computer, and sees a different word blinking on the screen.
Once he stays up 11 days without a real night's sleep. He loses decent jobs at a pharmacy and a telemarketing company and a West Point garbage business run by his father. He loses minimum-wage jobs at fast food restaurants. He loses every job, eventually.
He head-fakes girls, too, feints right and goes left, promises his girlfriend that, no, he's not into meth. That works until she gets sick of the lies and kicks him out of the house in the winter of 2004.
He spends that winter sleeping behind the dumpster at Al's Cafe in Fremont. He stuffs newspaper into his coat. He spends every dollar he comes across on cheap booze and meth.
One morning he wakes up behind the dumpster. He has passed out from drinking, and he has wet himself, and the urine has frozen his pants and his hands to the ground.
He wakes up, and he yanks his hands from the ice, and he stares at them.
“I remember thinking, 'Life's not supposed to be this way.' ”
Even then, he turns left.
He moves in with another girl, a fellow junkie, and persuades her to sell drugs with him, even though she is pregnant with their child. She sells to an undercover cop. She gives birth to Clementine while out on bail. And then she's sentenced to 30 months and goes to the York women's prison. Her daughter is 12 weeks old.
Caleb moves east to Omaha with Clementine, but he keeps on turning left. He lies to his Aunt Cathy. He steals another relative's car. He goes to rehab in Lincoln, tells everyone he's ready to change ... and then gets drunk and high the day it's over.
Left, left, left, left, left ... until that April afternoon when he stands sobbing among strangers at the AA meeting.
After the meeting, one of the strangers takes him to a halfway house. The date is April 5, 2007. Caleb remembers the date because it's the last day he uses drugs. It's the last day he takes a drink.
That day, Caleb walks into the halfway house and he walks by something. He notices it like he has only noticed drugs and booze. Huh, he thinks. What are the odds?
A workout room. The halfway house has a workout room.
* * *
The first time Caleb climbs on a treadmill, he runs for a mile and a half. When he finishes, drenched in sweat, he goes back to his room and writes down some goals.
He writes: “Run a marathon.” He writes this down even though the farthest he has ever run is a mile and a half.
He writes: “Make $50,000 in a year,” even though his new job at Skylark Meats pays him $22,000 to work the night shift throwing around giant hunks of beef.
He writes: “Get into a relationship and be a good father.”
And he writes this down: “Finish an Ironman triathlon.”
An Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run — an entire marathon.
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Caleb writes this down despite the fact that the world's top athletes often consider the Ironman to be the pinnacle of physical achievement.
He writes it down despite the fact that he doesn't own a bike, he's 60 pounds overweight, he smokes a pack of Old Gold cigarettes a day, he's broke, and he's always one sip away from sleeping behind a dumpster.
And what would the boys in Vegas, with their souped-up computers and their clear-eyed view of human nature, make of this?
Five-hundred to one? A thousand to one? A snowball's chance in Satan's beach house hot tub to one?
Oh, and there's one other thing: Caleb can't swim.
Which is why he jumps into the deep end of the pool at the apartment complex where he moved with Clementine after he'd been sober for a year.
He has a steady job at Skylark, where he will eventually be promoted. He's going to Metro Community College, where he will eventually get an associate degree.
He still carries around his sheet of goals, which is carefully folded and stuffed into his wallet.
He's working himself into increasingly stunning shape: He has jogged off pound after pound and just finished the Lincoln Marathon for the first time.
And he has met a woman at AA, a woman named Donna — a woman he will eventually marry.
Caleb has bought a bike off the Internet. And he has decided: Time to teach myself how to swim.
And so he climbs into the apartment pool each day and slowly turns his dog paddle into a janky, jury-rigged crawl stroke. Within two months he is swimming laps.
His first triathlon is in Des Moines on June 28, 2009. This triathlon is what's known as international distance: basically a mile swim, followed by a 24-mile bike ride, followed by a six-mile run.
Caleb finishes. He doesn't just finish. He finishes in the top third of all competitors.
He reads every triathlon how-to book he can buy. He finds a coach who helps him turn his makeshift stroke into a real crawl stroke. He molds his body with squats and hang cleans. He doesn't so much as smell a drink.
In June 2010 he drives to Lawrence, Kan., and completes his first half-Ironman: A 1.2-mile swim, then a 56-mile bike ride and then a 13.1-mile run.
Caleb finishes. He doesn't just finish. He finishes in the top 15 percent of all competitors.
He starts to train even harder.
A 5,000-yard swim before breakfast on Monday morning. A two-hour bike ride before work on Tuesday, followed by an hour run that same night. Wednesday, swim. Thursday, bike and run. Friday, swim. Saturday, a 16-mile run. Sunday, a 100-mile bike ride.
The training gives him the same rush of endorphins as the drugs once did, but now he isn't head-faking anyone. He trains in the predawn hours so as not to miss Clementine's Christmas recitals. He trains in the dark, after he tucks her into bed.
He finishes third at a triathlon held in Council Bluffs. He wins a triathlon at Johnson Lake near Lexington.
At 5-foot-9, Caleb is too short and stocky by triathlete standards. The best are built like powerful gazelles. Caleb is more like a freight train.
But he's the guy who will turn a jog into a footrace. He will tack a mile sprint onto the end of a 50-mile bike ride. He will push himself until every muscle screams, and he will collapse into bed, and he will do it again tomorrow.
Most people consider triathletes crazy. Triathletes consider Caleb Smidt crazy.
“Supreme effort, every single time, no excuses. Eat, sleep, breathe, live and die triathlons,” he says, his voice rising with every syllable. “No one wants this more than I do. No one.”
If you happen to meet Caleb Smidt tomorrow, you will meet the distribution manager of a food company. You will meet a husband and father who is at every dance recital, every parent-teacher conference, for his 7-year-old daughter, Clementine.
You will meet a chiseled, 180-pound 31-year-old who walks into a southwest Omaha Village Inn and orders two egg whites, two whole-grain pancakes, a ham steak, a bowl of cottage cheese, fresh fruit and coffee for breakfast, and you will wonder why he's so hungry.
You will not catch even one glimpse of the formula money spent on drugs, or the dumpster, or the years spent turning left and left again until he didn't.
But Caleb knows.
That's why he flies to Cozumel, Mexico, and dives into the water two days after Thanksgiving. That's why he swims 2.4 miles, climbs on a bike and rides 112 miles and then climbs off the bike and runs an entire marathon, 26.2 miles.
The Ironman may be the single-greatest physical accomplishment known to man. It may be the closest we can push the human body to the edge before we tumble over the cliff.
But that isn't why Caleb starts to blink as he climbs the final hill and sees the finish line. That's not why he gasps for air and struggles to breathe as he closes to within a quarter-mile.
It's the memory, the picture he sees in his head. It's a young man, him, waking up behind a dumpster and wondering why his hands are frozen to the icy ground.
That's why Caleb can't hold it back any longer, why he loses it as he crosses 200 yards out, then 150, then 100.
Caleb Smidt doesn't need to turn anymore. He sobs as he sprints straight ahead, right through the tape.