Trials of the Miles—24 Hours on a Treadmill
Photos: Leo Lesperance

Army vet and recovered opiate addict runs 121 miles in support of non-profit

Joshua Stevens was the picture of perfect form as he ran on a treadmill early Sunday morning in Boulder, Colorado.

In fact, you’d never have known he had spent the entire night on the same ProForm Boston Marathon treadmill inside the Boulder Running Company or that he was on his way to finishing a mind-numbing 121.3 miles during his inspiring through-the-night journey.

As he was finishing up what was a 24-hour treadmill fundraising run at 10 a.m. Sunday, his stride was a bit shorter and his pace a bit slower than when he started out a full day earlier, but he ran with upright posture, eyes straight ahead, the pride in what he was accomplishing evident.

There was no talking from the typically gregarious Stevens, a 47-year old Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, ultramarathoner and former opiate addict. He had chatted on and off during the previous day with friends and fans—ranging from Olympians Kara and Adam Goucher to 2017 Western States 100 champion Cat Bradley to an inspired customer he had fitted for shoes earlier in the month. Hundreds of people had come to hang around behind the treadmill, drawn by the charismatic Stevens’ fundraising run for The Herren Project, the Rhode Island-based non-profit that helps out addicts and their families.

The store had a festive atmosphere for most of his run. Customers and local runners came and went, sometimes talking among themselves, but more often simply watching Stevens, entranced by the boundary-breaking effort he was putting in. The store stayed open all night, with a scattering of observers in the early morning, and now, as the run neared its end, the east end of the store where the treadmill looked out over the intersection of 28th and Pearl streets, was filling up.

Boulder Running Company manager Scott Sneller gave the crowd a summary of Steven’s run as the final meters clicked off.

“It’s for the pain he went through that he is doing this,” Sneller said.

That pain was both emotional and physical. It started when he was 8 and his parents divorced, and was magnified after going through four explosions and two spinal operations by the time he was 37. “I was prescribed ridiculous amounts of opiates with no warnings,” he says, which ultimately led to addiction.

Stevens retired from the U.S. Army as a Lt. Colonel, with a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars, and discovered ultrarunning three years ago in Asheville, N.C. When he moved to Boulder a year or so later, he stopped by the Boulder Running Company to see fellow vegan and ultra runner Scott Jurek. Sneller liked him and Stevens was hired.

As Stevens continued with a steady stride on the treadmill, clapping started with 2 minutes to this ending time. Cheers rang out, but the crowd mostly stayed in respectful silence, giving Stevens an aura of support he deserved. It reminded me of how in Middle Ages, townspeople would gather to watch anchorites sit for days atop a pillar. We are impressed by those like Stevens who ask what are the boundaries, and then exceed them.

“5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1” … and just like that his 24-hour odyssey was complete. When the treadmill finally stopped, Stevens turned and leaned over the treadmill and kissed his girlfriend, Rachel Nypaver. Then he stepped off and sat down.

“Thank you all very much,”  he said in a barely audible voice, before bowing his head and crying. “I’m pretty tired. I’m overwhelmed. It was so hard, so hard.”

Stevens ran the first 40 miles wearing the Inov-8 Roadclaw 275 shoes (he is sponsored by Inov-8) before switching to a pair of Nike Vapor Fly 4% he purchased with his own money. Once sitting down, he slid on Oofos recovery sandals and drank down a IsaLean Shake dairy free shake. (Stevens follows a plant-based diet.)

“I performed well, and was all over the nutrition and hydration,” he said. “I handled the electrolytes and calories.”

He took a bathroom break every 5 hours in the early going; the bathroom breaks became more frequent later on.

Stevens ran fast, passing 50 miles in 7 hours, 4 minutes; 75 miles in 11:03 and 100 miles in 15:34, a personal best by three hours. He took a 10-minute break after reaching 100 miles, thinking, “This is awesome.” However, when he got back on and realized he still had 8½ hours to go, his thoughts changed to: “This is not awesome. In fact, this is awful, really stinks.”

“That was the low point,” he said, and comparing his 24-hour run to the trail ultras, “Treadmill running is by far the hardest. It is emotionally and physically draining, so monotonous.”

The world-record for running 24 hours on a treadmill is 161.8 miles, set in 2016 by Canadian runner David Proctor. Although Stevens wasn’t running for a record, his 121.3 miles rank him 35th on the all-time list.

As the crowd dispersed, Stevens stayed and expalined that fellow ultramarathoner David Clark got him into The Herren Project, which began in 2011 after former basketball player Chris Herren reached sobriety after years of frustration experiences in and out of rehab. According to Clark, “there are an amazing number of sober ultramarathoners out there.”

Stevens raised about $1,400 for The Herren Project during the event and $2,300 overall, but donations are still being accepted at the Boulder Running Company and online

Stevens and Clark met at the American Trail Running Conference in Estes Park, founded by Terry Chiplin, himself a sober runner. “For me, sobriety was getting weaned from opiates,” Stevens said. “I had never talked about (addiction), and David gave me the idea of sharing the story.”

That is what Stevens has been doing the past three years; sharing his story, mostly through running. “Running is the vehicle to put an addict on the right path and see more honestly.”

In his honest way, Stevens said he while the run was not about him, being a competitive athlete made his go for PRs. “It is getting attention and raising awareness for The Herren Project. I don’t know if running enthusiasts will find this fun. I didn’t want to embarrass Herren and my sponsors.

“I wanted to run a hard 100 miles and I definitely felt I did that, and get a net total of over 120 miles.The fight is just starting. I’ll see what tomfoolery is next.”

“What’s next?” asked Amelia Tantilla, who is making a film about the run.

“A nap with my cats,” Stevens quickly responded, referring to his two 7-year rescue cats, Samson and Oliver. He will also spend time with Nypaver, who pulled out a sleeping bag and slept near the treadmill during the night. “She has been with me in tough times, when I dropped out of the Leadville 100. That was heartbreaking. She is the one encouraging me. I flat out could not do, and would not want to do this without her.”

As Clark got up to leave, he gave Stevens a big hug.

“I love you, man.”

“I love you, too.”

Before he left for his nap—he had the store Christmas party to rest up for—Stevens talked about the trauma in his life, both seen and unseen.

“I was pretty standard Gen X, parents divorcing when I was 8,” he said. “I don’t know how that quantifies with other traumas, improvised explosive devices and surgeries. Trauma is nuanced and some is pretty prominent.”

Stevens mentioned the late Kurt Cobain, frontman of “Nirvana,” as the voice of his generation. “We were first-generation references to latchkey generation.”

Running as a whole has been hugely important to Stevens’ healing and path to sobriety. The idea behind The Herren Project, Stevens and Clarke explained, is not so much treating addiction as boosting self-esteem. “Teaching addicts to love themselves and not to use drugs and alcohol to numb the feeling of inadequacy,” Clarke said. “Treating the whole person rather than a symptom.”

After Stevens left, the store returned to normal. The corner with the treadmill was empty. Up on the window Stevens had stared out of for 24 hours  were the yellow sticky notes placed by supporters during the previous 24 hours:

“Kicking Ass, Bro!—Hugo

“Keep it up; climb mountains!”

“You are a crazy, awesome dude. We are with you all the way.”

“You are amazing! Breath in peppermint and wild orange.”

“Think strong to be strong You’re awesome—Love Kara & Colt”

And, finally, “Joshua, thank you for your service. God Bless.”— Ron S., Vietnam Vet, 1968-69.”

Michael Sandrock
Mike Sandrock is an award-winning journalist, a 2:24 marathoner and author of "Running with the Legends" (1996, Human Kinetics). He is the co-founder of One World Running, a non-profit organization that promotes an awareness of health, fitness and nutrition by providing running shoes to those in need in countries around the world.